Vahe Gregorian

Amid Hall of Fame campaign, Chiefs great Johnny Robinson stands for something more

Johnny Robinson has absorbed, endured and otherwise navigated a form of rheumatoid arthritis in his spine that doctors once deemed “incurable,” thyroid cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a quadruple heart bypass and a severe stroke.

He figures the latter may have had something to do with all the “bright lights” he closed his eyes and willed away after jarring helmet contact back in the day with the Chiefs ... not that he has any complaints about something he considers self-induced, if it is because of that.

His speech can be halting at times now as he summons words, he hasn’t felt much in his lower right foot for years and there’s been a blood clot for a while in a heart that will always feel a void from the murder in 1985 of his son, Tommy.

All of which might grind to a halt most mortals.

But most of us don’t have a conviction that surges within us like the 79-year-old Robinson does.

So like he has about every day the last 38 years, last Saturday he went to the Johnny Robinson Boys Home that he bought as a spontaneous calling after visiting a 10-year-old who had been sexually abused in a correctional center.

Agonized by the despair of this child he’d known through church, Robinson felt beckoned by the sight of a “For Sale” sign in front of the large house at 3209 South Grand.

Never mind that he hadn’t thought about such a thing before, had no funding plan or idea how to do any of what he felt compelled to take on in an enterprise that now has more than 30 full-time employees and currently houses 30 adolescent males.

“In the first place, I’m a Christian,” said Robinson, who for several years lived inside the home. “And I felt like somehow when I came out of that (facility) and saw what was happening to that kid, it just seems like I knew what my destiny was.”

If he could merely help this boy, or any other one, Robinson might have been content in his true life’s work.

Instead, something incredible happened on what is now a seven-building campus that features an indoor gym and cafeteria and separate educational building with 30 computers.

As it’s worded in a proclamation from Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declaring May 1, 2016, a day honoring Robinson's work, the home “has successfully facilitated thousands of youth from all over the State of Louisiana through this program.”

This has made Johnny Robinson whole and at peace.

So Robinson doesn’t as much yearn to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as wish with a certain serenity — at least outwardly — that this be made right.

“Maybe time won’t run out on me,” he said, smiling.

To need something and deserve it, though, are two different things.

Especially for a man many see as having redefined the safety position in pro football.

In fact, it’s preposterous that Robinson isn’t in the Hall of Fame — even more curious than the glaring omissions of former Chiefs Ed Budde and Otis Taylor.

Which is why longtime AFL historian Todd Tobias is leading a campaign by gathering testimonials and initiating a petition drive to help boost Robinson's case with the Hall of Fame senior committee.

In August, the group will choose the candidate from this year’s senior pool (careers ending 25 or more years ago) for consideration by the broader voting group for the Class of 2019.

As it was when he was a six-time finalist in the 1980s, the argument for Robinson is indisputable.

And it's even more so now, with the obvious earlier bias against players from the AFL — in which he played most of his career despite being drafted No. 3 overall by the NFL’s Detroit Lions in 1960 — proven flimsy.

In 10 years as a safety after two as a running back, Robinson essentially was the defensive quarterback for three AFL title teams and a Super Bowl champion.

Nothing happened on that side of the ball, former teammates will tell you, without Robinson directing it.

He plucked 57 interceptions (only three players in NFL history had as many or more when he retired in 1971) and had a knack for making them count (the Dallas Texans/Chiefs were 35-1-1 when he had one) and producing in big games.

Robinson had two interceptions in the 1962 AFL championship victory over Houston, a pivotal one in the 1966 AFL title game against Buffalo and 11 solo tackles in the ensuing first Super Bowl against Green Bay.

And in the 23-7 victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl IV, Robinson had an interception and a fumble recovery … while playing with three broken ribs.

That game wasn’t just the last Super Bowl for the Chiefs; it was a watershed moment in pro football, reiterating that the New York Jets’ victory over Baltimore a year before was no fluke, and that the upstart AFL was on par with the NFL entering the merger.

