OCTOBER 7, 1985
The plea came in the form of a handwritten note, carefully composed in a cell at the Leon County Jail in Tallahassee. "All I'm asking for is another chance," Tony Robinson wrote to Judge George Reynolds last February. "The [ Arena Football League] season starts April 15. I'm willing to do whatever it takes."
Even at 36, Robinson remained the dreamer he had been as a skinny boy who played tackle football with neighborhood buddies on a dead-end street in Tallahassee. All he wanted was another chance to play. The request was denied, and not until last month did Robinson, in and out of jail for 14 years, complete his latest sentence. After reading Patricia Cornwell novels, filling out crossword puzzles and eating the institutional diet of tepid chicken and rice, Robinson would lie on his cell bed and struggle to keep memories of cheering crowds out his head. "I tried not to think about football," Robinson says. "It was just too difficult."
In 1985, as a senior at Tennessee, he had been a Heisman candidate, especially after he led the Vols past top-ranked Auburn by throwing for 259 yards and four touchdowns. Three games later he blew out his right knee and was lost for the year. That January, Robinson was arrested in Knoxville on drug charges; he pleaded no contest to lesser offenses and received 90 days on a penal farm and six years' probation. Robinson was digging holes for fire hydrants in Richmond when the 1987 NFL players' strike offered him an opportunity to play football again. He joined the Washington Redskins and led them to a 13-7 Monday night win over the Dallas Cowboys. ( Robinson's heroics as a scab were very loosely reprised by Keanu Reeves in this summer's forgettable comedy The Replacements.) When the strike ended, he was cut.
Since then Robinson has been a ghost, moving in and out of prison, trying to return to football. When friends asked Jean Robinson the whereabouts of her eldest son, she would only say that he would be home soon. After his release he did in fact move back home to be with her. (Tony's father, Johnnie, died last January of lung cancer.)
Robinson doesn't know what's next. Maybe he'll try to complete his degree in mechanical engineering. Maybe he'll visit Joshua, his 11-year-old son, in St. Louis. Maybe he'll hang around Tallahassee, working for his brother, Fred, selling caskets. He does at last acknowledge that his playing days are over. With football behind him, Robinson can finally begin his second life—whatever that may turn out to be.