The mountaintop can be a fickle place with one slip-up often becoming their downfall. In the mid of the 1980s, Tony Robinson was on top of the world, having led Tennessee to two wins over hated Alabama the past two years and even landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. At the time, it looked like he was going to coast into a childhood dream and have a promising future in the NFL. But through a series of poor decisions, he found himself in a jail cell on Draft Day. Though his dreams seemed foiled, by miraculous happenstance, he found himself on the field, leading the Redskins to victory over the mighty Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. This is his story of what could have been.
Tony Robinson was born on January 22, 1964 in Monticello, Florida. He and his family moved to Tallahassee when he was young and soon young Tony was starring in the neighborhood sandlots, making a name for himself among his peers. He attended nearby Leon High School and though he played receiver on the junior varsity squad, caught the eye of legendary coach Geno Cox for his arm. the following year, as a sophomore, he switched to quarterback and started every game on varsity from then on. Though he was the rare black quarterback in the state, Cox didn't care. The two-time state champion coach merely saw the talent and foresaw the potential championships that could gleam under the might of his talented quarterback's arm.
Over the next three years, Robinson would complete 56% of his passes for 6,581 yards and 75 touchdowns. Even though he never won a state championship, he enjoyed numerous moments and honors. He lost just four times in 33 games and led his team to an unbeaten regular season as a senior. When he graduated, he was the State Player of the Year as well as a Parade All-American. Swooning over his many accolades, Tennessee's Johnny Majors called and Tony Robinson answered, wanting to prove his worth in the SEC.
Tony Robinson spent the next two years earning snaps in practice and in games, never starting a game but earning the confidence of his coaches and teammates. By 1984, he was ready to take the reigns. His first start was a sign of things to come. Against Washington State, Robinson put the Volunteers up for good with a one-yard plunge into the endzone in the middle of the third quarter. With the 34-27 victory in hand, he shook hands with the Cougars' quarterback, Mark Rypien. Years later, the two would very nearly be teammates, but Rypien would stay with his striking teammates while Robinson would start under center for Rypien's Redskins.
The next week against Utah, he showed off his arm with a nifty 15-yard touchdown pass to open up the scoring of an eventual 27-21 victory. Sometime between that game and the following week against Army, Robinson was hurt and was rendered inactive against the Black Knights, forcing him to watch as his teammates ended the game in a 24-24 tie.
He returned to the starting lineup the following week, hobbled but refreshed, yearning to prove himself on the road in Auburn. Nothing could have prepared him for the raucous crowd of Jorden-Hare Stadium and it only got worse when he fumbled out of the endzone early in the contest to dig the Volunteers deeper in despair. Going down by nine early in a game is never easy to overcome, making the entire contest feel more like a track meet for Tennessee. Despite lofting a touchdown pass in the middle of the third quarter to pull within 16-10, Robinson's 86 yards of total offense proved to be no match for the Tigers' defense.
There was a silver lining in that loss. He began a streak of throwing a touchdown pass in 13-strait games. It would remain a school record until Heath Shuler broke it a decade later.
With his first loss as a collegiate starter in the books, Tony Robinson tried in vain to defeat the Florida Gators the following week. However, the Gators' offense impressed in front of Tennessee's vast crowd, putting up 43 points. Still, the Volunteers kept fighting back. In the end, Robinson had thrown for 371 yards and two touchdowns and had led his team to 30 points in the crushing defeat.
Going into the Third Saturday in October, the Volunteers knew that they had to stand up to their oppressors from Tuscaloosa. After spending every year but one in the 1970s losing to Alabama, Tennessee had only recently begun to gain an edge over the Crimson Tide, winning the past two games.
In front of a massive throng of 95,000 orange-clad strong, Tony Robinson's star shone brightly. Like a blast from the past, the Volunteers fell behind early and had to claw their way back from a 27-13 fourth-quarter deficit. As Tony Robinson's 17-yard strike landed in the hands of his teammate in the middle of the final quarter, the comeback commenced. Brimming with confidence, the Volunteer defense stifled 'Bama's always dependable ground attack just enough to give the Tennessee offense one last chance to squeeze out a last-second victory.
Tony Robinson was masterful on that final drive, leading his team right on the cusp. Standing on the one-yard line, Tennessee took advantage of their ample field position, scoring the game-winner on a quick plunge into the endzone, handing the Volunteers a well-earned one-point victory over their bitter rivals.
From there, the Volunteers' season took off. Brimming with confidence and emboldened by a renewed confidence from his teammates, Tony Robinson led his team to three straight wins after conquering Alabama. In the ensuing weeks, Robinson would complete 20 of 26 passes in a 24-21 win at Georgia Tech, gain 64 yards on just four carries while tossing three touchdown passes against Memphis State and contribute another touchdown pass in a 41-17 shellacking at Ole Miss.
