Vahe Gregorian

At long last, Johnny Robinson gets his due in Canton to match a Hall of Fame life

Ed Reed on giving Johnny Robinson “flowers”

When the 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame class was announced in February, Ed Reed went out of his way to congratulate senior finalist Johnny Robinson. He explained why on Friday.
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When the 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame class was announced in February, Ed Reed went out of his way to congratulate senior finalist Johnny Robinson. He explained why on Friday.

Fifty-nine years after his first professional game as a most original of Kansas City Chiefs from their inception as the Dallas Texans, 48 years after his final interception and decades after being a six-time finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame …

Thirty-nine years after he started a Boys Home for troubled adolescents that he considers his destiny, 80 years after he was born and decades of persevering through health issues including cancer, a quadruple-heart bypass and a severe stroke …

The neglected aspect of Johnny Robinson’s destiny finally was delivered with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, in effect wrapping what his son Matt called “a big bow” around his life.

“At long last, Johnny Robinson,” master of ceremonies Chris Berman said as Robinson took the stage at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

Perhaps fittingly given the long time coming, a wince-worthy technical glitch initially kept his image off the main screen as his pre-recorded acceptance speech proceeded with him saying “I thought I had been forgotten.”

A moment later, though, he materialized right where he belonged.

“The journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame may have been long and the road may have been hard at times,” Robinson said. “But I found that sometimes you must go through the valley in order to stand upon the mountain.”

Robinson didn’t need this to complete him but quietly craved it. And it might well have happened years ago if not for a strange brew of a then-lingering bias against former AFL players and the counterintuitive fact that the Hall of Fame was bursting with five other Chiefs defenders from the 1969 Super Bowl championship team.

Make that six.

“Wow — wow,” former Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, seated with former president and general manager Carl Peterson, said when that number was announced.

“What are the odds of that?” teammate and Hall of Famer Willie Lanier said Thursday.

The number is matched only by the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s and accents an argument for the 1969 Chiefs as one of the greatest ever. But that’s a debate for another time.

Because even on a day Tony Gonzalez also entered the Hall, marking the first time two longtime Chiefs were recognized simultaneously, this one was most about Robinson for the Chiefs and their fans.

(Another inductee, Ty Law, played two seasons with the Chiefs but established himself in his decade with the Patriots.)

Symbolic of that emphasis earlier in the day was a private party for Robinson (The Star went as an invited guest) hosted by the Chiefs at the Brookside Country Club. It was unclear to what degree the Chiefs were involved in any separate party for Gonzalez.

Among the hundreds in attendance were more of Robinson’s family than you could count, Lanier, fellow Hall of Fame teammates Emmitt Thomas, Jan Stenerud and Chiefs owner Clark Hunt.

As has become his way since the stroke years ago, Robinson spoke only sparingly. But his elation radiated through his smile and endless hugs. As it should.

Because when you get right down to it, this was about as pure a celebration for Robinson and the Chiefs as there could be:

After a sterling collegiate career at Louisiana State and two years at running back with the Texans, Robinson not only redefined the way the safety position was played but also helped define that golden time in franchise history:

With a knack for the big play, he was a crucial part of all three AFL titles and the 1970 Super Bowl triumph that marked the pinnacle of franchise history.

Carried out, he said, mindful of the words his father left him with when he went to his first pro camp instead of becoming a fighter pilot as he had thought he would be:

“Be a gentleman when you win. Be a man when you lose. If you lose, hurt so bad that you work harder so it won’t happen again. Prepare, sacrifice and give your best. Bring out the best in others, have faith in the Lord … and always respect (your) mother.”

Belief in that, as confirmed by his brother, Tom, might explain how he went on to do more meaningful good after his playing days.

So much so that his role with the Boys Home became what might be called his true calling.

That’s why his family feels there was divine influence in how this unfurled, suggesting that if Robinson had been admitted to the Hall when he should have been the Boys Home might never have become what it has.