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Johnny Robinson, a one-time terror in the defensive backfield for the Chiefs, today operates a home for wayward youth in his home state of Louisiana. Vahe Gregorian vgregorian@kcstar.com

Endorsements from former teammates to rival coaches and players reiterate the grit and savvy and skill that said more about Robinson than any statistics could.

In a letter supporting his candidacy, for instance, Hall of Fame receiver Lance Alworth wrote of having to prepare himself mentally for being hit by Robinson, who had the intimidating gifts of dealing punishing blows timed just as the ball was delivered.

“What is a Hall of Fame without him?” former teammate Chris Burford wrote.

Especially since Robinson not only was a member of the All-Time All-AFL team but on the Hall of Fame-produced poster of the best players of the 1960s in the AFL and NFL.

In his den, Robinson looked at the depiction of the likes of Bobby Bell and Gale Sayers and Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown and Dick Butkus and other superstars with lasting resonance.

No wonder it strikes Robinson that he’s the only one so noted not in the Hall of Fame, a dereliction in voting that legendary Chiefs coach Hank Stram once called a disgrace.

“But I’m comfortable with it and just hopeful that I’ll make it in,” said Robinson, who wears his 1970 Super Bowl ring on his left hand and 1958 Louisiana State national title ring on his right.

If it seems unjust, Robinson’s step-son, Bob Thompson, has a theory: God’s plan.

If Robinson would have been selected in the 1980s, who’s to say what the future of the Boys Home might have been?

“Your life changes. And because of the demands that would have been on him (as a Hall of Famer), I don’t think it would be like it is: I don’t know if there would be a Boys Home,” said Thompson, who spent years in law enforcement before joining the home. “I’m praying that God saved the best for last; I’m just hoping that’s what it is.”

Certainly, Robinson and the family see their faith as instrumental in the work that will forever distinguish him regardless of whether he makes it into the Hall of Fame.

In fact, all of this started entirely because of it.

After a divorce and moving to Florida to be an assistant coach with Jacksonville of the World Football League, Robinson was adrift when the league folded and he began scouting for Stram, then with New Orleans.

Living on the beach and drinking too much, one day he entered a liquor store to buy whiskey and saw a neon sign for “Our Father’s Bookstore.”

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Johnny Robinson (right) was featured in a 1984 edition of NFL Game Day magazine for his work with troubled boys. NFL

He felt drawn inside, where the owner invited him to church.

“Staggered” during the sermon by a sudden sense that the love of the Lord was real, as Robinson has often told the story, he dumped out the whiskey. He soon returned home to Louisiana to be an assistant football coach and head tennis coach at the school now known as Louisiana-Monroe, and became ordained through the World Ministry Fellowship.

He was an associate pastor at a church in West Monroe and a police chaplain when he met Jimmy, the boy who triggered this undertaking to help abused, neglected and troubled youths.

(His beliefs helped Robinson cope with the 1985 murder of his own son, Tommy, 22, who along with Paula Sims was killed when his car was rammed off the road in Mississippi by a man named John Wayne Edlin. When Edlin was sentenced to life in prison, Robinson visited him in jail to offer forgiveness and declined to engage in retrying the case when some judicial sleight of hand led to Edlin’s sentence being reversed in 1988. His act in many ways freed him emotionally.)

Robinson laments that he’s lost contact with Jimmy and some of the other early ones in the home. But his wife, Wanda, reminded him of Joey, one of the first, with whom they’re still in touch.

“He still calls (Johnny) ‘Dad,’ he still calls,” said Wanda, a vital part of a family business that includes Robinson’s son, Matt, and Thompson and his wife, Cindy. “We still get him out of jail, we still send him money, we still take care of him and his family.”

And they still do this work virtually every day in the home and extended properties that are subsidized by the state and have been aided by the support of many ...

From Robinson’s doctor brother, Thomas, signing a note to get all the funding started … to a $100,000 grant provided by NFL Charities … to a building donated by Alcoholics Anonymous … to the assistance friends including former LSU teammate and 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon.

