Tony Robinson finds road back to Knoxville

Friday, June 10, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 24

It’s a sunny, steamy Saturday morning, and former Tennessee quarterback Tony Robinson was giving instruction to youngsters about the fine art of throwing the football.

Some argue no UT quarterback threw it better than Robinson.

There were still flashes of Robinson’s greatness as he worked Camp 76 at Johnny Long’s Training Facility, an annual free camp honoring former UT offensive lineman Harry Galbreath, who died in 2010.

Robinson, 52, was one of numerous former Vols from the 1980s invited back to work the camp.

It means the world to Robinson to be part of the UT family again. He moved back to Knoxville from his hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, in December of 2014.

His road back was long and often painful. Robinson’s quarterback career peaked far too early, as a UT senior in 1985, and later was derailed by a life of drugs, probation violations, and prison sentences.

“You know, I’m glad that part of my life is over with and I’m moving on now, and I’m enjoying every bit of it,” Robinson said after last Saturday’s camp.

“I work with the kids all the time, and I want to give back any way I can.”

Robinson says he returned to Knoxville to get his degree from Tennessee. He needs 12 hours to graduate. He took spring and summer semesters off, but returns the classroom in the fall. In the meantime, Robinson umpires youth baseball games and works other jobs.

Getting his sociology degree is priority No. 1.

“It’s huge,” Robinson said. “That’s what I came to school for, to get my degree. I told my mom I’d get my degree, and that’s what I’m here to do, get my degree. I told my mom and dad that a long time ago. I want to get that degree and just move on.”

Robinson came to UT in 1982 out of Leon High School in Tallahassee.

His visit to Knoxville was a clincher. Robinson, a tall, skinny high school senior with a cannon arm, wanted to be a Volunteer.

“When I visited UT, I had a wonderful time,” he said. “Randall Morris took me out and everything. He showed me around the UT campus. I liked the atmosphere, and I loved playing in front of 100,000 folks.

“There’s not a better stadium to play in, man. I enjoyed it. I loved the people. I loved Tennessee. This is my home now.”

After two seasons as a backup to Alan Cockrell, Robinson moved into the starting job in 1984 when Cockrell was drafted in the first round of the MLB Draft.

The Vols went 7-3-1 in the 1984 regular season – including a 28-27 victory over Alabama in Neyland Stadium – but blew a 21-0 lead against Maryland in the Sun Bowl and lost 28-27.

Robinson made the All-SEC first team.

One of UT’s losses during the 1984 season was at Auburn, 29-10 on Sept. 29. It stuck with Robinson through the offseason.

Tony Robinson with Reggie Cobb

-- Dave Link/The Ledger

“I remember my junior year we played ’em down there,” Robinson recalled. “I was hurt. I was banged up a little bit, and they beat us, so when they interviewed me on the field after the game, I said, ‘When you come to Knoxville, people pay up for you know what.’ ”

Time to Pay Up

It proved to be a prophetic statement.

Unranked Tennessee tied 10th-ranked UCLA 26-26 in the 1985 season opener on Sept. 14, and during an open date, hype of the Sept. 28 game against No. 1 Auburn went nationwide.

Sports Illustrated was scheduled to be at Neyland Stadium with Auburn running back Bo Jackson, a Heisman Trophy candidate, as the likely player to appear on the next edition’s cover of the magazine.

Robinson wasn’t happy when he heard SI was coming to town for Jackson.

“Yeah, especially you’re coming in my back yard, and you’re going to put somebody else on the cover of Sports Illustrated, that’s nuts,” Robinson said.

“That’s not happening. That’s not happening, you know, so we had to go out there and do what we had to do and come out with a victory.”

Did they ever.

Robinson threw for 259 yards and four touchdowns in the Vols’ 38-20 victory. He had a 39-yard run on UT’s first possession, and threw two TD passes after two Auburn turnovers as UT built a 24-0 lead. Robinson threw two more TD passes in the fourth quarter and finished 17-of-30 passing.

Jackson, who averaged 247.5 yards in Auburn’s first two games, was held to 80 yards on 17 carries and left the game in the third quarter with a bruised knee. Jackson came back and won the Heisman Trophy.

“I just let my playing do my talking, and I enjoyed spankin’ their butts,” Robinson recalled.

Instead of Jackson on the Sports Illustrated cover for October, Robinson was on the cover next to the headline:

“The Tennessee Waltz: Tony Robinson Buries Auburn.”

Injury derails career

Tennessee moved to No. 16 in the AP poll after the Auburn victory and beat Wake Forest 31-29 on Oct. 5.

After losing to No. 7 Florida 17-10 in Gainesville the next week, the No. 20 Vols prepared for a showdown against No. 15 Alabama in Birmingham’s Legion Field on Oct. 19.

It was a pivotal day for the Vols’ season and for Robinson’s career.

With the Vols leading early in the fourth quarter, two Alabama defenders tackled Robinson with a vicious hit that tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee.

Lying on the field, Robinson wasn’t sure how bad his knee was hurt.

“No, I didn’t know it at the time,” he said, “but once they came out on the field and they shook my leg, I knew it then, but that’s part of the game. That’s part of football. It’s a violent sport. It’s a rough sport. I love it. I still love it, but you’ve got to take the good with the bad.”

