Vahe Gregorian

Chiefs great Johnny Robinson should finally get that Hall of Fame call Saturday

The moment Johnny Robinson found out he’s a Seniors Finalist for the Hall of Fame

See the moment former Kansas City Chiefs great Johnny Robinson found out that he is a 2019 Seniors Finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame
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See the moment former Kansas City Chiefs great Johnny Robinson found out that he is a 2019 Seniors Finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame

In Johnny Robinson’s perfect world, the Chiefs would have beaten New England in the Jan. 20 AFC Championship Game to reach the Super Bowl — in itself something that would delight their former star safety.

Moreover, they’d thus be in Atlanta on Saturday to neatly converge with his vigil to at last be summoned into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That afternoon, this year’s sole senior finalist will be clad in a beautiful new suit and fidgeting along with family in his hotel room awaiting the verdict of the full 48-person selection committee — which also will be deliberating the case of former Chief tight end Tony Gonzalez as one of the modern-era finalists.

If there is justice in this process and Robinson gets 80 percent or more of the votes in his favor, Hall of Fame president David Baker — and a film crew to record it for posterity — will be rapping at his door.

“You don’t want a call; you want a knock,” Bob Thompson, Robinson’s step-son, said Tuesday. “A call is for the ones who don’t make it.”

For mercy’s sake, this must happen for someone so deserving.

Someone who has waited … so … long for proper recognition.

Not to mention someone who continues to make a profound difference in the world since the end of his life in football, even at 80 years old and having suffered from an unfathomable number of health issues.

Bobby Bell, Robinson’s teammate who in 1983 became the first of 11 Chiefs (including Lamar Hunt and Hank Stram) to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, is distressed by the notion of someone waiting for a knock that never comes.

But Bell also knows that nearly every senior candidate has been accepted, particularly in years when only one is nominated.

“I’m pretty sure we’re going to have a lot of fun in Canton,” Bell said.

The last time a solo senior wasn’t ushered in was 1997, when Jerry Kramer was snubbed only to finally be admitted last year. Kramer’s induction left Robinson the only remaining player not yet in Canton to have appeared on a Hall of Fame-produced poster in the Robinson family den that depicts the best players of the 1960s in the AFL and NFL.

Just “saving the best for last,” as Thompson likes to put it — along with the notion that had this happened sooner, it would have interfered with God’s plan for Robinson to dedicate his life to helping troubled and endangered youths.

A dazzling resume

While having the Chiefs there would have made this week more fun for Robinson and his family, their absence in the Super Bowl for the 49th straight time since playing in two of the first four serves to accentuate and amplify what distinguished Robinson.

His resume is dazzling, the context momentous as the rudder of a defense that included Hall of Famers Bell, Buck Buchanan, Curley Culp, Emmitt Thomas and Willie Lanier.

“He was like a quarterback back there, and a coach,” Bell said. “He put us all in the right places.”

His body of work would bestride the AFL (as one of only 20 players to play in all 10 years of the league) and NFL at a time of enormous change in the very structure of the game. Most notably, that included his remarkable performance in the flashpoint of Super Bowl IV, which added luster to the Jets victory over Baltimore the year before and affirmed that the upstart AFL belonged in the NFL with the merger pending.

Even entering that game, Robinson had long demonstrated a knack for rising to the occasion in the most defining moments — going back to playing a key supporting role to Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon in LSU’s 1958 national title run.

In 10 years as a safety after two as a running back as an original Chief/Dallas Texan in 1960, Robinson snagged 57 interceptions that had a way of mattering: The team was 35-1-1 when he plucked one, and he seldom was better than when everything was at stake for a franchise that won three AFL titles and a Super Bowl.

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Former Kansas City Chiefs player Johnny Robinson gets the crowd pumped up by beating the team drum before the start of Sunday’s football game on October 28, 2018 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. John Sleezer jsleezer@kcstar.com

In the 20-17 overtime victory over Houston in the 1962 AFL title game, for instance, Robinson had two interceptions for 50 yards in returns. He had a pivotal pickoff against Buffalo in the 1966 AFL title game, returning a Jack Kemp pass 72 yards from the end zone to avert a halftime tie on the way to a 31-7 victory.

Albeit in a 35-10 loss, he had 11 solo tackles in the subsequent first Super Bowl against Green Bay.

Then there was Super Bowl IV.

“We had a lot to prove in that game,” Robinson said Tuesday, “and we did prove it.”

In the 23-7 victory over Minnesota, Robinson recovered a fumble — commemorated with an iconic Sports Illustrated photo of Robinson seated on the ground holding the ball aloft — as the Chiefs were putting together a 16-0 halftime lead. He had a fourth-quarter interception to help snuff out any potential rally.

All while somehow playing with three broken ribs he had suffered the week before in the AFL title game against Oakland.

With only a week between games, Robinson couldn’t even practice before kickoff in New Orleans. Unless you count a scene Thompson recalled learning of from the day before the game:

Stram took Robinson out on the field at Tulane Stadium and threw a ball over his head to see if he could reach up and catch it. He grabbed it and said, “I can go, Hank.”

It wasn’t quite that simple, though. As Thompson understands it, Robinson received a Novocaine shot mid-week that didn’t agree with his system and left him woozy. So that wasn’t going to help.

But with the help of Robinson’s brother, Tom, an ophthalmologist, and a Saints team doctor, they found an alternative painkiller. If you can call it that when they give you 26 shots of the stuff all over your body and you’re left looking like “a pin cushion,” as Robinson has described it over the years.

“They wrapped him with every bit of tape they had in the … training room,” Thompson said, adding, “Pure guts and determination.”

Robinson didn’t miss a snap, though he was required to sit on the bench next to the surgeon after every series to be monitored lest a pesky rib punctured a lung.

Six times a bridesmaid

This seems like highly inadvisable stuff now, and not exactly something to endorse.

Nevertheless, it certainly speaks to what made Robinson special. Something that stands out all the more as the Chiefs’ Super Bowl drought continues and we’re left to appreciate the last time and what it took.

Robinson was jilted six times as a finalist in the 1980s, a “disgrace,” as Stram once put it. Back then, though, there remained some conflict about how to process the AFL years, some backlash against it and a perception that too many Chiefs on that defense already had been honored.

“They passed up a lot of guys from our time,” Bell said.

None more glaringly than Robinson, whom the Hall of Fame’s Baker has told they’ve had a place reserved for a long time as Robinson stands at this altar — a knock on the door from a sort of Heaven on Earth.

He’ll look sharp in his suit while he waits, Thompson said. And if things go the way they should, on Monday morning he’ll be getting measured for his Hall of Fame jacket and a bust in Canton.

“Hopefully,” Robinson said, “I’ll make a good Hall of Famer.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.


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