In his later capacity as a dentist, Cannon at times worked on the teeth of some of Robinson’s charges and helped raise money. His recent obituary asked that donations be sent first to the Johnny Robinson's Boys Home, 3209 South Grand Street, Monroe La. 71202.

Even so, plenty comes out of the family pocket, whether it’s weekly allowances or what they spend for shoes or clothes with funds that exceed what the state will pay.

One of the reasons Michael Johnson, the direct care worker supervisor, has been with the Boys Home for 25 years is what he saw demonstrated out of “JRob” soon after he began.

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Michael Johnson, a 25-year employee of Johnny Robinson's Boys Home, says Robinson is as genuine as they come. Vahe Gregorian vgregorian@kcstar.com

Amid errands, Robinson bought medicine to take to a young man formerly of the home.

“I said, ‘Man, this dude is for real. He’s genuine. He wants to help these kids out,’ ” said the radiant Johnson, a collegiate lineman who said the gesture made him want be one of Robinson’s “linemen” since “you win the battle at the line of scrimmage.”

The line of scrimmage here, of course, is the main house itself, a clean, welcoming place with a piano in the lobby.

“It’s a home; it doesn’t look like an institution,” said Thompson, who along with Matt Robinson runs the facility. “It’s a place where there’s a degree of normalcy” the boys may never have experienced before.

So what many of the more privileged might see as Spartan rooms might be seen by what the family calls “clients” as luxuries: spacious and safe and comfortable.

Never mind the two bunk beds per rooms that have no doors on them and monitors in the halls at all times and the chores and rules, including a posted mandate that pants “are not to sag.”

Clients get their three squares and snacks and organized days out for movies and other entertainment. They typically go to school — whether a local public school or working toward a GED with tutors — and can be part of extracurricular activities.

And plenty more privileges await — unless misbehavior leads to restrictions on those opportunities.

“You can’t change these kids; you can’t change anyone,” Johnson said. “You just try to be as effective as possible, and they make the change.”

Sometimes, there are fights and other complications.

Sometimes, things don’t work out after kids go through the program.

Once, Thompson remembers, they took in a gang member who had shot somebody three times.

“He completed our program and went back to where he was from,” he said. “Within a year, we read about him and he was dead. He got killed in prison. It happens.

“Some, you know you’re not going to get through to, regardless. But … they get a chance.”

A chance they might not have had if not for Robinson’s vision.

A chance that Thompson says led to one former client becoming a millionaire businessman and another to a career in the military, and any number of other “if not for” stories.

Johnson likes to tell about the kids who used to be at the home who had jobs on the construction team that built the gym facility and hearing them yell out, “Mr. Johnny, Mr. Johnny.”

He thinks of the kid who couldn’t tie his own shoes when he got there and is a funeral director over in Tulua now.

And then there’s the framed handwritten letter hung on a wall. It was sent from jail two years ago by Delario Woods Sr., 41 at the time.

Even as he struggles with “a big mistake I made,” Woods still feels connected to the home.

“I got raised by a guy who played in the first Super Bowl (smiley face). So proud of Dad, he’s a great guy and he does so much for at-risk kids (that there) should be a book about him called ‘Super Dad.’ …

“I tell everyone I meet my Dad is a loving white man (smiley face). Of course they don’t believe (it). Don’t matter, though. He’s my Dad, always has and always will be.”

Jarring as it might be to know that he was in jail, the letter stood for something more fundamental:

Woods still felt hope and a sense of accountability and belonging in the world, another way of saying how much this work matters — and that the chances it provides are a never-ending story.

So, sure, recognition from the Hall of Fame would get more notice and be a terrific thing for Robinson.

Much as he deserves that bust in Canton, Ohio, much as his family craves this for him, it would be only the second-most meaningful achievement in the life of a man who stirringly reminds us what’s possible after the glory days.

“Johnny has never dwelt on it; he’s a peaceful man and never talks about it,” Wanda said. “He was the best, and I think he should be in the Hall of Fame. But he can be content. A lot of people can’t be.”

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