It was the last time Robinson played for the Vols.

His backup, Darryl Dickey, took over and the Vols beat Alabama 16-14, a victory saved by Dale Jones’ interception in the fourth quarter.

After tying Georgia Tech 6-6 on Oct. 26, Tennessee reeled off five victories for a berth in the Sugar Bowl, and the No. 8 Vols beat No. 2 Miami, 35-7.

Tennessee finished 9-1-2, and the 1985 team would forever be known as the “Sugar Vols.”

For Robinson, it was bittersweet.

“It was tough sitting out, but it was nothing I had control over,” Robinson said. “You’ve just got to sit out, try to get well, and get back on the field again.”

When the “Sugar Vols” had their 20th anniversary in 2005 at the Tennessee campus, Robinson didn’t make the trip. His return didn’t come for eight more years.

Troubles begin

Soon after UT’s Sugar Bowl victory, Robinson’s future as a quarterback began to unravel.

In January of 1986, Robinson and his roommate, former UT running back Kenneth “B.B.” Cooper, were arrested on charges of selling cocaine to an undercover police officer.

Robinson claimed innocence at the time, but pleaded no contest and later began serving a nine-month prison sentence.

The NFL became a long shot after the knee injury and arrest. Despite his first-round projection, Robinson wasn’t picked in the 1986 NFL Draft.

Robinson got a second chance when NFL players went on strike two weeks into the 1987 season. At the time, Robinson was out of prison on a work-release program and playing for the Richmond (Va.) Ravens’ minor-league team. Soon, Robinson got a call from the Washington Redskins, who needed replacement players.

It was Robinson’s ticket to the NFL, and while waiting to clear a league-mandated drug test, Ed Rubbert won Washington’s No. 1 quarterback’s job.

The Redskins beat the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants in the first two games with Rubbert at quarterback. With the strike nearing an end, Washington headed into a Monday night game against Dallas with one more game for the replacement players.

Late in the first quarter, Rubbert was hurt, and Robinson entered for the only game of his NFL career. He completed 11 of 18 passes for 152 yards. The Redskins won 13-7 and went on to win the Super Bowl that year.

Ex-Tennessee football star Tony Robinson with his former coach Walt Harris who said, "He could really sling it.'' 

-- Davie Link/The Ledger

While some of his replacement teammates stayed on with the Redskins for the rest of the 1987 season, Robinson was let go. He failed to make rosters with Denver and Pittsburgh and in the Canadian Football League, and served the rest of his jail time.

“I can’t cry over spilled milk,” Robinson said. “I got a chance to play for the Washington Redskins. I got a chance to go to Pittsburgh, also.

“My dream was to play in the NFL, and I did that. I was with a team that won a Super Bowl my first year. I wish I could have played more in the NFL, but I’m still satisfied with what I’ve done.”

In spring 1989, Robinson was arrested for violating parole, and he spent much of the next 19 years in and out of prisons.

Robinson sees drugs nowadays wrecking lives like it did his.

“It’s gotten real bad,” he said. “I’ve been telling kids, ‘Look, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it. There’s only two places you’re going to end up: the jail or the graveyard. You choose the one you want to go to if you mess with that because any drugs can kill you, and the best thing to do is just stay away from it, and do what your parents tell you to do, and go to school and get your education.’”

Robinson moves forward

Former UT offensive coordinator Walt Harris knew he had a special talent when Robinson arrived on campus.

Harris is proud Robinson has been reunited with Tennessee in football and school.

“(Robinson) had Hall of Fame chances,” Harris said. “He’s that good. He could do things that I’ve never been around any of them who could do some of the things he did, and throw the ball was one of ’em. He could really sling it, and I think it’s wonderful that he’s back in school, and it’s a great example of how the University of Tennessee football and athletics care about their own.”

Harris, UT’s offensive coordinator from 1983-88, left in 1989 to coach Pacific, where he spent three years as head coach. He was quarterbacks coach for the New York Jets from 1992-94 and then coached collegiately through 2010.

Harris said Robinson was “the best quarterback I ever coached.”

“He didn’t have 4.5 speed,” Harris said. “He was probably 4.85, 4.9, but he had 4.5, 4.4 quickness, and had eyes in the back of his head. He could get away from guys, and plus he was extremely tough. And he’s a natural.”

Robinson, who threw for 3,332 yards in 16 starts as a Vol, didn’t return to Neyland Stadium until Oct. 19, 2013, when Tennessee played South Carolina.

His return to Knoxville was prompted when an autograph seeker, Stephen Crutchfield of La Vergne, got in touch with Robinson’s brother about getting some cards signed.

Tony then called Crutchfield, who conveyed how much Robinson still meant to Vol fans. It was a telling conversation.

“I tell you, I love him to death,” Robinson said of Crutchfield.

Knoxville sports radio personality Tony Basilio soon brought Robinson to Knoxville on football weekends and hosted pre- and post-game appearances, and the two are hosts on a weekly television show, “Inside the Pocket,” during football season.

“Me and Tony have a great time, just keeping it real, talking UT football,” Robinson said. “There’s nothing better.”

Just like his life in Knoxville.

“It’s wonderful,” Robinson said. “I’m glad I came back. I’m just having a wonderful time with the people I’ve been meeting and everything. Everything’s just going real good.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.