Denard Robinson: The last video-game icon of his kind

Dan Wetzel

LONDON – Each July fans of the old EA Sports "NCAA Football" video game – and they are plentiful – commiserate over the fact that the game is no longer being produced. On Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and just old-fashioned wailing, real-life conversations.

No new stars of college football. No new innovations to make it more realistic. No updates to coaching movements or stadium renovations.

No new anything.

EA Sports discontinued the game after the 2014 edition – released in July 2013 – because the company says it found itself “stuck in the middle of a dispute between the NCAA and student athletes who seek compensation for playing college football.”

Denard Robinson's EA Sports NCAA Football 14 cover.
Denard Robinson's EA Sports NCAA Football 14 cover.

Namely, lawsuits arguing that the players whose likenesses were being used in video games, among other commercial products, deserved a cut of the licensing money that EA Sports and other companies were paying colleges and universities.

EA Sports has said it will make a deal with whomever it needs to in order to produce its games – it compensates both professional leagues and players’ unions for other games. Until the courts – or the NCAA – sort this out however, it is steering clear of college athletics and leaving fanatics without their favorite game.

One of those fanatics is Denard “Shoelace” Robinson. He’s played the game since he was a kid, when he’d have to wait his turn and watch his older brothers hog the controllers back in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

He later, after a star turn as quarterback at the University of Michigan, graced the cover of the game. Actually, not just any game, but the 2014 edition, the very last game produced.

As a result, he’s something of a cult figure in the gaming world where the 2014 version is still being played even though Robinson is now 25 years old, in his third season with the Jacksonville Jaguars and anything but a college kid.

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“People come up to me always and say, ‘You were the last one on there. I play the game all the time,’ ” Robinson said Friday after Jacksonville prepared to play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday in the Jags’ annual game here at Wembley Stadium. “It’s kind of surreal. It’s a blessing to be on there, but to be the last one is just unreal.”

Robinson jokes that he hopes the game never returns so he can always be the “last” but in truth he’s as disappointed as anyone.

This was always his favorite video game and nothing fills the void.

“I really do wish they were still making them because I still miss playing the game,” Robinson said. “I always loved playing the game.”

Growing up, Robinson would create a player in what he wished was his own likeness, himself, usually by cranking up his strengths to 99 and attempting to dominate.

“Try to go win the Heisman and all of that,” he said with a laugh.

When he signed with Michigan, he realized his virtual life and real one were about to intersect. Like a lot of college football players, the excitement came from both directions. He certainly wanted to emulate the video game experience in actuality. Yet he also wanted to play the real “him” in the video game.

“I was like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to be in the game.’ ”

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His freshman year he pre-ordered it via eBay and then raced down to the Game Stop in Ann Arbor when it was shipped in. He thinks he was the first person on campus to get it.

“I went right to the dorm and started playing,” he said.

Robinson didn’t want to express much of an opinion on the lawsuits against the NCAA. He figures it’s pointless: “It is what it is.” It’s clear he has mixed emotions. There is a lot of money made on the backs of college athletes, yet it feels like an experience has been lost here.

“Obviously they use your likeness so … but it’s complicated,” Robinson said.

He thinks about the pride he felt being in the game and feels for the current players who don’t get to feel that. Most, after all, aren’t going to make it to the NFL and appear in EA Sports’ "Madden NFL."

“You always want to see those guys who get a chance to go to college get to be in the game,” Robinson said. “When I was actually in the video game and I could play me … it was cool.”

Robinson plays running back, wide receiver and kick returner for the Jaguars, who attempt to utilize his athletic ability any way they can. After missing three games this season with injury, he says he’s healthy again and hopes to make an impact against the Bills on Sunday.

Jacksonville plays in London every year, and Robinson, among others, appreciates the bond the team is building with fans who connect with them. A bunch were at practice on Friday, seeking not just autographs but conversation with familiar faces.

“It’s crazy how they know who I am, all the way over here,” he said.

Much of that stems from his college days, when his electrifying style of play and colorful refusal to tie his shoes (hence the nickname “Shoelace”) made him a household name.

“I still never tie them,” Robinson said, pointing at his untied cleats following practice. “The only time I ever tied my shoes were at the NFL combine and I didn’t like it. I ran a good time [4.3 in the 40], but it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t me.”

So that was that. The Legend of Shoelace helped cause fans to vote him onto what is thus far the last of the EA Sports "NCAA Football" covers, the last of one of the most popular sports video games ever.

For Robinson, two-plus years of being the answer to a trivia question though have proven to be bittersweet.

“I hope they bring it back,” Robinson said. “I miss playing it.”