James Robinson changed his NFL dreams to become a mentor to youths

Roy Fuoco
The Ledger
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Former Lakeland Dreadnaught and Florida Gator James Robinson, center, has joined the Jordan Christian Prep coaching staff. He's with assistant coach Mario Bargaineer, left, and head coach Grady Morrell, right. Robinson is on pace to graduate from Florida in the spring. As a freshman, he learned he could not play football anymore because of his heart and has decided to become a teacher, coach and mentor to help kids. [ERNST PETERS/THE LEDGER]

James Robinson changed his NFL dreams to become a mentor to youths after learning as a freshman at Florida that his football playing career was over

AUBURNDALE — The original dream was the NFL. James Robinson had no doubts in his mind that he would one day be playing on Sunday afternoons.

Highly recruited when he was still just a freshman at Lakeland, Robinson was on the road to that dream when he arrived in Gainesville in the fall of 2017, but that dream quickly turned into a nightmare. While his teammates were flying to play Michigan in the season opener, Robinson was flying to see doctors about a heart problem, and just like that, his football career was over.

A lesser person would have quit, returned home and ended up back on the streets with nothing to look forward to. Although Robinson faced an uncertain future, he did not quit on himself. He was determined to make something of himself.

“Without football, I’m still chasing a dream,” Robinson said. “That’s how I had to look at  it. OK, that dream (NFL) is gone. Put that at the bottom of the list, X it off. I still have more dreams to go. I just wanted to succeed.”

Robinson is taking another step on the road to his goal of becoming a mentor to kids as he has joined the coaching staff at Jordan Christian Prep. He will get his first taste of coaching as he finishes up his final year — online — at Florida. He is on pace to graduate in the spring with a degree in educational science.

Robinson is one of the top pure athletes to come out of Polk County. A 6-foot-3, 195-pound wide receiver at Lakeland, he was a four-star recruit. He also played defensive back as a senior.

Robinson attracted the attention of the Power 5 schools by the end of his freshman season, but he was more than just a physical phenomenon. Former Lakeland assistant coach Will Bahler, who took Robinson under his wing and helped Robinson through the tough times at Florida, said Robinson had the highest football IQ of any player he’s coached. As a freshman, Robinson volunteered during a game to play a position he had never practiced and never missed assignment.

It was this type of football player who arrived in Gainesville in the fall of 2017— two days after practice began — looking to continue his path that he hoped ended in the NFL. He had no idea that the health issues would derail those goals.

“Everything was normal, I practiced normal,” Robinson said.

It was a paperwork snafu that got things rolling. His and a teammate’s test results got mixed up, he said, so they both had to have their EKGs checked again. That’s when it was found he had an irregular heartbeat.

Robinson flew around the country to see experts and get second opinions, but it was determined that surgery wasn’t an option. Although he could still be active, lift weights, play pick-up basketball, he had to give up football. He needed to avoid the heavy stress that an elite athlete playing big-time football endures.

So now what?

“I’m a kid from Lakeland, from Polk County, my first thought was to come home,” he said. “But my family and the people I had behind me, I knew they wouldn’t be proud of me to come back home. They wanted me to sit here and stick it out, get my degree and better my life.”

Robinson talked about the tough neighborhood he grew up in, seeing friends never rise above their own tough upbringing and seeing other athletes go off to college only to return without finishing athletically nor academically.

Robinson was determined not to be that person.

“I had a lot of people counting on me,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t let anyone down. It was bigger than me. I have a mom, sister, brother — everyone is counting on me to do the right thing to make everyone proud. I just felt like I owed everyone.”

It wasn’t easy. The first week after learning he wasn’t going to play, he wouldn’t talk to anyone.

In the end, however, he had people in his life who had his back. Robinson credited Bahler as one of the important figures who helped him get through this period.

“The biggest thing I talked to James about was that at times like this, you have to rely on your faith,” Bahler said. “God doesn’t make mistakes. He has something else planned for you. One door is closing, but another door is going to open.”

