The drunk driver should have killed him. The brain tumor definitely should have killed him. Arnie Robinson, though, isn't much for other people's plans.
That's why, when Robinson was packed in ice inside an intensive care unit for more than a month after a wrong-way driver T-boned his car on the way home from a Mesa College track meet, the 40 pints of blood he needed became items on a remarkable life's remarkable checklist.
That's why, when the Aug. 19, 2000, accident turned his Lincoln into a pretzel of jagged metal and he had to be resuscitated during surgery, it was just another set of long odds hurdled.
That's why, when Robinson was told he might live for six months after being diagnosed with a Grade IV brain tumor in 2005, a cruel and relentless cancer known as glioblastoma that claimed Sen. John McCain, it proved that doctors and medicine and the cosmos had no clue who they were up against.
That's why the kid who grew up in Paradise Hills became one of the most accomplished athletes in San Diego history – a two-time Olympic medalist in the long jump – despite initially being armed with only a curb-side afterthought, untapped talent and a will like few others.
"The way it started, he would train himself," recalled his sister, Carolyn Johnson. "I remember one day specifically, he took an old mattress our mom had set out. He put it in the driveway by the garage. That's how he started the long jump. I thought it was crazy."
There was nothing unhinged about it, really. It was simply a glimpse into the uncommon resolve that has guided Robinson's life.
The more you learn about the 70-year-old, the more you come to understand that he's a find-a-way guy. When he didn't have enough money to buy a house near his childhood neighborhood, he built one from the ground up. When he picked up bowling, he polished his game in a Lemon Grove league until he recorded a 230 average with one of those devastating hooks the pros deliver.
When youth track in San Diego lacked a caretaker, he chalked the lines for the lanes himself. When the youngest in the sport needed timing equipment, Paul Robinson said his father spent more than $35,000 of his own money to make it happen.
And when he collected a bronze at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, he decided the work was only beginning. The former NCAA champion at San Diego State was ranked No. 1 in the world four times in the 1970s, winning a Pan American Games title, a record-tying six AAU titles and four consecutive USA Outdoor Championships.
Then in Montreal in 1976, he soared 27 feet, 43/4 inches to capture gold.
"I saw him one morning before I went to school, he had started to dig a hole for a wall we'd knocked down at his house," said Bryan Kyle, a close family friend. "When I got home that night, I didn't know where he was. I saw his car, but I couldn't find him. I looked in the hole and he was still digging. Arnie's 6-3 and he had to climb out of that hole. In one day, he dug a 7-foot hole by himself.
"The lesson I took from it, when he wants something he's focused. There are obstacles, but you get over them or you go through them. You don't take your eye off the prize. Back then, athletes rarely made two Olympic appearances. After one, your career would be over. But he did.
"He recovered from a major, major car accident. He trained and won medals at two Olympics. He recovered from a brain tumor and two surgeries. I told him, 'You've got a reputation for kicking ass, Arnie.'
"You can't be attached to someone like Arnie and be a quitter."
The in-home caregiver hoisted Robinson from the bed in the living room he built, taking a pause from gobbling up episodes of "The Voice" and "America's Got Talent." He settled into a wheelchair to make the short trip to a table in the foyer.
Robinson spoke in barely audible tones with halting thoughts. All that fighting – the accident, the cancer, the unyielding mental and physical grind that came with it – has taken its toll.
A warm smile crept onto Robinson's face, though, when the large photo on the facing wall was mentioned. The image shows the golden jump on his first attempt of the final round. Muscles bulge on the thighs of his churning legs. The launch foot is planted perfectly on the board. His face and eyes, a study in unflappable concentration.
What fueled that frozen moment of excellence? Robinson, a man of few self-congratulatory words, summed up what he saw.
"Determination," he said.
No one would blame a person for allowing an Olympic gold medal to define them. You expect to wade through well-worn stories about Montreal and Munich, where Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes during the darkest moment in the history of the Games. You wait to hear behind-the-scenes details about the days that shaped two medals.
That's not Robinson. Johnson said her brother rarely if ever shared those tales. Paul learned his father was a gold medalist when he was "6 or 7," when the revelation sprang from a conversation accidentally.
"He didn't make a big deal out of it," Paul said.
Robinson's humility startles.
"He would never introduce himself as, 'Arnie Robinson, gold medalist,' " Kyle said. "Never."
Johnson explained that there's nothing false about her brother's unassuming path.
