LAFAYETTE — He had done it so many times before that it had become second nature, but all eyes were still trained on him, waiting for that concrete proof he was indeed still himself.
On one of those steamy Louisiana August mornings when the air feels like soup, the first official day of the 2015 football season, the moment arrived.
He beat his man off the line and streaked downfield. The quarterback saw his opportunity and launched the ball his way, floating it just a bit. The player with all eyes glued to him battled the defensive back and soared high above the ground to snare it in his powerful hands …
And he missed.
The ball fell to the turf, incomplete.
But it didn’t matter that he didn’t come up with the ball. The question has never been about his ability to make tough, contested catches. All it took was one leap for that nagging question — what if he’s not the same? — to go away.
Jamal Robinson, playmaker, is back.
“I saw him go up for a deep ball, a high ball,” Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said. “He didn’t make the play, but he got closer than anybody else possibly could.”
That’s the thing about Robinson — that “closer than anybody else possibly could” thing. There just aren’t many players like him out there, a lesson the Ragin’ Cajuns unfortunately found out firsthand last year.
He’s a 6-foot-4 black hole of a receiver, swallowing up anything thrown within reach of his expansive wingspan and towering leaping ability. He’s the prototype wideout: a tall, long-striding athlete who demands the ball and commands extra attention. He’s the ultimate safety valve.
“Throw it my way somewhere close, and I’ve got it,” Robinson said.
He did exactly that when he was on the field last year, what he figured to be his final season before he embarked on a lengthy and lucrative career in the NFL. He told his parents before the 2014 season that it was going to be his year.
Robinson worked hard to become that man last summer, spending extra hours with former Cajuns quarterback Terrance Broadway developing timing so in sync that, in their sleep, the duo probably connected on long passes from one’s dream to the other’s.
That much was evident in the season opener, when Robinson made the Southern defensive backfield his personal plaything. He snared five passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns in the first two and a half quarters of the Cajuns’ 45-6 win.
It was the beginning of what should have been a grand finale season. But fate had other, more challenging plans in store.
In the second quarter the following week, a blowout loss against Louisiana Tech, Robinson tore the meniscus in his left knee, requiring surgery that forced him to miss the Cajuns’ two premier non-conference games: at Ole Miss and Boise State.
He returned with a vengeance against Georgia State, looking like the guy who torched Southern. He caught eight passes for 119 yards and two scores, the second of which was vintage Robinson: a jump ball to put the Cajuns ahead late in the fourth quarter.
It was his last catch of the 2014 season.
‘Just a little bruise’
The play that ended Jamal Robinson’s season against Texas State looked innocuous.
He was running stride for stride with Texas State’s David Mims II on a deep route down the sideline, and the pair battled for a jump ball and landed together on the turf, the pass incomplete.
But when Mims landed, all of his weight was directed through the point of his knee directly onto Robinson’s right foot. Robinson felt pain immediately, but it wasn’t severe.
“I just thought it was a little bruise, a deep tissue bruise,” Robinson said. “So I got up and tried to run on it, but I couldn’t, so I just hopped off the field.”
Robinson’s father, Tashawn Mitchell, was watching on TV at home in Slidell. The play-by-play crew didn’t notice Robinson was hurt on the play; it wasn’t until later in the second quarter that Mitchell saw his son receiving medical attention. He was relieved when the camera returned to Robinson, lightly jogging on the sidelines.
“After they taped him, he was trotting on the sidelines, and I was wondering what happened,” Mitchell said. “The first thing going through my head was the guy stepped on his foot and rolled his ankle. Whoever thought it’d be something like that — something freaky like that?”
Robinson was officially listed as questionable to return. He ran some more after halftime, his foot feeling tender but workable. But he came up empty when he tried to plant his foot and change direction. That was the point he understood it wasn’t likely going to be something he could return from quickly.
“I just felt like it was a bad injury; I already knew,” Robinson said. “I didn’t know how long it was going to take to heal.”
That night was a long one for Robinson, whose promising senior season was suddenly thrust into uncertain waters again.
He spent the six-hour bus ride from San Marcos to Lafayette contemplating what that uncertainty could mean for his future.
“He called us later that night when he made it back,” Mitchell said. “He got back real, real late. I just made sure I texted him and told him to call me when he got back. I know he was probably going through something in his head, so I wanted to let him get his thoughts together and let him see what the diagnosis was going to be.”
