Teenagers are rarely lauded for their attention span. And yet, the football team at Blanche Ely High School latched onto every word spoken by Rashard Robinson. The San Francisco 49ers cornerback returned to his alma mater this past offseason to speak to his younger peers.
Robinson's message was simple: To urge the student athletes to learn from his mistakes so that they can avoid similar pitfalls.
"I told them that it doesn't matter what you face in life," Robinson said. "If a door seems like it's about to shut on you, you have to keep faith. Adversity makes the greatest people. Enough pressure will turn a rock into a diamond."
The corner's plight has been well documented. Robinson, a Pompano Beach, Fla. native, was suspended and ultimately dismissed from LSU's program for breaking team rules. Robinson decided to leave LSU all together and return home to Florida to begin training for the NFL. The 49ers drafted Robinson in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and he has been on an upward trend ever since.
Robinson started six games as a rookie in 2016. His first career interception sealed a win against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 16. Fast-forward to preseason 2017 and Robinson is already slated as the team's No. 1 corner. That's a pretty remarkable climb for someone who spent a year in football purgatory prior to joining the 49ers.
"I've matured a lot," Robinson said. "I look at stuff for what it is, and I appreciate everything. I don't ever shy away from an opportunity. I just want to handle my business and give God the glory for everything. Without Him, I wouldn't be here."
Most know by now about Robinson's playing style. You could use a number of adjectives to describe the corner's on-field demeanor – brash, confident (borderline cocky), chippy and aggressive would all be apt. That persona has always been tied to Robinson's game. He'll never back down from a matchup. To do so would mean admitting inferiority, and that's not in Robinson's DNA. He's told reporters several times this summer that he wants to go toe-to-toe with the opponent's top receiver each week.
Robinson doesn't stop talking when he goes to the sideline either. He serves as the unofficial hype man for the second- and third-team defense during practice.
To tell Robinson to stop talking trash would be to tell Super Man not to fly. The corner's swagger is just as crucial as his 6-foot-1 frame, 32 1/4-inch arms and God-gifted athleticism. It's the "dog" in Robinson that sets him apart.
"He's made of the right stuff. His attitude and his mindset are unique for a corner," said defensive coordinator Robert Saleh back in May. "He does not want to get beat. Every rep is so important to him. He doesn't care who he's going against."
What's most impressive is how Robinson harnesses that mindset. If you observed just one 49ers practice, you'd notice No. 33 chirping at the receiver across from him on each play. It would be easy to assume Robinson is a belligerent young player, armed with a short fuse eager for a spark. Not so much.
Robinson knows that when he does get beat – as every cornerback inevitably does – receivers are going to be eager to talk back. That's where his short-term memory becomes vital. Even at 22-years old, Robinson has the ability to tip his cap to his opponent and move onto the next play.
"You've just got to know when to turn it on and turn it off," Robinson said. "When I'm chirping at receivers, we're competing more than anything. It's iron sharpening iron."
It helps that San Francisco's receivers always know what they're getting when facing Robinson.
"We know he's going to talk to us to get in our heads," said 49ers wide receiver Jeremy Kerley. "It's all in a competitive manner. He doesn't take it any further. It's what makes it fun."
To fully understand Robinson's vocal approach to football, it's necessary to understand the background that shaped him. The corner is truly a statistical anomaly. It's a hero's journey highlighted by several roadblocks that could have just as easily been the end of the road all together. Adversity was as constant as Robinson's trash talking, and it began well before he arrived in Baton Rouge, La.
When Robinson was in the seventh grade, his eldest brother was arrested and remains incarcerated today. On Jan. 13, 2013, a date Robinson recalled instantly, his middle brother was shot seven times and killed. Robinson's youngest brother, whom he grew up playing youth football with, is currently in-and-out of jail while battling drug addiction.
It doesn't end with family. Childhood friends and classmates, some better athletes than Robinson, also failed to make it out of their South Florida hometown. No need to mince words, Robinson has defied implausible odds.
"A lot of people who grew up with me had more talent, but they aren't in the NFL," Robinson said. "They're probably in a jail cell or worse. I'm blessed. I'm trying to show people that if you really want something and work hard, you can do anything."
Now Robinson feels the responsibility to share his story with others, just as his mentors did for him. Arizona Cardinals All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson played a key role in Robinson's return to the football spotlight. Peterson is a fellow Pompano Beach native and would make time to train with Robinson each time he returned home. He played a crucial role in Robinson's preparation for the NFL, both mentally and physically.
Each workout was sprinkled with bits of life advice, tactfully delivered for maximum impact. Peterson showed his protégé what could come of his athletic potential.
"I wanted to live a lavish life," Robinson said. "I wanted to know what an NFL locker room felt like – being on an NFL team and starting for an NFL team. He made me believe it was possible."
Now it's Robinson's turn to pay it forward.
He could feel his story resonating with the players at Blanche Ely. Their facial expressions gave that away. But then Robinson saw his message carry over when the team lifted later that day. Their coach told Robinson that it was as focused as he'd seen his group.
That dedication will waver at times as culture isn't adopted over night. But when the students are in need of reminders, Robinson will be there. He monitors the kids' Instagram accounts on occasion to make sure they're handling their business. Robinson isn't shy about reaching out when he sees a player stray from the right path.
"I had people there for me," Robinson said. "I need to make sure I'm there for them. You want to plant a little seed with somebody. They're really starting to embrace that culture."
It's too soon to project what Robinson's NFL career will amount to. The league's highest honors aren't far-fetched given his ability. Robinson also shared that he plans on going back to school this offseason. He's still deciding which school to attend, but Robinson is two years away from obtaining a degree in Kinesiology.
But numbers, accolades and diplomas be damned, Rashard Robinson is already a success story. You might assume that Robinson regrets his troubled LSU career. Not so much. Those trials and tribulations created the confident, mature man that he is today. The humbling moments at rock bottom will keep Robinson's compass pointed forward. From banishment to potential Pro Bowler, humble beginnings to a fresh start in the Bay Area, Robinson's journey is a captivating story worth listening to.
Not even a teenager would tell you otherwise.