Upon visiting the Johnny Robinson Boys Home a year ago, we witnessed the calling that has consumed its namesake for nearly the last 40 years. Through and after a series of severe health issues and a family tragedy, Robinson was here virtually every day presiding over precious work encapsulated in a 2016 proclamation by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards:
The seven-building enterprise that now has more than 30 full-time workers and typically serves more than 30 adolescent males “has successfully facilitated thousands of youth from all over the State of Louisiana through this program,” he declared.
This will always be Robinson’s finest legacy, something that has filled his soul and completed him in itself and will stand the test of time at the mention of his name.
So much so that some here may not have even associated him with football nearly 60 years now after he was a truly original Chief, joining them from their inception as the Dallas Texans, and 50 years after he played a pivotal role in their last Super Bowl appearance.
So much so that if you didn’t know better you might think not much has changed for Robinson when we popped in a year later as he at long-last prepares for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in early August.
Same as ever, the 80-year-old Robinson was at the home last week, joined in what might be called a family ministry by his wife, Wanda, son Matt, step-son Bob Thompson and his wife, Cindy — an upbeat and uplifting group.
His speech can be halting now, the consequence of a stroke and perhaps related to all the “bright lights” he used to shrug off after fierce contact, but his kind and gentle aura still radiates.
Robinson didn’t need this ridiculously overdue validation to make him whole as a senior inductee, but his understated delight in it is a beautiful thing to see.
As is his sense of perspective after being a six-time Hall of Fame finalist in the 1980s following a career distinguished by 57 interceptions in 10 seasons and a knack for the big play in three AFL title runs — and his interception and fumble recovery (while playing with three broken ribs) in the 23-7 smothering of the Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
“A lot of people wrote me and said, ‘I thought you were in the Hall of Fame already,’” he said, laughing.
Perhaps that was natural enough as part of a defense teeming with Hall of Famers. Robinson will be the sixth from that team, along with tackles Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp, linebackers Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier and cornerback Emmitt Thomas.
Only the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s have produced as many defensive entries in the Hall of Fame.
In stark contrast to the defense that proved to be the Chiefs’ kryptonite last season in their closest bid to return to the Super Bowl since, that defense held its three playoff opponents to a total of 20 points and 13 of its 17 overall opponents to one touchdown or fewer.
Robinson, a safety, was widely regarded as the linchpin and quarterback of the group.
“What is a Hall of Fame without him?” former teammate Chris Burford said in a testimonial for Robinson’s candidacy.
As Robinson considered the difference between whether this was long overdue or might be all the sweeter to have this now, he reckoned that there was a divine hand in this.
Had he been named a Hall of Famer back when he should have been, for instance, it might have tilted his life in such a direction that the home never would have become what it did.
“God saved the best for last,” said Thompson, who idolized Robinson long before he met him and is overwhelmed to serve as Robinson’s presenter in what will be a video acceptance of his induction. “I believe it with all my heart.”
Something else sweet has come with the passage of time, too: appreciation of Robinson that might otherwise have gone unstated publicly by those he influenced.
Moments after this year’s Hall of Fame class was convened in Atlanta, fellow new Hall of Famer Ed Reed sought out Robinson, a fellow Louisiana native.
“Looked him straight in the eye and thanked him for carving (the) path for players like him,” Gil Brandt, another member of the Class of 2019, wrote on Twitter. “It was so impressive to witness.”
As Thompson recalled the moment, he said, Reed told Robinson, “You’re the reason I played like you. I wanted to be that.”
When they went to Canton for an orientation with the rest of their class, Thompson said, they ate dinner across from Ty Law and his father.
Law, who spent two of his 15 NFL seasons with the Chiefs and had 53 career interceptions, at one point leaned forward and incredulously said, “ ‘You really intercepted 57 passes in 10 years? Ten years?!’ ”
Told yes, Law sat back, spoke with his dad for a moment then leaned forward again. “ ‘But,’ ” he added, “ ‘y’all didn’t (even) play the same number of games we played.’ “
That testimony wasn’t even the most stirring moment of that trip for Thompson, though.
As the entourage toured the Hall of Fame, he gazed at the locker filled with the memorabilia of Jim Thorpe and Jerry Kramer and surely others, and he turned to Robinson.
“‘You’re here. This is going to be your place. They’re going to build one just for you,’” he said, then noted the indelible impact. “ ‘Forever. As long as the Earth is here.’”
Now, will putting on the gold jacket and seeing the final version of the bust inspired by his chiseled movie-star looks and feeling the love of the crowd in Canton ultimately matter more than what he’s done after his career? More than embracing the guidance of his Christian faith after his life had come unmoored?
How could it, really?
Can anything be more the measure of this man, who has suffered a form of rheumatoid arthritis in his spine that doctors once deemed “incurable,” thyroid cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and a quadruple heart bypass, than the example he set in the wake of the 1985 murder of his son, Tommy?
When John Wayne Edlin was sentenced to life in prison for driving Tommy and Paula Sims off the road and killing them in Mississippi, Robinson visited him in jail to offer forgiveness.
Just the same, the Hall of Fame sure is a nice ribbon around it all, isn’t it? And if Robinson didn’t need this, necessarily, some of the rest of us did.
Both to see a great thing happen for a great person ... and his real story amplified in a way it never could have been before.
“There’s no reason to question anything of why not before,” Thompson said. “It’s happened. And it’s obviously the right time.”