It didn’t take long to get the diagnosis. The next day, Robinson found out he needed surgery on his broken foot and that his season was over.
Two injuries in one year, one of which was season-ending, was almost more than Robinson could handle.
Mitchell said his son had never missed a game in his life. Now, out of the blue, he looked like damaged goods.
There are two routes one can take when dealt with this type of adversity. Admittedly depressed by the news, Robinson could’ve let the questions keep eating away at him: Would he ever be the same player? Would his professional career go up in smoke?
Instead, Robinson chose to ignore the negativity and focus on the positives. Once told about the possibility of a medical hardship waiver for an extra year of eligibility — a chance to prove to himself and to NFL scouts that he could come back better than ever — he directed optimistic energy toward that.
“I prayed on it,” he said. “I told people to keep me in their prayers. I just felt like I only played in two full games, so I should’ve gotten it.”
While he waited to hear about his waiver from the Sun Belt Conference, he worked.
For an athlete of Robinson’s caliber, rehabbing an injury can be tedious and painful — not only physical pain, but mental pain. For someone so used to being able to do just about anything he wants physically, the small-victories process of rehab can allow doubt to creep back in.
“It was tough,” Robinson said. “Every day, after workouts, it hurt real bad. It just made it feel like you might not be able to heal 100 percent.”
“He thinks he’s invincible,” Mitchell said. “You ever see that movie with Bruce Willis?”
Mitchell was referencing the M. Night Shyamalan movie “Unbreakable,” in which Willis’ character is impervious to physical harm.
“He thinks he’s a dude like that,” Mitchell said. “But I’ve been trying to tell him that you’re not invincible. You’ve just got to be prepared for stuff like that. It’s all a part of his learning process.”
Robinson spent the week going through the ups and downs of his rehab process, then watched in a protective boot on the sideline as his teammates figured out how to play without him. It wasn’t easy at first.
“I would say it was a very big impact,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said of Robinson’s injury. “It’s about guys making plays. You pull one of those guys out? Yeah, it was a big change.”
With the offense struggling to make big plays in the passing game, then-backup quarterback Brooks Haack felt his mind start to wander toward the 2015 season at times.
“It was always in the back of my head, like, ‘I hope we get him back. I hope we get him back,’ ” Haack said.
On Dec. 23, Haack and the Cajuns received an early Christmas present: Robinson was granted eligibility for a fifth season.
‘I’m ready to play’
The first time Robinson felt completely normal while running was this summer, and it caught him by surprise.
“I started running, going full speed, in about the middle of June,” he said. “I was running, and my foot didn’t hurt. It went past my mind like, ‘Oh shoot, my foot doesn’t hurt anymore!’ It was really exciting.”
It wasn’t only exciting for Robinson.
Like Broadway the year before, Haack used the summer to develop timing with Robinson. The goal was to work as two halves of a whole rather than two independent parts. Haack wants to know where Robinson is going to be; Robinson wants to know the way the ball spins off Haack’s hand.
But when it all breaks down, that’s when Haack knows he can count on Robinson to be there.
“Working with him this summer, it’s been like, ‘Wow, this guy,’ ” Haack said. “If you just put it anywhere in his general direction, he’ll come down with it. Just knowing in the back of your head that, if something breaks down and you can find Jamal, just throw it to him, because he’s going to come down with it.”
As preseason practice opened, Robinson said he was at “95 to 100 percent,” which is roughly equivalent to saying, “I feel like I’m back to being myself, but I’m not totally sure.”
As a precaution, he’s wearing a special insole in his cleats. He said his time spent in a walking boot and a specially designed scooter that kept his foot off the ground left his foot weak, and he needed to build strength back.
The Cajuns also have taken things slowly with their star wideout. He was held out of all contact drills during the spring, and he has been monitored closely during preseason practice.
“We have to manage him and take care of him, but if he can pick up where he left off, when you try to stress defenses, he’s the guy that can stress them,” Johnson said.
Robinson understands the caution, but he’s also having trouble containing his excitement to create some of that stress. By the time the season opener rolls around Sept. 5 at Kentucky, it will have been 326 days since the last time he appeared on a football field.
“I’m anxious and excited,” Robinson said the day before he put doubt to rest with one leap at the Cajuns’ first practice. “I’ve been waiting for camp — not even the game; I’ve been waiting for camp and starting practice.
“I’m ready to play.”
With one leap, he confirmed that.