Denard Robinson: Life beyond untied shoelaces
Denard Xavier Robinson. Most college football fans know him as an NCAA record holder, owner of exhilarating highlight reels, and the cover athlete for one of the last great football video games of all time: NCAA Football 14. But where is he now, and what happened after his illustrious Michigan career? Like many collegiate stars who saw their halos dim in the pros, life happened.
For Denard Robinson, success wasn’t guaranteed; it was promised
Deerfield Beach, Florida, isn’t known for its economic status or low crime rates. Instead, it was a city that offered Robinson and his six siblings a clear picture of their future if they didn’t make the right choices. A future riddled with drugs, poverty, and hardship. So, at a young age, Robinson and his brother Timothy swore they would emerge from their toxic surrounding and provide for their family.
Timothy was a tough kid, partly why Robinson admired him. The two would line up across from each other in the front yard of their home and take turns as the ball carrier and tackler. “That’s how I learned how to run the ball, how to make guys miss,” Robinson said.
But life was about to change for the Robinson family. As Timothy, 11, sat on a chair in his grandmother’s house, he hunched over in pain. A stomachache, the family thought. But as time passed and Timothy’s typically unbreakable outer shell began to crack, they rushed him to the hospital.
No one could prepare them for what was to come. The family returned later that night — all but one. And that’s when Robinson learned of two words that would change his life forever: internal bleeding. He fell off his bike earlier, but he was fine. He was fine! Robinson thought. Yet, he never asked why or how he lost his brother. All he knew was Timothy was gone, and no explanation would change that fact.
“I took everything more seriously after that,” Robinson said. He recalled his conversations with Timothy, how they swore they would make it out. That’s when Robinson made a promise: I will make it out … for both of us.
Out of the darkness, ‘Shoelace’ was born
Robinson couldn’t outrun his loss or the helpless feeling inside. But he could outrun nearly any kid on the football field. Robinson put on his cleats, took a snap at quarterback, and bolted upfield. He’s at the 30, the 20, the 10, touchdown! That’s not an uncommon occurrence for uber-athletic players, especially on the Pee Wee stage.
What is uncommon was how Robinson did it. As he darted downfield, his shoelaces bounced with each explosive step. While every other player was lacing up before the game, Robinson simply slipped his cleats on and stepped on the grass. And thus, “Shoelace” was born. His coach and family did everything they could to keep his shoes from flying off; they put wristbands over them, used athletic tape, and even rolled his socks over them. Nothing worked. So, they finally gave in. After all, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Robinson was fast, but he wasn’t complacent. He would bind a tire to his waist and sprint in the yard. He’d race cars on the street. And in high school, Robinson spent his Friday nights running. However, as a freshman, he was ineligible to play football, and temptations grew.
“What you might not know is I wasn’t even the best athlete in my neighborhood but happened to be one of the ones who made it out,” Robinson explained. “Why? Choices. … It wasn’t easy where I came from. But what made it possible were my two parents, who had nothing and gave everything.”
Robinson made the right choices off the field, and his hard work was rewarded. He earned the starting varsity QB job as a sophomore and never relinquished it. He carried Deerfield Beach High School to the state semifinals and the third round in his final two seasons.
When the blades of grass finally settled on his high school career, Robinson totaled 4,784 passing yards, 44 passing touchdowns, 1,132 rushing yards, and 13 rushing scores. But the Florida native’s talents weren’t restricted to the gridiron. In 2008, he finished third in the 100m at the Florida 4A Track and Field State Championships and was a member of the 4x100m champion relay team. Oh, yeah, and his shoes were still untied.
From Deerfield Beach to Ann Arbor
Robinson was a hot commodity on the recruiting trail. He received a four-star billing, with Ohio State, Georgia, and Florida longing for his signature. Yet, behind the scenes, things weren’t easy for Robinson. He was “self-conscious” about his upbringing in rural Florida. As a result, he held his recruiting visits from his grandparents’ house.
Although several high-profile programs were hard to ignore, Michigan made Robinson feel most at home. But there was one problem. The Wolverines only offered Robinson a scholarship to play defensive back — a position he hadn’t practiced since his freshman year. Robinson didn’t waver, turning down the proposal. Michigan smartly extended Robinson a new offer — this time to line up under center in Ann Arbor. Offer accepted.
It’s the night before Week 1. In-state Western Michigan is coming to town. Head coach Rich Rodriguez walks his players to the stadium and tells them, “Look around. This is the place where you can make your dreams come true. … Pick out a place in this stadium, sit down, and just take a few minutes to envision yourself out on that field. Close your eyes and visualize yourself doing something special out there tomorrow.”
Robinson knew exactly where he would go: straight to the top. He made the 98-row climb, turned around, and marveled at the largest football stadium in the country. “It was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen,” Robinson reminisced. But Rodriguez didn’t send the players into the stands to take in the scenery. Robinson sat down and envisioned himself on the field. He was only the second-string QB, but he thought to himself, “If you somehow get a shot in the opener, be special. Do something amazing!”