Alas, the good times didn't last as Tennessee fell to a determined and tough Kentucky squad 17-12. Up until this time, Robinson had enjoyed a clean pocket, but against the Wildcats he was sacked four times. It would be the worst performance by his loyal bodyguards that year. They performed much better the following week when Tennessee throttled Vanderbilt 29-13. With a clear space in front of him, Tony Robinson completed 20 of 31 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns.
Tennessee's 1984 season ended in a letdown in the Sun Bowl, losing to Maryland by a point after Robinson fumbled away the Volunteers' last opportunity for victory while within field goal range. For the year, Tony Robinson completed 61.7% of his passes for 1,963 yards and 14 touchdown passes against nine interceptions. While he wasn't great, he had shown promise for brighter days.
While Tony Robinson and his teammates had shown promise in 1984, they felt that they had left some meat on the bone. They could be great, they just knew it! All they needed was a schedule tough enough to test their unique collection of talent.
They opened the much anticipated season against tenth-ranked UCLA. Despite Robinson's 417 yards of total offense and two touchdown passes, it was for naught when the clock ticked down to zero on the 26-26 tie. The following week was the Volunteers' greatest challenge: top-ranked Auburn. Against a Tiger squad hungry for their first national championship since 1956, Tony Robinson showed all that he could offer at the highest level of his sport and earned a moniker that many quarterbacks crave: gunslinger. In that game in front of 94,368 screaming Tennesseans, he completed 17 of 30 passes for 259 yards and four touchdowns while giving up three interceptions. The 38-20 statement win was a team effort with the Volunteers running and passing well while leading throughout.
After such an impressive win, the Volunteers nearly fell flat on their faces the following week against Wake Forest. But though the game was back-and-forth, the better team ultimately prevailed with Robinson putting the finishing touches on the crucial win by zipping a nine-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the eventual 31-29 Volunteer win.
Tennessee was exposed in the Swamp the following week as the seventh-ranked Florida Gators stifled Tennessee's usually reliable offense all day long, beating them 17-10. Still, despite the loss, Tony Robinson managed to complete 26 of 36 passes for 300 yards and a touchdown.
The following week, at 15th-ranked Alabama, proved to be a pyrrhic victory. It wasn't Tony Robinson's finest performance as a Volunteer, not while completing just 10 of 19 passes for a paltry 130 yards and being sacked thrice. But before he went down for the season with a torn ACL, he provided the calm, authoritative demeanor that his teammates needed to ultimately come away with a hard-fought two-point victory. After the game, it was discovered that he had indeed torn his ACL, ending his college career.
The Downfall, the Resurrection and Life After Football
After his collegiate career was so rudely concluded, Tony Robinson could only watch as his backup Daryl Dickey led the Volunteers to their first SEC championship in 16 years and a 35-7 victory in the Suger Bowl over Miami. Watching his teammates celebrate their monumental victory over the nation's second-best team, Tony Robinson began to get depressed and turned to a substance that was quickly sweeping the nation: cocaine.
Mere weeks after the Sugar Bowl, both he and teammate B.B. Cooper were arrested for selling the substance to an undercover cop. while he was only sentenced for a few months in prison, it began a downward spiral for the once-promising quarterback. By the time the NFL players strike began in 1987, Tony Robinson was in the middle of a four-year sentence, sitting in a jail cell with no hope of ever stepping on an NFL field.
While there was some conflict as to when he could play, by the strike's fourth and final week, Tony Robinson was allowed to suit up for an NFL team. His opponent? The Dallas Cowboys.
At the time, numerous teams had players crossing the picket line including the Cowboys who featured stars such as Danny White, running back Tony Dorsett and defensive tackle Randy White. Meanwhile, the Redskins were adamant in keeping their strikers away until the strike officially ended in order to encourage unity during a tense situation.
In every sense of the expression, Tony Robinson and his replacement teammates were in over their heads. Here they were, on Monday Night Football against the mighty Dallas Cowboys in the stadium that was famous for having a hole in the roof so that God could watch His favorite team win. With the nation tuning in, the spotlight could not have been brighter for this team of misfits.
Surprisingly, despite spending so much time behind bars and a two-year absence from the game, Tony Robinson was ready for his moment under the lights Monday Night Football. While he wasn't stellar, his 61% completion percentage and 152 passing yards were good enough to help lead his fellow replacement Redskins teammates to a historic 13-7 win over "America's Team".
When the game ended, many of his teammates went back to the lives that they led before replacing that era's stars. Meanwhile, Robinson returned to prison to finish his sentence. He sat in his jail cell when the "real" Redskins won the Super Bowl. All was not lost as he cleaned up well in the prison's Super Bowl gambling pool. While many of his fellow inmates bet on the Broncos, Tony Robinson knew better, sticking with the one NFL team that gave him a chance.