Skip to main content
Original Issue

Tony Robinson, Vols Quarterback 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.

--Albert Chen



His heroics as a scab were very loosely reprised by Keanu Reeves
in The Replacements.