Bahler indicated that Robinson’s personality suits him for a role of being a mentor to kids.

“He always cared about more people than himself,” Bahler said. “If you were in his circle, he’d do anything in the world for you. He had that sort of loyalty.”

Robinson’s sister, Jakera Robinson, who is about five years older than him, also has played a big role in Robinson’s life. When she was in middle school and he was in elementary, he remembers going to the court with her and running drills. She helped him through the recruiting process in high school.

“She was my biggest mentor — for real,” he said. “My mom always had to work to take care of us. My sister really had to step up and really help mold us. She helped me get through everything in my life.”

Jakera, who is the girls basketball coach at Jordan, developed a relationship with her brother that goes beyond sports.

“I started to get a little bit closer to him on a different side because everybody is always talking to him about football,” she said. “He expressed to me that sometimes he wants to talk about something else. After a while, he just began to realize there was more to life than football. I’m just proud of him. It’s been kind of cool that he’s been able to figure it out.”

Robinson found his own way to handle his situation.

“I never really came to terms with it,” he said. “It really hit me at the end of my sophomore year that I’ll never play football again. I was still OK with it because I’m still getting my degree, still getting full-time everything from the school. I’m still living. I looked at it that I was going to have to stop playing football some day anyway.”

His health issue wasn’t the only thing Robinson had to overcome. The road he has traveled has been bumpy to say the least. On a college recruiting trip, he was cited for marijuana possession and paid a small fine. The incident blew up on social media. Instead of being part of an ESPN signing ceremony with teammate A.J. Davis, who went to Pittsburgh, Robinson was out of the limelight and signed later that day with Florida.

At Florida, Robinson again got in trouble when he and Kathleen grad Ventrell Miller were cited for marijuana possession in their on-campus apartments.

These incidents had a profound effect on Robinson, calling those incidents his biggest regrets.

“If I didn’t get in trouble, a lot of people wouldn’t have looked me the same,” he said. “A lot of people wouldn’t react to my name the way they do.”

He remembered what Jeff Scott, then a Clemson assistant coach, and Kerry Dixon, then a Florida assistant coach, had told him when he was being recruiting.

“They talked about building your brand,” he said. “I felt like this isn’t the right way to build my brand. If I wanted to be this type of guy, I shouldn’t be doing this type of stuff."

All these experiences transformed Robinson. He matured. He avoided situations that could put him in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I really wasn’t going out,” he said. “Once I got it trouble, I was like man, y’all can go out. I’ll stay in the crib. I’ll call a girl over, play video games or something. Out of all my college years, I can count on both hands how many times I went out — probably six or seven times, I went out. I stopped going out. It doesn’t excite me.”

During the time he used to spend prepare for football, Robinson focused on getting ahead with his school work. He became focused on what he wanted to do with his life.

Robinson’s experiences growing up inspired him to want to become a mentor.

“Knowing how I was when I was in high school and how I had to grow up,” Robinson said. “It just showed me that you can be a guy who can change that culture of everybody doing bad things if they don’t have the right influence.”

Robinson wants to be that positive influence who can help keep kids on the right path. He has great pride in being on pace to getting his college degree after a difficult road in getting through high school, overcoming poor decisions and overcoming life-changing news.

“I was outspoken in high school,” he said. “I was always the one who was loud and a people person. In college with everything that happened, I kind of fell back from being a people person. I kind of like stayed to myself, stay on the right track, do the right thing, show the kids it’s bigger than football. You can still go to college and get your degree.”

As much as anyone, Robinson knows how easy it could have been to just quit.

“That’s one thing I’m proud of myself about,” he said. “I could have easily said, OK, I can’t play football anymore, I’m going home.”

Well, Robinson is home in Polk County. But he’s home with a mission to make a positive impact with the youth in his community.

When he left Polk County, he was chasing a dream. As he returns, he’s still chasing a dream.

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