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The truth? You want to know what the famous fathers think about this sport their sons have chosen, this sport that now scares just about every other parent in America to death, this sport that has sucked even the President into the roiling debate about its future?
They've never met each other and they made their millions playing different sports, but David Robinson and Torii Hunter are linked together now: They are famous fathers with talented sons, both of them wide receivers out of Texas high schools and prized prospects in one of the most anticipated Notre Dame recruiting classes in a generation. The fathers, one an NBA legend, the other a major league baseball star, are soon to be Fighting Irish football dads, proud but conflicted, cheering in the stands while also whispering quiet prayers.
A few weeks ago, David Robinson was on hand when his middle son, Corey, a receiver out of San Antonio Christian Academy, banged his head hard against the turf during a practice for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl at the Alamodome. It was a routine play, really, but Corey staggered to the sidelines, where he was checked for a concussion as his father held his breath. (Corey checked out fine.) "That wasn't good," David says with a sigh. "I've always thought football was crazy, to be honest. A sport with a 100-percent injury rate for pro players? Nobody escapes their career without getting hurt. And now, I'm starting to watch college football, and you see those receivers going over the middle, getting pounded...." His voice trails off.
Football was Torii Hunter's first love—growing up in Pine Bluff, Ark., where he was a high school quarterback. But that was a different time, before concussions in football were recognized as epidemic. Now? Now he's like any other football parent, not really sure what to make of the game. When his son Torii Jr.—a wideout from Prosper (Texas) High, where he is also the star centerfielder on the baseball team—asks his father for advice on which path to take, the father tries to gently steer the son in one direction.
The father, who has earned more than $134 million in his career, will say, "Would you rather be making a lot of money for a long time, living the good life, like your old man? Or do you want to be using a walker when you're 35?" And the father and son will both laugh.
But the father is not really kidding.
The truth? David Robinson never thought any of his three sons would become football stars. For starters, the Robinsons were never a football family. David's wife, Valerie, a rabid Bears fan from Chicago, would plant herself in front of the TV on Sundays, and the men of the house "would be like, 'All right, we'll see you later then,' and go do whatever we wanted to do," says David, now 47 and devoted to charity work and Carver Academy, the charter school he helped establish in 2001 near his home in San Antonio. Then again, the Robinsons were never exactly a basketball family either, even when David, a Hall of Famer with two championship rings, was in his final years with the Spurs and his boys were young. David would come home and play video games and watch movies with his sons—the last thing he wanted to do, he says, was talk and watch basketball at home, where, other than a modest trophy case in a hallway, there is virtually no evidence that he played 14 seasons in the NBA. His oldest, David Jr., would tell him that he didn't want anything to do with the game because everyone expected him to be the best player on the court. "He complained that everyone would talk crap to him," says David Sr. "And I always told him, 'You got my name, so that means the girls will call you. You get all the good stuff that comes with the name. But you have to accept the bad too. Don't like the pressure? Don't play.' I really didn't care."
He never pushed any of his three sons to play any sport, for that matter. Corey was the least naturally athletic growing up—"a few years ago he couldn't jump over the Sunday paper," says his father. Corey seemed more likely to bloom into a doctor or a lawyer or a musician. But now when David Sr. looks at Corey, he sees a himself as a teenager: Like his father, Corey is a scholar (David was a self-proclaimed math nerd; Corey graduated early, in December, with a 4.4 GPA, in the top 10 in his class) and a musician (David grew up playing the piano and saxophone; along with those instruments, Corey can also play the flute, guitar, ukulele, bass and drums), as well as a late-blooming athlete. David did not play a competitive basketball game until his senior year of high school; Corey took up football just three years ago.
When the Robinson boys were growing up, their father would repeatedly tell them that he never really liked basketball when he was young, not in high school or even his first few years at the Naval Academy. "I wasn't stupid," he says. "I saw that basketball was going to get me a scholarship to college. But I really didn't like it. So I told myself, I'll try it and keep working on it, and see if I can grow to love it." Corey was the same way with football—the only reason he went out for the team his freshman year was because David Jr., two years older and a receiver himself at San Antonio Christian, told him it was an activity they could share. "I showed up the first day of practice, and my brother was nowhere to be seen," says Corey, who was stuck: If he quit the team, according to school rules, he wouldn't be able to play any sport for an entire year, and he also wanted to go out for basketball and tennis. "I remember being out there shagging balls, and every day I'd say, 'Lord, if it be your will, please take this cup of suffering from me,'" he says of those first years on the football field. "I prayed that every day, for two years." But Corey kept something else in mind: "I knew that my dad didn't like basketball, and that worked out pretty well for him. I thought that if he could go through four years of basketball and the first two years of the Naval Academy and not like it, then I could try a couple years of football and see what happened."
It's part of the father's legend that he grew nearly a foot during high school, and another seven inches before his sophomore year at Navy, topping out at 7' 1". The 6' 4", 195-pound Corey was just 6' 1" and about 165 as a freshman but had grown three inches by his junior year and, as one of the tallest players on the field, had begun to dominate opposing secondaries. Last season, he had 67 catches for 1,414 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was still unknown nationally to recruiters a little more than a year ago, before his breakout at the Army All-American Bowl Combine, an exhibition for high school underclassmen, where he ran a 4.6 40-yard dash and caught every ball thrown to him. His father was on the sideline, talking to other football dads who were bragging about the number of scholarship offers their sons were receiving. "I'm like, 'O.K., well that's nice,' and looking out to Corey on the field thinking, Please, son, just don't embarrass the family," he says. "But he didn't. He didn't back down when others got in his face. That's when I knew that he had it in him."