“LOOK AT THE SPEED. SEE YA.” As play-by-play announcer Jim Brandstatter’s voice echoed through the TV, the Big House erupted. Rodriguez threw Robinson in with four minutes left in the first quarter. The true freshman was so nervous that his first snap resulted in a false start as only the left tackle heard him yell hike.
Robinson returned to the huddle and called the play. He lined up in the shotgun formation, made sure the offense was set, and then … wait, what’s the call? The center snaps the ball, and Robinson fumbles it. Forgetting the play is bad enough — forgetting to catch the ball only adds insult to injury. But the play isn’t over. In fact, broken plays are where superior athletes shine. And boy, did Robinson shine.
He picked up the ball, darted to the right, made a man miss, cut back to the left, accelerated upfield, and outran three defenders for the 43-yard touchdown. That one play was a microcosm of Robinson’s journey. Life happened. He forgot the play and dropped the ball. But he didn’t give up. He picked it up, and as Robinson has done since childhood, he ran with it.
Collegiate stardom attracts unwanted attention
Although Robinson remained the backup QB for the rest of the season, he saw action in every contest. That experience proved invaluable, as in 2010, he became the unquestioned starter. And as he did in high school, Robinson never looked back. In only the second start of his collegiate career, Robinson led a stunning comeback over Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame, setting Michigan’s single-game total offense record in the process (502).
Kelly later stated, “The most dynamic player we played against, and it’s not even close, is Denard Robinson.” The season was a blur for Robinson, much like he was on the field for opposing defenses. He became the first player in NCAA history to throw and rush for 1,500 yards in the same season. Furthermore, Robinson set the NCAA season record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,702), broke Drew Brees’ Big Ten record for total offensive yards (4,272), won Big Ten Player of the Year, and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Robinson reached the peak of his athletic career. You couldn’t turn on sports channels without watching one of his highlights. He was on top of the college football world. Most athletes would do anything to be in that position. But what society often forgets is superstar athletes are people too.
“I’m a small-town guy. I wasn’t looking for any special treatment or fame,” Robinson said. “I kind of just wanted to make people happy and greet everyone with a smile and represent Michigan as best I could.”
Robinson wasn’t overly comfortable with the attention he received, but he managed. However, one interaction affected him more than any other. One night, he drove home from team study hall and parked his car outside his apartment. As he opened his car door, a man jumped out of a car behind him and begged for some autographs. At first, it surprised Robinson, but he signed the items and told him never to do that again. But it wasn’t until later that the incident soaked in. A man knew where and when I had study hall, waited until I got out, and followed me home.
“That incident really changed everything for me at Michigan,” Robinson remembered. “After that, I was constantly looking over my shoulder, worried about who might be jumping out next. And I didn’t even tell my parents or brothers about it because I knew they would’ve been really, really worried for me.
“At one point, things got so crazy that I couldn’t even go to class anymore. Like I literally had one of my professors come up to me in private and ask me to stop showing up because my simply being present had become too much of a distraction. There’d be this chatter in the room, or people would be constantly coming up to me or whatever. And the professor had just had enough.”
Robinson’s Michigan career takes a turn
Despite the Wolverines going 7-6 after a 5-7 campaign, Michigan fired Rodriguez, taking his spread offense and belief in Robinson with him. That left Shoelace in a difficult situation. “Rich Rod was one of the few coaches that gave me a chance to play as a quarterback on the next level.” But after talking to his parents, brother, and high school coach, Robinson decided to stick it out in Ann Arbor: “This is my family — my home now.”
With Rodriguez out, in came Brady Hoke. Robinson’s numbers fell in a new pro-style offense that didn’t favor his skill set. Nevertheless, the team enjoyed immense success, concluding the year with an 11-2 record. The record was spectacular, but how they got there was even more so.
In the final regular-season match of the year, the Wolverines hosted bitter rival Ohio State. Robinson led Michigan to a 40-34 victory, the program’s first over the Buckeyes since 2004. Over a month later, Robinson and Co. defeated No. 17 Virginia Tech 23-20 in overtime in the Sugar Bowl. It was Michigan’s first major BCS bowl game victory since another all-time great QB to don the Blue and Maize: Tom Brady (1999).
At this point, the arrow seemed to only point up for Robinson. Two years ago was filled with personal success. A year ago was filled with team success. So, it’s easy to see how many believed his senior campaign would see a marriage of the two. But life happened.
The injury that changed everything
In Week 8, Michigan made the trek to Nebraska. Down 7-6 with 3:51 left in the second quarter, Robinson sprinted out to the left and dove for the first down — the most costly first down of his career. He landed awkwardly, forcing all his body weight onto his right arm and hand. The crushing contact caused damage, but a Nebraska player accidentally stepped on Robinson, exacerbating the initial blow.
Maybe it was a stinger; it shouldn’t be too bad. The next day, Shoelace was met with words that no athlete wants to hear: “Severe nerve damage … This may not go away … You may not ever be the same again.”