Saving the best for last, his devoted step-son and presenter Bob Thompson calls it.

And where he used to wonder why, Robinson sees the plan now.

“I came to realize that God was in control of my life,” he said. “And I believe that God wanted me to start my Boys Home.”

With Father Time relentlessly ticking onward, though, the timing was all the more a thrill for all — including former teammates.

“I’m 79, and age, man, things start slowing down; everybody starts slowing down, you know?” Bobby Bell, who in 1983 became the first Chief inducted in the Hall of Fame, said the other day. “I’m just tickled to death he made it this year.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the honor couldn’t have come any sooner for Gonzalez — whose speech late Saturday before a near-empty stadium was marked by his gratitude to numerous Chiefs teammates and coaches, a declaration there is nothing like playing at Arrowhead Stadium, now-familiar tales of turning points in his life and a tribute to family that included a shout-out to his 101-year-old grandmother in the audience.

She laughed when he recalled her advice about what to do when he got the football: “run like hell.”

He became the first tight end to be inducted in his first year of eligibility after redefining the position with 1,325 career receptions — second in NFL history only to receiver Jerry Rice (1,549). Gonzalez also is sixth on the league’s career receiving yardage list (15,127) and eighth in touchdown receptions (111).

Not that his prompt entry into the Hall of Fame dimmed his obvious joy.

That was evident at the Gold Jacket Dinner on Friday night at the Canton Memorial Civic Center, where Gonzalez was overwhelmed as he hugged everyone in a tunnel of past Hall of Famers distinguished by their own gold jackets.

On the eve of entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame, former Chiefs’ tight end Tony Gonzalez gives props to Chiefs’ fans.

It was “surreal,” he said, to be greeted by men he had idolized and “shed a few tears in front of them.”

After he put on his jacket at center stage, he looked at his family and thought, “This isn’t just my jacket; they all had a hand in making this.”

So, too, did the Chiefs and their fans — conflicted about him as many seem to be.

Peterson traded up to draft Gonzalez 13th overall in 1997, but he didn’t soar until he experienced the relative failure of dropping 16 passes while catching 59 in his second season.

“I got booed by the home crowd. And rightfully so: Because catch the damn ball, Tony,” he said Friday with a laugh. “That’s kind of that tough love that you need sometimes.”

That was part of an awakening for Gonzalez, who determined he’d leave nothing to chance in what became a quest to maximize his considerable athletic gifts. Among other points of obsession, he became a voracious reader of motivational books and told himself that he would catch more balls in practice (and before and after) than anyone else ever.

Part of his zeal was about a desire to win a Super Bowl, something those Chiefs didn’t get close to. Under four coaches, they went 0-3 in playoff games during his 12 seasons in Kansas City and 6-26 overall in his last two seasons, by which time he was seeking a trade to a contender that led to new-GM Scott Pioli dealing Gonzalez to Atlanta in 2009.

That very idea was in sharp contrast to Robinson, whose induction speech included him saying “I wouldn’t have wanted to play with any other team but the Kansas City Chiefs.”

And it created a certain alienation with some Chiefs fans that was rekindled when Gonzalez in February said it “made my career to come to Atlanta” as he spoke to media in Atlanta after being named to the Hall of Fame there.

That’s lingered despite the fact that Gonzalez that very day had plenty of good things to say about Kansas City and that on Friday he said there are “no greater” fans than in Kansas City and that he “wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”

All of which makes for a funny twist now: Had Gonzalez not felt compelled to try to be part of a championship team, perhaps he never would have asked to leave the Chiefs.

Now, though, he playfully says “dumb question” when asked if he’d rather have won a Super Bowl than be in the Hall of Fame as one of the select 326 to be awarded a gold jacket.

“To be considered one of the greats of all-time in this 100-year history of this game,” he said, smiling, “I’ll take that over a Super Bowl any day.”

All the better, though, to have both — as Robinson does at long last.

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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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