Defensive Back, 1993-1996
Damien Robinson was preparing to visit Michigan and Michigan State when he got a call from assistant coach Bobby Elliott.
“Hey, why don’t you come take a visit,” Robinson remembers him saying. “I heard you’re visiting a few other Big Ten Schools, and you should come visit here.”
Robinson, who hadn’t planned on visiting Iowa, had a tongue-in-cheek response ready.
“Well, if you can have Hayden Fry in my living room tomorrow, I’ll take a visit,” he said. “I got out of basketball practice the next day, and Coach Fry was sitting in the living room talking to my mom, with his Rose Bowl boots on, they were having a great conversation.”
Coach Fry convinced him to visit campus, but when he got off the plane, the winter temperatures nearly killed Iowa’s chances. His host helped turn things around.
“My host was Danan Hughes and when I met him, it was all good after that,” he said. “What really got me to sign was having Big Bill Ennis-Inge, Demo Odems, and Sedrick Shaw all visiting that weekend. They took us out on the golf course and we rode snowmobiles for hours. We just rode those snowmobiles and we all committed.”
After redshirting during his true freshman season, Damien would be thrust into a starting spot at corner as a redshirt freshman, seeing his first start in the Big House against Michigan. Lined up across from him was the Wolverine’s number-one receiver and future NFL starter Amani Toomer.
“His first route, he caught one for 18 yards and I remember Coach Elliot getting all over me,” Robnison said. “‘Son, if you can’t cover him, you can’t play.’ That kind of kicked me into gear.
“He was a great coach who really motivated me through my career and helped me get where I am as a player.”
The biggest motivation from Coach Elliott came when he arrived back on campus following his sophomore season.
“I used to come back to Iowa every summer, but I started reading my press and got big-headed,” he said. “I stayed home (in Texas) for the summer going into my junior year, and it was the worst year I ever had, I came back out of shape.
“Coach Elliott rode me, stayed on me, and I re-dedicated myself after that year. I was able to come back in my senior year as All-Big Ten.”
After earning first-team All Big Ten honors at safety as a senior, Robinson pulled his hamstring on the second day of practice for the 1996 Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech. He played in the game, but aggravated the injury during Iowa’s 27-0 win over the Red Raiders, impacting his performance at the NFL Combine.
Robinson fell down several draft boards after a injury-slowed 40-yard dash at the combine, and ended up being drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Eagles and first-year coach Ray Rhoades.
“(Coach Rhoades) drafted me, but the defensive back coach Emmitt Thomas, liked Mike Zordich instead,” Robinson recalled. “Coach Rhodes said he wanted me to take the position, because (Zordich) was getting a little older and they wanted some more speed on the defense. It would have been myself and Bryan Dawkins back in the secondary at safety.”
After the final practice of his rookie training camp, he went to pick up chicken for the veterans, a rookie ritual. While on that trip, he got a call from his mom, then a call from his agent, both confirming he’d been released, along with most of that draft class.
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“It was the best thing that happened for me career, a lot of guys didn’t rebound,” he said. “Tampa Bay said they had been looking at me in the second round, but they ended up getting Jerry Wunsch from Wisconsin.
“They signed me to the 53-man roster, and basically treated my first year like a redshirt year, preparing for a starting position the next year.”
He spent four years with the Buccaneers, as a starter in 1999 and 2000, recording eight interceptions in those two seasons before heading to the New York Jets. During a 2001 season that saw two incidents that would, in the eyes of many fans, define his NFL career.
Robinson, who described himself as a gun collector, visited a gun shop and range in New York during the week and purchased a rifle. Following the attacks of September 11th, security was heightened around the NFL, especially in New York and New Jersey. Unfortunately for Robinson, he forgot to remove his locked rifle case and ammunition from the back of the vehicle when he arrived in New Jersey for a October 14 game against the Dolphins.
“When I pulled in, the guy who was manning the area for the players, they did a search of the vehicle and asked what was that in the trunk, I said it was my rifle, they asked if it was loaded, if i had the paperwork,” he said. “They said they were going to just take it and turn it in to the head of security.”
After dropping his wife and children at the family entrance, he parked and walked toward the locker room.
“All of a sudden I hear ‘Hey, Mr Robinson, we need to talk to you.’ and there were like 25 ATF agents saying ‘We have a problem, you’ve got this assault rifle, why are you bringing it to the stadium.’”
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He spoke with the head sergeant, telling him the rifle was purchased legally, it was locked, unloaded, and secure, but a 1990 law banned that type of weapon in New Jersey, something Robinson was unaware of.
Robinson said the sergeant was understanding, but it was still a violation.
“We checked your background, you don’t have any problems, so we’re going to let you play in the game,” Robinson remembered being told.
“My agent was at the game, and they released me on my own recognizance to him. They didn’t see me as a risk or anything.”
Robinson would be fined $30,000 — one game check — by the Jets, but didn’t miss any action. Herm Edwards, the Jets head man (as well as his DB coach during his time in Tampa) expressed disappointment in a conference call at the time.
“If you know Damien, or you know anybody with any kind of sense, it’s an honest mistake,” Edwards said. “He’ll have to go through ridicule in the paper and on TV. He felt bad about the situation he put himself in and about the organization.”
Less than a month later, in the fourth quarter of a game against the New Orleans Saints, Robinson would find himself in the center of one of the most memorable NFL scrums of all time.
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Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks rolled out to the left and was scrambling in the red zone. Brooks was being gang tackled while trying to fight for extra yards, with Robinson trying to hold him back.
“My hand slid off his shoulder pad and I grabbed his face mask and turned his head a bit,” Robinson said. “They threw a flag, but that was just in the heat of the game. It wasn’t like I was trying to rip his head off, I wasn’t trying to do anything on purpose.”
Saints offensive lineman Kyle Turley disagreed, grabbing Robinson by the facemask, dragging him off the pile and slamming his head into the turf before ripping his helmet off and tossing it several yards upfield. He gave an obscene gesture before being ejected from the game.
Robinson received a personal foul penalty, but it was negated by Turley’s penalty and ejection, eventually costing New Orleans the game. With his second controversy in less than a month, Coach Edwards was a little less forgiving.
“He’s got to conduct himself,” Edwards said the week after the incident. “They say things come in threes. Hopefully, it doesn’t come in threes. If it comes in threes, we’ve got issues. This can’t keep happening on our team. I don’t like it.”
“He didn’t defend me,” Robinson said. “He threw me under the bus and I’d never get known for something I did in the pros other than these two black clouds over my career.”
Following the 2001-2002 season, Robinson was honored with the Marty Lyons Foundation Man of the Year award, given to the Jets player who “gives from the heart through charity and community involvement” as voted on by the Jets staff..
Robinson spent the next two years in Seattle under Mike Holmgren, but a recurring shoulder injury would cut his career short, with his last game in the league ending with Matt Hasselbeck declaring “We’ll take the ball, and we’re going to score.”
They did not.
Robinson currently lives in Texas with his family, where he’s a part of CM3 Construction Group, a commercial and residential construction company. In his spare time, he helps organize an AAU program in Dallas called the So Fly All Stars
“We’re building an organization to help young men from the inner city to get into college, get on the right path, and keep their energy in a positive direction,” Robinson said.