Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson granted Sports on Earth exclusive access to his NFL scouting combine experience.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL scouting combine may be the most important test of a 21-year-old's life. Certainly, it is the most intimidating. Agents invest tens of thousands of dollars so their athletes can reach a peak physically and mentally.
Getting to that peak was a challenge for Greg Robinson. The week before the combine, the Auburn offensive tackle caught a head cold. It settled in his nose and throat, and it hung on. He took a decongestant the whole week and quietly went about his business. Every night in Indianapolis, before bed he went through a light workout to try to "sweat it out." No one ever asked if he needed a Kleenex.
Discomfort is relative. Going with the flow can become a survival method. When Robinson was 11, Hurricane Katrina forced his family to evacuate their home in Houma, La. When they arrived in Houston, mom announced they were going to stay there awhile. Robinson didn't go home for two years. "When we got back, some of our things had been destroyed," he said. "But we packed just about everything we had. I didn't have much."
His first night in Indy, staying at the Crown Plaza Hotel, Robinson slept on a double bed in a room with Cal tight end Richard Rodgers. The next day, he was diagnosed with pinkeye. He was given eye drops and a new room with no roommate and a king size bed. He would not be spending much time in that bed though.
On Wednesday, Robinson was up before the sun rose for medical exams. There was orientation, a blood test ("They took about a gallon of blood, filled up six tubes," he said), a kidney test, heart test and more. Many different doctors from different teams wanted to get their own hands on Robinson, and they did. Much pulling, bending and twisting ensued. They wanted to know about past injuries. Robinson, who is as transparent as he is big, volunteered to doctors that he hurt his ankle last February when he fell off a golf cart and the cart rolled on his leg. "It was something I wanted them to know about so they could see it didn't affect anything," he said. "I said, 'Check it out.'"
They wanted to know if he ever had surgery. He told them he did, on his right lateral meniscus. They ordered an MRI of both knees, and another on his spine. Putting the massive Robinson in a closed MRI tube was a little like fitting a watermelon into a mini-fridge. They told him to make his frame as narrow as possible in order to slide him in. Once he was crammed in, he listened to relaxing music and dozed off. The MRI on his spine took 45 minutes. The left knee MRI took 65 minutes. The right knee MRI took 70 minutes. All told, the MRI process took more than four hours.
That meant no time for dinner. It also meant he missed his first two scheduled interviews with teams. But there still was time for others. He didn't finish talking until 11 p.m. After he had a light workout and a sandwich -- finally, a sandwich -- he went to bed at 1 a.m.
His wakeup call -- good morning, time for a drug test--came three hours later, at 4 a.m. Next was the weigh-in. He watched other players, wearing essentially nothing but underwear, parade across a long stage, beauty queen style, in front of thousands of NFL eyes. Hey look, there's Bill Belichick. "They told us we should go to the bathroom because guys have had accidents on stage," Robinson said. "A few guys got nervous and came running back, saying, 'Man, I got to go pee.' But I said, 'Come on, it's not that big a deal.'" Robinson measured 6-foot-5. He weighed 332, down about five pounds from what he had weighed before he got sick. His arms measured 35 inches. His hands were 10 inches. The buzz had begun.
More medical evaluations, including a vision test and a functional movement screening test, followed. By the time he finished with team interviews and a light workout and his head hit the pillow, it was 1 a.m. again.
Four and a half hours later, he'd be hustling. First thing on Friday was the Wonderlic intelligence test. Then there was a meeting with the NFL Players Association. Next came five psychological tests. "Mind blowing," he said. Bench pressing 225 pounds 32 times with 35 inch arms also could be defined as mind blowing, and that's what Robinson did in the afternoon. With strength coach John Lott and others barking at him, Robinson beat his previous best by three.
Through it all, Robinson never got flustered. He didn't give in to fatigue or stress. "I just thought about the positive side, that I had this opportunity," he said. "I found myself questioning, should I keep going through, but I rested up and kept going. I only had one shot, so I didn't want to pass up anything."
