Vahe Gregorian

Here’s to ‘Mr. Johnny:’ Hall of Fame brethren punctuate induction with own tributes

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.

Before generational wealth and international fame came with the deal, Johnny Robinson played pro football for a love of the game predicated in part on the inherent camaraderie.

His first contract in 1960 was a three-year, $43,500 deal with the Dallas Texans, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate. And from that time to the end of his career in Kansas City following the franchise’s move in 1963, he never became a millionaire.

For that matter, his wife, Wanda, recently joked, he may not have been a “thousandaire” in the early years of running his Boys Home in Monroe, Louisiana.

But that wasn’t what motivated Robinson.

“Football is a brotherhood that you will always carry with you,” he is quoted as saying in his official Pro Football Hall of Fame bio. “The locker room creates a bond for life.”

He lived that in football, as former teammates and now-fellow Pro Football Hall of Famers such as Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier and Emmitt Thomas affirmed the last few days while Robinson became the sixth defensive inductee from the 1969 Super Bowl champion Chiefs.

They knew each other “like the backs of our hands,” Bell said, alluding to the trust formed by never having to look over your shoulder with free safety Robinson manning the back line. It was a bond that Thomas said also was cemented by Robinson generously sharing his considerable knowledge with younger players.

You could say Robinson also lived the spirit of brotherhood in his tireless work through numerous health issues on behalf of his boys’ home, which since 1980 has served thousands of troubled adolescents — many of whom still refer to him as “Dad.”

Now he is living that notion in an entirely new way as part the Hall of Fame in general but the class of 2019 in particular, something that was on poignant display for a roundtable discussion Sunday at the Canton Memorial Civic Center.

A smart, charismatic group that embraced Robinson since the class was announced in February lovingly punctuated that Sunday.

It started with Robinson’s entrance to the stage, when Kevin Mawae waited to help him to his seat, watching over him again as he had in various ways over the weekend.

At a round table Sunday, Kevin Mawae and other new Pro Football Hall of Famers paid various tributes to Chiefs’ great Johnny Robinson.

It poured out when Robinson, who years ago suffered a severe stroke that limits his speech, was asked to express what this means.

“It’s very special to me,” he began, trailing off for long seconds as moderator Steve Wyche and other class members gently told him to take his time and Mawae walked over to help him adjust his microphone.

Reset by the tender assistance, Robinson soon added, “I guess everybody knows that I had a stroke, and sometimes my speech is difficult. But I’m honored to be in the Hall of Fame. Better late than never.”

That evoked an ovation from the crowd that funneled into testimonials all around him from a group that already had common ground with Robinson: a fellow defensive back and Louisianan in Ed Reed; a fellow Louisiana State grad in Mawae; a fellow defensive back and former Chief in Ty Law; a fellow defensive back in Champ Bailey and the great personnel man and scout Gil Brandt, who has called Robinson one of the 100 best players in NFL history.

(Longtime former Chief Tony Gonzalez didn’t attend because of what Wyche called a scheduling conflict.)

“It’s a shame it took this long for Mr. Johnny,” said Reed, a safety who has been saluting Robinson for months as a “paver” at the position. He added, “Mr. Johnny, for what he’s done on the field and for what he’s done off the field, you know, that’s Hall of Fame stuff.”

Brandt noted that before Robinson redefined the position, snaring 57 interceptions and reliably coming through in crucial situations, he was a formidable running back.

“In those days, safeties weren’t as big a factor as they are today,” Brandt said. “But he was a big factor in the game and should have been here years and years and years ago.”

Bailey, who had early designs on being a two-way player, was struck by what it must have taken for Robinson to have been effective on both sides of the ball.

“I can’t consider myself a great receiver, a great anything else except cornerback,” he said. “This guy has a lot more to brag about than I do, so I’m a little jealous about that.”

Chiefs safety Johnny Robinson, 80, was elected to the Hall of Fame on Saturday after a decades long wait.

Mawae said he was sad he had known little about Robinson until the Hall of Fame process. No doubt that was because Robinson was somewhat overshadowed by his dear late friend Billy Cannon as they played together on LSU’s 1958 national championship team and Cannon won the Heisman Trophy a year later.

He’s a legend, Mawae said, adding, “I’m honored to share the stage with Mr. Johnny.”

When Mawae finished, Robinson’s face said more than any words could about what it meant to be part of this brotherhood.

Better late than never, yes — and in some ways sweeter later than sooner.

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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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