Gator notebook: Mental health a priority for Florida players

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida linebackers coach Christian Robinson teaches his unit more than Xs and Os.

Prioritizing mental health is one takeaway from the pandemic-ridden 2020 season for Florida linebackers coach Christian Robinson.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the country throughout 2020, and social justice issues were at the forefront of the minds of many, Robinson witnessed firsthand the impact on the student-athletes he’s tasked daily with guiding and developing. 

“We have people that help us just through the medical side of what we do and the doctors and things like that to help our athletes in all areas that are health and mental health. I know I can speak for myself. A lot of what I try to do is sit down and talk about what the end goal is and, hey, I've had guys — Lacedrick Brunson last year, he decided to sit out for personal reasons. And with everything that's going on with our world, with health, it adds stress,” Robinson said.

“And I know that as coaches we're supposed to be there, we're supposed to push our players, but a good coach has to be able to pull back and say, 'OK, where's this player at and where does he need to go and what does he need?' And that might not be always telling him, 'Hey, you've got to correct this, you've got to do that.' Hey, it's, 'You're OK as you are,' and 'I can help you in those other areas.'”

A caring approach, said Robinson, is necessary, and it’s an approach he hopes to impart on the players he’s entrusted to protect and develop, on and off the field.

Ultimately, the goal is to build better people rather than better players. 

“I know (Brunson) and his son, he's around our team all the time. He has a higher purpose than a lot of the other guys right now in where they're at in their life. I don't have kids, but I have 10 of them. So my job is to make sure that I show them what it's like to have to administer to somebody in need,” Robinson said. “We sit down. We meet regularly. Coach Mullen has us meet with the players individually regularly to check in and put all football aside. And we've really been doing things as a team as well, where we're breaking up and talking about the experiences that we have.

"A lot of social injustice issues last year that have been coming to the forefront. That can be traumatizing for young men in trying to define what life is supposed to look like, especially a lot of our players of color. So to be there and be able to help them in that way, I know that I do that.”

Gator great Brandon Spikes brings familiar face, different voice

Although Robinson, now in his fourth season with the Gators, knows that every once in a while his voice can go in one ear and out the other — which made Brandon Spikes’ recent visitation a beneficial one for Florida’s linebacker corps. 

The former NFL linebacker and UF star out of Shelby, North Carolina, helped lead the Gators to two BCS National Championships under former coach Urban Meyer, and he would eventually be selected in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. 

He was selected for induction into the UF Athletics Hall of Fame in the Class of 2020 — the ceremony is in October — following the conclusion of his professional career, which also marked Spikes’ long-awaited return to Gainesville. 

Robinson, a former linebacker at Georgia, said he met Spikes during the 2019 season opener, but Spikes didn’t have a chance to get back to UF’s campus until July 15.

Robinson said Spikes was taken aback by the recent changes — the indoor practice facility, mainly — and the ongoing construction of the standalone football complex. 

“I brought him over to the indoor and he’s like ‘What is this?’, you know he’s looking around, and then he sees the new facility getting built and he’s like ‘Where am I?’, you know, and that’s the beauty of a guy that, he spends years playing in the NFL, it’s hard for him to come back here in the offseason,” Robinson said. “You’re spending time with your family, you’re trying to take care of your body.”

Spikes also took time to address the linebacker group, though his presence alone was inspiring, considering he achieved the greatest honor at UF and lived out the NFL dream. 

“I met him for the first time at the Miami game 2019, he’s on the sideline and he’s just sitting behind me listening to me coach the guys, and the best thing about having him here is they get tired of listening to coaches, because we have to repeat ourselves,” Robinson said. “We’re preachers, we’re preaching to the crowd and trying to save him, and so when he turns around and they know him, they see his picture on the wall, they walk past that brick right outside that Gator statue, it has a little bit of clout, and they want to have what he has, they want to be remembered. Every time that guy walks around this place, everybody knows who he is. And that’s the ultimate goal for them, is to reach their full potential.”

Robinson practices what he preaches: family first

As if the offseason wasn’t hectic enough with recruiting and on-campus training, Robinson managed to fit a wedding into the middle of his jam-packed schedule. 

Robinson first revealed his engagement to Kaley Robinson back in Oct. 2020, and the couple soon decided on July 3, 2021, for the date and Nashville, Tennessee, for the destination. 

Robinson opened up Tuesday on the couple’s moment for themselves. 

“It was awesome. Have an opportunity — we go from recruiting opening back up, and full focus on that, and the team. Being able to really just focus on my wife and my family, that’s one moment in your life where you have all the people you care about in one room," Robinson said. "To be able to pause for a moment just because every, every day as our families know is just football. To be able to do that and create some memories together and start me and my wife’s life together, it was a great time.”

UF players try yoga

The grind of collegiate athletics requires both planning and pliability — one must adhere to a schedule while being ready to adjust at a moment’s notice. 

When it comes to Gervon Dexter’s development, however, the phrase “be flexible” is a literal one. 

The sophomore defensive tackle revealed he started doing yoga in the offseason after Florida’s strength and conditioning coach, Nick Savage, suggested he improve his flexibility, and fortunately for Dexter he didn’t have to look far to find a qualified instructor. 

Dexter began taking classes with Yvette Turner, a certified yoga instructor at Club Pilates in Gainesville and the wife of Florida defensive line coach David Turner. 

“I’m trying to get a little more flexible. So, I feel like that should’ve been step one for me, so just stretching and doing yoga and whatever I feel like needed to be done,” Dexter said. “It was (my idea). I was looking for a yoga teacher already. I think I had put on Twitter, like, ‘If anybody knows anyone who does yoga,’ and Coach Turner actually told me that his wife is a yoga instructor.”

Having experienced its benefits firsthand, Dexter came away eager to bring his fellow defensive linemen to Club Pilates. Whatever it takes to win an SEC Championship, after all. 

“Yoga’s not as easy as it looks,” Dexter admits. “We’re looking forward to getting it done as a position group. I think it’s called, actually, Pilates. We’re about to start.”