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On Friday night, it was back to the team interview area. He had 10 formal interviews Friday, and 15 over the course of the combine. Additionally, he had eight informal interviews. Some teams, like the Bucs, talked to him twice.
A number of front office men quizzed him about his family history. Had he ever been in trouble? Others asked about his football experiences. A few inquired about his life plans. Some put him on the grease board and tried to test his knowledge.
The Rams did not treat him gently. They showed him video of some of his worst plays of the season against LSU. Veteran offensive line coach Paul Boudreau wanted to know what the hell he was thinking. "Before they could finish, I explained," Robinson said. "It was early in the year. I manned up. I didn't make any excuses."
The Browns took a different tact. Robinson sat in a chair at the front of the room, facing three rows of team personnel, including head coach Mike Pettine. On a board were three triangles. In one triangle was the word "game." In another was the word "facility." In the third was the phrase "away from football." They asked Robinson to tell them the percentage of how important each was to him. He said the game was 25 percent, the facility was worth 50 percent, and away from football was worth 25 percent.
Robinson explained his logic to the Browns by saying the other aspects of his life -- including where he trains and what he does with his free time--affect the game.
Robinson, probably better than many of us, knows that football isn't everything. The reason Robinson was in Indianapolis last week instead of in school is his family needs money. His father, Greg Blackledge, passed away last year. Robinson carries a reminder of him on his right shoulder -- a tattoo of his face. Blackledge was a strong influence on his children, and he also sustained them financially through his pension, social security and disability checks after he was injured while working as a welder.
During the past year, Robinson's mother Rhonda called her son every so often to ask for help paying the bills. When she can find work, she is a nursing assistant. But she didn't even have enough money to travel to Pasadena, Calif., to see her son play in the national championship game.
Robinson has borrowed from teammates. When he gets that NFL money, he said, he's going to take care of them. He's going to help mom, and fix up her house. It would be a blessing, he said, to pay for his two younger siblings' college educations.
He probably will help his four older siblings too. One of them, Jamaha Robinson, is in prison on a 15-year sentence but is expected to be released soon. Another, Joshua Robinson, spent some time in prison too, but he's been out for four years. Both were incarcerated for selling drugs. "That's the norm where I come from," Robinson said.
In one of the psychological tests administered at the combine, Robinson was asked to complete patterns. If the pattern had been his life story, the logical completion might have been for Robinson to follow his older brothers' paths.Robinson, though, wanted nothing to do with the thug life. "I saw my mom crying about it night after night," he said of his brothers' problems. "It hurt me because I didn't understand. I didn't want my mom to go through that again.When I got older and was exposed to it more and I understood it more, I found I wasn't interested in it."
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The official stopwatch said it took 4.92 seconds for Robinson to get to the finish line in the 40-yard dash Saturday. That a 332-pound man could move so fast was stunning -- except to anyone who knew his backstory.
When Robinson was a kid, he was more about speed than size. He fancied himself as a runner, especially before a growth spurt during his time in Houston.In high school, Robinson was the Louisiana state shot put champ twice.His best put was 59-11 ½ feet. But he once filled in for an injured runner on the 4 x 100 relay.His team came in third, and someone had to reach up to drape the medal around his huge neck.
He has been known to do a standing backflip. A video exists.The last time he tried it was his freshman year, when he weighed 315 pounds.He also can kip-up from a prone position. His offensive line coach at Auburn, J.B. Grimes, said he has seen Robinson reach down, pick up a football and fire it 70 yards in the air.
When Robinson was running the 40-yard dash at Lucas Oil Field Saturday, he wore an olive and orange fitted sleeveless shirt and matching compression leggings that made him seem bigger than he is, or bigger than anyone could be.And he ran without making a sound, according to NFL Network analyst Shaun O'Hara, who was on the field. That 40-yard dash was just another shot put, backflip or kip-up to Robinson. His 10-yard split of 1.68 was even more impressive and more significant given the position he plays. His broad jump of 113 inches would have been remarkable even for a flying squirrel.