The sport that would help him keep his promise to his brother was now threatening to leave him mere months away from the NFL draft. While Robinson ultimately obtained clearance to play a few weeks later, he couldn’t grip or throw a football properly. Thus, instead of missing the rest of the season, Robinson switched to an RB/WR hybrid role to support the team.
Despite his injury, he managed to generate yet another 1,000+ rushing-yard campaign (his third straight). Robinson left Michigan with 10,745 total yards and 91 total touchdowns. His 4,495 career rushing yards eclipsed the previous NCAA mark set by West Virginia signal-caller Pat White (2005-08).
Robinson’s next stop was the Senior Bowl … as a wide receiver. Although his outing was suboptimal, with many scouts and analysts giving him negative grades, Robinson still couldn’t feel his pinkie and ring finger in his right hand. Regardless, the Michigan star earned yet another invite, this time to Indianapolis for the NFL Combine … again as a receiver.
Robinson’s up-and-down NFL career
At 6’0″ and 199 pounds with a 36 1/2″ vertical and 4.43 40-yard dash, Robinson’s athletic profile was elite. But his injury history and uncertainty around his NFL position caused concern. So, Robinson unsurprisingly fell to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. When the card made its way to the podium, there was finally clarification on Robinson’s position — kind of. “The Jacksonville Jaguars select Denard Robinson, running back, Michigan.”
However, the team classified Shoelace as an offensive weapon, expecting to utilize him as RB, WR, kick returner, and even a Wildcat QB. That offseason, Robinson bulked up and added 15 pounds to withstand the rigors of his new position. As the third RB on the depth chart, he spent his inaugural NFL season riding the pine and adapting. But in his second year, Robinson’s number was called.
An injury sidelined starter Toby Gerhart for Week 7, thrusting Robinson into the first-team lineup. Shoelace’s first NFL start mirrored his collegiate opener, giving fans hope for an electric future. He floored the Cleveland Browns for 127 yards and one touchdown on 22 carries, resulting in Jacksonville’s first win since the previous season. Robinson remained a solid contributor for six weeks and seemingly had the RB1 role locked down. But life had other plans.
Robinson suffered a foot sprain, landing him on the injured reserve and ending his season three games early. Was it the added weight that caused his foot to give out? Maybe it was the increase in workload? Or was Shoelace’s origin story the culprit? The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. Either way, Robinson’s injury and stifled play toward the end of the year caused the Jags to select Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
As quick as Robinson rose to the top of the depth chart, he was pushed down. A knee sprain the following year dealt the final blow to Robinson’s NFL career. He missed a few games and never resembled the lightning-quick runner that tortured defenses only a few years ago.
Metaphorical death, actual birth
Robinson received tryouts with the Chicago Bears and New York Jets in 2017, but nothing materialized. For a fifth-round pick that switched positions, Robinson reveled in moderate success. On 263 carries, he produced 1,058 yards and five TDs, adding a further 47 receptions, 310 receiving yards, seven kickoff returns, and 155 return yards. Still, Shoelace couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
“If I don’t get hurt in that Nebraska game … I never change positions. I ride or die as a quarterback into the league.” Robinson described. “That’s the honest truth. I was committed to making a name for myself in the NFL as a QB, and turning heads, and lighting up the scoreboard, just like I did at Michigan.”
Nonetheless, things don’t always go to plan. Everything will be okay in the end. And if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. Life happens — that’s not always a negative. Robinson learned this lesson firsthand.
“At the time, I was going back and forth to tryouts, looking to prove to teams I could still play — basically grinding like crazy, but with nothing to show for my efforts,” Robinson said. “That whole process — it wore me down, both physically and mentally. Then my son [Denard Xavier Robinson Jr.] arrived and put everything in perspective.”
After losing Timothy and realizing his potential on the field, Robinson thought football was everything. But when his son was born, football took a back seat. Had he been in the league, he probably would’ve missed his first steps, his first words. But Robinson didn’t — he was able to be present and there for every new milestone.
Robinson’s career renaissance and path forward
In 2018, Robinson took one last stab at a professional football career, signing with the Atlanta Legends of the Alliance of American Football (AAF) for the 2019 season. But on April 1, 2019, he was placed on injured reserve, and the league ceased operations later that month.
Shoelace finally put his playing days behind him and set his eyes on a future in coaching. He spent the 2019 season as an offensive analyst and special teams assistant at Jacksonville University until the program was discontinued the following year.
In 2020, he rejoined the Jaguars as an offensive quality control coach before pivoting to the front office as a college scouting assistant in 2021. After the season, Robinson returned to where his football career began: Michigan. This past February, the Wolverines hired him as their new Assistant Director of Player Personnel.
Robinson embodies the quote: “It’s not what happens to you that determines how far you will go in life; it’s how you handle what happens to you.” Robinson kept his promise to Timothy no matter what life threw at him. He made it out. He provided for his family. And now, he gets to raise his son in an environment greater than his. But Robinson didn’t stop there. He blazed a path for future generations to follow. The special part? It doesn’t require shoelaces.