They’ve been stacking up on his shoulder for years now, little slights that Allen Robinson uses for motivation as he chases the dream he told everyone about when he walked across the stage at St. Agatha Elementary School to get his kindergarten diploma.
Robinson said then, into the microphone in front of a few dozen doting parents, that he was going to be a professional athlete, though people who knew him and how he shot around with his grandfather in the backyard figured basketball was his sport.
He was good at basketball, too, even played on a star-studded AAU team with Amir Williams, Bennie Fowler and couple other friends who went on to shine at Birmingham Detroit Country Day and, in Williams’ case, college.
But Robinson wasn’t recruited by Country Day — at that time, he wasn’t quite as good as Williams and Fowler were on the court — and when he ended up at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s he tucked that thought in with his jersey every time he played.
By the time he graduated, Robinson was one of the best basketball players in the state. After a painful growth spurt that saw him shoot up 6 inches one summer and forced him to sit out his sophomore season, he blossomed as a football player, too, to the point where Division I coaches started milling around St. Mary’s.
He played receiver and defensive back and figured he might stay in state for school. But Rich Rodriguez, the former Michigan coach, never showed any interest. And Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio only wanted him as a defensive back.
So Robinson signed with Penn State, and as he was piling up catches and yards and touchdowns, the two-time Big Ten receiver of the year kept a list in his head of all the schools that didn’t think he could play.
After the season, when Penn State coach Bill O’Brien bolted for the NFL, Robinson figured the time was right for him to go, too.
The NFL’s College Advisory Committee said he’d be a late first- or early second-round pick, and as much as his mother wanted him to stay and get his degree, Robinson didn’t want to chance a new coach and new system sending his draft stock spiraling the wrong way.
Lots of receivers were leaving school early. Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, Marqise Lee and Odell Beckham, but as Robinson looked at his body of work (174 catches the last two years) and body (NFL-ready at 6-feet-2 and 220 pounds) he thought he matched up with anyone.
Then some draftniks projected him as a second-round pick, and after he ran a disappointing 4.6-second 40-yard dash at February’s combine, there were whispers he’d fall to Round 3.
Even after testing better at his pro day, where he shaved one-tenth of a second of his 40, more indicative of his play on the field, and jumped a 42-inch vertical, Robinson heard people like ESPN analyst Mel Kiper question his decision to come out.
“When you’re an underclassmen coming out, you see everybody joining you, not the optimum situation,” Kiper said in a teleconference last week. “He’s the kind of guy I think about as a second- or third-round pick, probably more of a three right now with questions about his speed. But he made a lot of big catches down the field. Had he gone back for another year he probably would have been a late one, early two if he could have got that speed improved, got that 40 time up.”
Kiper is not an NFL decision maker, the kind who ultimately will determine Robinson’s future when the NFL draft kicks off one week from today. And Robinson knows he shouldn’t pay attention to soundbites (Kiper also said he likes Robinson’s “ability to go down field in traffic” and would be good value if he slipped to the third round) and mock drafts, almost none of which have him going in the first round.
But in his never-ending search for fuel to keep his motor running, he can’t help himself.
“When you look at a lot of people, like the Mel Kipers and stuff like that, I do look at stuff like that,” Robinson said. “That’s what creates the chip on my shoulder, that’s what drives me when someone says, ‘This guy, oh, he’s a third-round receiver.’ I know it doesn’t matter once you get drafted onto a team, but just as of right now, that’s what drives me. Coming out of high school, people said I was a two-star receiver. That’s the type of stuff that drives me.”
As deeply driven as he is to succeed, Robinson can do without some of the spoils of success.
He hasn’t splurged on a new car or much of anything yet, even though he’s stuck driving around in a rental while he’s home awaiting the draft.
On Easter, he spent part of the day visiting his dementia-stricken grandfather, the one who taught him to ride a bike and often picked him up from school, in the group home where he lives.
And when a chef at Benihana, realizing he was being interviewed for this story last week, mistook Robinson for a high school athlete getting ready for college (“Michigan State, baby, here you go,” the chef said), Robinson blushed and laughed but didn’t say a word.
“He’s been out of high school for three plus years now and he always texts to see what our scores were, who’s playing well,” said Jeff Phillips, the receivers and defensive backs coach at St. Mary’s and Robinson’s sometimes trainer in the off-season. “He always wants to help the other kids get better. Even when he was in college and he was a cut above high school elite players, he was helping the kids that I have going to college now, people that he played with.
“He’s humble. His friends don’t think of him as Allen getting ready to go play in the NFL, it’s just Allen. And that’s how people perceive him here. He definitely doesn’t have the big head, and in his position, at his age, it could easily happen. But he’s definitely stayed grounded and that’s the best thing I can say about him.”
As a player, scouts are quick to praise Robinson, too.
Despite questions about his speed, he’s viewed as physical pass catcher who improved every year and put up big numbers with questionable quarterback play while starring in an NFL-style offense.
Robinson credits O’Brien, now the coach of the Houston Texans, former Penn State receivers coach Stan Hixon (also in Houston) and the school’s old strength staff for the growth in his game.
O’Brien and Hixon fed him game tape of NFL receivers they coached like Randy Moss, Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson, and impressed upon him the finer points of the position.
“With me, footwork is first,” Robinson said. “In our receiver room at school, the main thing was if you can’t get off the line, you can’t run a route, so that’s something that Coach Hixon always preached was you’ve got to get off the line first. That’s where the route starts.”
On draft day, Robinson, who visited the Denver Broncos (where he got to meet Peyton Manning) and Indianapolis Colts and held a private workout for the Chicago Bears earlier this week, will hold a small get together for family and friends at the banquet center above St. Mary’s gym.
He said he’ll probably spend the night shooting around downstairs, and while most project him to go on Day 2, Robinson has a sneaky suspicion he’ll make it into the first round.
He wasn’t invited to New York for the draft, and when he saw the list of players who were — including Indiana receiver Cody Latimer — he found one more slight to take with him to the NFL.
“Wherever I go, if I do go in the third round, it is what it is,” Robinson said. “I don’t have any control over that. But I can control how hard I go out there and compete every day and stuff like that. That’s the biggest thing for me, just sitting back always being doubted.”