Three veteran front office men said they could not remember an athlete as large as Robinson who moved so well. "His athleticism for a man his size has to be some of the best we've ever seen," one scouting director said. "He really stood out."
Robinson also vertical jumped 28 ½ inches and ran the three cone in 7.80. He was satisfied with neither, and said he had performed both significantly better in the past."My muscles started getting tight," he said. "I didn't have much burst left. I wished I could have finished better."
During a drill in which linemen were asked to pull, Robinson got his feet tangled and fell. He sprung up and proceeded. Overall, though, he was impressive in positional drills. His smooth athleticism and graceful but powerful movements separated him from the group.
Like most of the combine participants, Robinson had been training for this week for nearly two months, working out twice daily and eating clean. On the advice of his agents Eric Metz and Ethan Lock, he was working at EXOS in Phoenix. Among those on his training team were Nick Winkleman for speed, Denis Logan for strength, Scott Peters for MMA training, former NFL offensive line coaches Bob Wylie and Howard Mudd and Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith. Even Smith, who is listed as 6-foot-5, 318, looked small next to Robinson. But Smith helped Robinson by giving him solid advice for the mirror drill. "He told me to make sure my feet contact the ground constantly," Robinson said. "I did fairly well."
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Heading into the 2013 season at Auburn, Robinson could have chosen to go through the motions. The Tigers were coming off a winless season in the SEC, and the coaching staff that recruited him was gone, replaced by coaches who had no loyalty to him or understanding of him.
Robinson, meanwhile, hardly was a player NFL scouts were projecting as one of the top picks in the 2014 draft. But when new offensive line coach Grimes sat down with him last spring, Robinson listened with an open mind. "He did not know me from anybody," Grimes said. "I was just a short, bald-headed guy from Arkansas State. But the thing I'll always appreciate about him is [that] he bought what we were selling. And every week, he got a little better -- in the class room, in the weight room and on the field."
Scouts began noticing Robinson in part because Auburn kept winning until they became the second ranked team in the country, and in part because Robinson became the most dominant run blocker in college football. Grimes kept track of how many times his blockers put defenders on the ground. In 14 games, he said Robinson had 130 "knockdowns."
Robinson, who didn't start playing football until his sophomore year of high school and didn't move to offensive line until the next year, is still developing as a pass protector. Grimes is convinced Robinson has shown only a sliver of what he will become. It is fitting that Robinson did not hit a peak during his college career, and he did not hit a peak at the combine either.
Beyond the blocks, what impressed Grimes about Robinson during the season was his understanding of how to get along and how to handle himself in new territory. That carried over during combine week.
When Robinson showed up in Indianapolis on Tuesday and was assigned No. 38 in Group 2, he kept to himself. He didn't want to speak much to the other tackles, whom he viewed as "competition." But by the on-field testing Saturday, Robinson was encouraging the other tackles, wishing them well and congratulating them. "At first I thought everybody would be selfish and focus on themselves," he said. "But we did our best to give each other adrenalin, and I felt that was part of the reason our group did well. I feel a lot of those guys have bright futures, so I was happy to pick them up."
So Robinson boarded his flight from Indianapolis late Saturday a richer man than when he arrived.He found strength he might not have known was in him. He made new friends.He had new souvenirs, lots of new souvenirs. There were backpacks, duffel bags, baseball caps, knit caps, T-shirts and sweatshirts from the Dolphins, Panthers, Lions, Jaguars, Raiders, Titans, Falcons, Bengals, Browns, Bills, Rams, Steelers and many more. He could pay for a lot of mom's bills just by selling his swag. He won't though. "I might give some away, but I might save this stuff as something to remember this by," he said.
With or without his NFL gear, Robinson is likely to remember this week for a long time. He will think of it as the week he had to fight through a head cold, pinkeye, sleep deprivation, missed meals, uncomfortable medical tests and muscle cramps.And he just might think of it as the week he became the No. 1 offensive tackle in the NFL draft.