Michael Robinson Returns Home Driven By A Desire To Serve
Michael Robinson is coming home.
For the Penn State football legend, each return is special; Happy Valley holds a special place in the heart of one of the program’s greatest players. This weekend, Robinson joins the large congregation of lettermen who will be in attendance for the Blue-White game, the spring game that’s developed into something of a family reunion of sorts over the years. The driving force behind Robinson’s return is the first annual Blue & White benefit to be held Friday, April 15 at Pegula Ice Arena supporting Excel to Excellence and its Team Excel program — a cause near and dear to Robinson’s heart. But this homecoming serves more than one purpose. It’s one of reflection, celebration, and transparency.
Robinson understands his place in Penn State lore. As the leader of the 2005 Big Ten and Orange Bowl champion Nittany Lions — a team remembered as one of the greatest Penn State teams of all time — his name is associated with greatness. Fans know his story. A swiss-army knife utility player for most of his career, Robinson broke onto the national scene as the full-time starting quarterback in his final season, going on to win Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year while finishing fifth in Heisman Trophy voting. Although it’s been a little more than 10 years since that season, Robinson remembers it vividly, just as he does with the man steering the ship. “That definitely was led by a group of seniors who went through hell, for lack of better words,” Robinson said. “It was all embodied, to me, in our coach to know that so much had been on Joe. So much pressure.”
The pressure Robinson refers to stemmed from years of stagnation experienced by the program as it ventured into the 21st century. From 2000-2004, the Nittany Lions suffered four losing seasons which included records of 3-9 and 4-7 in the two campaigns following the school’s surprise 9-4 run in 2002 that culminated in a Capital One Bowl loss. It’s well documented that university administrators wanted him gone, but Paterno convinced them to give him another chance. Robinson understood what his team had to accomplish the following year; it was their duty to silence the doubters and reclaim the glory that began to evade the program. “We had a huge chip on our shoulder,” said Robinson. “It’s something that we talked about every single day from the time we beat Michigan State the year before. Every single day. We felt it was our duty to show not only people that wanted him out at Penn State, but those around the country like ‘who the hell do you think you are? This is Joe Paterno. He built this place.'”
As history would have it, Robinson made good on his promise and accomplished everything he wanted and then some, both from a team perspective as well as personally. The utility player-turned-full-time quarterback will forever be credited in association with that magical 2005 season as one of the main reasons the team achieved such lofty success, but that season was the reward for years of struggle. Robinson grew as a man during his time at Penn State, and the impact Joe Paterno made on him stays with him to this day.
“Joe was one of the biggest mentors — and I can say this with 100 percent certainty — and influences on my life.”
Paterno grew close to a number of players he coached over the years, but the bond shared by him and Robinson was special beyond words. It was fierce; Robinson credits Paterno for helping him become the man he is today, and that fondness resonated in the eulogy he delivered at Paterno’s funeral. It resonated in his voice as we spoke over the phone. Simply put, it resembled the love shared between a father and son. “It all started just from being recruited,” Robinson said. “The guy never told me that I would be the man. He told me ‘look, I’m going to give you an opportunity, but we’ve got some pretty good players, so I don’t really know what you’re going to do. You look good, but I don’t know.'”
That first impression helped spark Robinson’s flame and inspired him to strive for greatness. “I was challenged, and he really knew how to challenge me,” Robinson said. “Fast-forward a couple years later after we lose in the Capital One Bowl, and I’m in his office after I just went off on him in the locker room. I asked him why I wasn’t playing, and he straight up tells me I’m not good enough. I needed to hear that.” Robinson explained that the impact he had on the game of football was bigger than Penn State. Players felt a different sense of responsibility in practice, and those lessons translated to all facets of life long after their time on the gridiron had concluded. “One of the biggest things I learned from Joe was that there’s a lot of things bigger than football,” Robinson said. “He would always tell me ‘Mike, man, look. If you weren’t playing football, the sky is the limit.’ He told me that whatever I wanted to do, I’d be good at. He and Jay Paterno would always tell me I’d be in government someday, but they knew I always wanted to have a big part in changing the world in some way, shape, or form, and that’s a big part of why I’m coming back to State College.”
In 2010, during Robinson’s first season as a member of the Seattle Seahawks, that burning desire to change the world inspired him to launch Excel to Excellence, a foundation that benefits a cause near and dear to his heart. What began as an annual football camp — one he organized himself thanks to the public relations degree he received from Penn State in 2004 — blossomed into Team Excel, an initiative that’s helping to redefine the word “success” as we know it. “Basically, I wanted something more. Something with some teeth,” Robinson said. “I hired a foundation director, and we really put our heads together and came up with this innovative program and named it Team Excel.”
The concept behind Team Excel is unique, and its relative familiarity among participants has translated into tangible success. It revolves around the concept of fantasy football, but with the students themselves serving as the “fantasy athletes,” and community leaders and professional athletes alike playing the role of team coaches. At the root of the program sit five core principles students abide by: Be early, no excuses, protect the team, be confident, and have fun serving others. Students earn points based on grades, attendance, and community service, and compete for weekly prizes based on their team score. Larger prizes are awarded at the end of each school year, or “season,” with other prizes going to students who stand out on an individual level. But since the program’s inception, the innovative platform is actively helping to change the perception these students have of the definition of success and help instill life lessons that extend beyond the classroom.
To help change the perception, Robinson shares one of his fondest memories; he tells the story of his high school janitor to paint a real life picture of success. “This man’s worked at my high school for 40 years, maxed out his 401k, and doesn’t have a bill,” Robinson said. “All he pays is insurance every year. That’s success, that’s financial freedom.” The perception of what success really is among the young people Robinson’s foundation is helping is skewed. Instead of aspiring to be the next rapper, football player, or entertainer, Robinson simply aims to provide some perspective.
It’s a message Robinson wants to convey, but it’s not the only perception he wants to change. While this weekend’s benefit revolves around his mission, Robinson wants to use his platform to inform his fellow lettermen of the current state of their beloved alma mater and change their current perception of the program — just as James Franklin did for him only a few weeks ago during his visit to film a piece on Christian Hackenberg for the NFL Network. “That was the first time I’d had a sit-down with coach Franklin. It was interesting because I didn’t know him, and had no idea about him. I had nothing but what I’d seen on television, ” Robinson said. “I’m a Joe guy, and I’m not going to lie to you, but before sitting down and talking to him, I wasn’t too high on the guy.”
Only after the meeting did Robinson truly see Franklin’s perspective. He gained a greater understanding — and appreciation — for what Franklin walked into when he took the Penn State job in 2014, and how significantly the sanctions truly impacted the program. “It totally changed my perception,” Robinson said. “The other part of the benefit is that the lettermen need to hear from him.”
As Robinson put it, the lettermen feel fractured in a sense, and a large part of that was because of the lofty precedent set well before Franklin arrived in Happy Valley. “All we know is Joe, all anybody knows is Joe, except for the last two years,” Robinson said. “We talked about Penn State being bigger than all of that whether you’re a Franklin supporter, an O’Brien supporter, or a JoePa supporter. I wanted to use this opportunity to have him address us, and I told him that we need to know what he needs from us.”
Simply put, there is a disconnect between the program’s past and present. It’s time to bridge the gap with transparency, all while helping to support a noble cause. It will be a weekend of celebration and communication. A chance to catch up with friends, and the opportunity to expand a program that’s actively changing the lives of young students — a venture that speaks volumes about Robinson’s character. When you consider all the positivity surrounding Robinson’s Blue & White benefit, you have to think Joe is smiling proudly.
Welcome home, Michael.