"He just never took his popularity as being anything important," she said. "He just never has. He just kind of shrugs his shoulders. He's a very humble person. He never used it to his advantage for anything. He could have. But he just didn't."
So, who is Robinson?
"He did tell me one story," Kyle said. "He was with one of his friends on the (track) circuit in Europe. His buddy didn't have enough money for a hotel. Back then, they were all considered amateurs, so these guys didn't have much. Arnie had enough for a room. He found out the guy was going to sleep in the park, so Arnie slept on a bench in the park with him.
"There's a lot in there. Loyalty. Friendship. Solidarity. Support. That's Arnie."
To Dave Evans, a former athletic director at Mesa College, Robinson is the "yes" guy. Yes, he'd help run a meet. Yes, he'd chip in to build the weight room. Yes. Yes. Yes.
"Arnie's all about the other person, not himself," Evans said of Robinson, a former Mesa track coach. "I have 42 years of experience in college athletics. He's the most giving person I've ever been around – and it's not even close."
Growing up in San Diego, blossoming track star Monique Henderson recognized Robinson. Almost every kid who ran in youth meets knew the man who lugged and operated the complex equipment to time races.
Not Robinson, the gold medalist. Robinson, the guy on the hill.
"My first memories of Arnie were at the youth meets in San Diego," said Henderson, who won a pair of gold medals as a member of the U.S. 4x400-meter relay team in 2004 and '08. "He would donate his time to operate the automatic timing system. He would be up on the hill, making sure he had the perfect angle (at the finish line).
"I had no idea who the man was or what his accomplishments were. I just knew this man was making our meets as professional as he could."
Henderson, like Robinson, attended Morse High School. She remains astounded by those early memories of the star who side-stepped the spotlight.
"He didn't have anybody assisting him," said Henderson, the head coach at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. "You go to a track meet now and there are five guys in a tent running the timing system. It was just Arnie. The time he spent learning the system, it's unbelievable.
"And Arnie didn't charge any of the youth organizations a dime."
How many kids did Robinson foster and nudge? Too many to count. Has anyone done more for youth track in San Diego?
"No, no, no," Henderson said. "Everybody will tell you that. Absolutely no one. I grew up in a track family, but I don't think I've ever met anyone who had as big a passion for track and field that he had."
Henderson's father, Adam, worked as an assistant coach for Robinson at Mesa. When Adam and his wife renewed wedding vows on their 25th anniversary, Robinson served as the best man.
"Arnie, in all the years, never once talked about the Olympics with my dad," Henderson said. "Nothing. Ever. They were just buddies. That's it."
When Robinson felt like his mother needed a bigger house, he more than doubled it with his own hands by adding nearly 2,000 square feet. When Kyle needed a place to stay at 19, Robinson invited him in, just as he did for other kids who found themselves in tough situations.
Living with Robinson offered a window into his wiring.
"I remember one time he got really angry at me," Kyle said. "I had to get all four wisdom teeth removed. When I got up in the morning, I was backing my car out of the garage. I was looking back and left my car door open for some reason. It just caught the edge of the door. The door ended up perpendicular to the car. I didn't know until I heard the metal bend. It shattered the window.
"Arnie was so upset. 'You're letting this dentist thing distract you.' That's pretty telling. He knew how important it was to be focused."
That's the reason Robinson's bouts with short-term memory loss and his lack of mobility frustrate. He's used to attacking and conquering, just as he routinely did on his favorite training hill along Kelton Street in Emerald Hills. His sister remembers walking into his hospital room the day after a 12- to 14-hour brain surgery to find him sitting upright and reading the newspaper.
Now, the terms are being dictated to the person accustomed to dictating them. You wonder, as Robinson strains for words, whether he understands the understated legacy he's leaving.
"What's a shattered pelvis? What's a brain tumor? That's what he does. He succeeds. He's a champion," Kyle said. "I owe that guy everything I am. I really do."
Those in Robinson's orbit continue to draw from his well of strength.
"For him to live through all of it, he's amazing," said Evans of Mesa, which renamed its annual track event the Arnie Robinson Invitational. "His will is second to none. I marvel at him. Most people would give up. It almost makes me cry."
Robinson glanced again at the photo of him nailing his Olympic leap. For a moment, the words came. And they could not have been more surprising.
"The best in the world, that's what I was," he said.
Then you realize it's not boasting, after all.
It's a fact.