Khiry Robinson swears he was not accompanying whoever shot a BB into the window of a house in Belton, Texas, and hit an 11-year-old boy in the head. But, as a 17-year-old football star at the time attracting scholarship interest from schools such as Baylor and Texas Tech, Robinson did go out with some people the night before to shoot up various buildings with air guns.
So, when investigators zeroed in on Robinson and some folks around him, he — in his words — “took the rap.” As a result, a grand jury indicted him on a felony charge of reckless bodily injury to the child hurt by the BB.
Robinson avoided prison by accepting a two-year probation term from Texas’ 426th District Court. But, quite suddenly, the scholarship talk from Baylor and Tech vanished, and Robinson realized his best bet at continuing his football career was embarking on a winding, small-college route.
“That whole incident — it really turned my life upside-down,” Robinson recalls of a chain of events that began Oct. 13, 2007. “After a while, it was kind of depressing — like, ‘Man, what am I supposed to do now?’ ”
It was neither the first nor last time Robinson would get in trouble or face hardships many would struggle to find the strength to overcome before finishing college with a degree and eventually landing a job with the New Orleans Saints — who won their second game of the season last week, a 37-31 overtime triumph at home against Tampa Bay that ended on his 18-yard touchdown run.
But it was following the BB-gun episode when Robinson’s mother spoke the words to him that would convince him to never abandon his talent, no matter how difficult the road ahead seemed, either because of outside forces or self-inflicted wounds.
“When you make bad choices, you have consequences,” Adalicia Terez Robinson-Lemons said to her son. “You made a mistake. It’s over with. You can’t change it; you can’t go back. The only thing you can do is go forward.
“People are going to talk about you. They’re always going to bring up the bad. But you just stay focused and do what you need to do.”
‘What’s going to happen next?’
Robinson spent his early years in West Texas, specifically Midland, with his two sisters, his older brother and his mom. His dad was in and out of prison.
Toward the end of her family’s time in Midland, Adalicia Robinson was caring for her grandmother, with whom she was very close. The grandmother later suffered a stroke, was admitted into a nursing home and died.
“That was really hard for me,” Adalicia says.
One day, she packed her children’s clothes into the back of her Buick LeSabre, told her mother they were going to a theme park and instead drove toward Belton, in Central Texas.
None of Adalicia’s older relatives knew where she or her children were for about a year and a half. She couldn’t immediately get work, and she and her children lived out of the Buick for a while until they managed to move into a homeless shelter called Martha’s Kitchen.
“I just didn’t know what was going on,” Khiry Robinson says of that period of his childhood. “It was like, ‘Man, what’s going to happen next? Where are we going to go? Where are we going next?’ We didn’t really know anybody, and I was kind of confused.”
Adalicia ultimately got hired to be a hairstylist at a salon and a clerk at a convenience store. She then found an apartment to rent for herself and her family with government assistance, and things returned to normal for a bit.
It wasn’t meant to stay that way. One day, when Khiry was about 10 and at school, Adalicia told a man she was dating — a native of New Orleans, of all cities — that their relationship was over and he needed to leave her apartment.
The man stormed into the kitchen as Adalicia turned away from him. He grabbed a knife, came up behind her and stabbed her four times in the back and twice in the head.
Doctors at the hospital where Adalicia sought medical attention explained to her that the blade missed her spine by less than an inch. Khiry was told that the blows to his mom’s head weren’t fatal because a wig she wore apparently blocked the knife from sinking deeper.
“They said I was really lucky,” Adalicia remembers.
The man — about 30 at the time — pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in Texas’ 27th District Court and received a 10-year prison sentence at the conclusion of the case, according to documents. Still, Khiry wanted to flee Belton with his family, but he realized there wasn’t enough money to do that.
The course of action Khiry’s young brain subsequently hatched was to get marijuana from older kids he knew around the neighborhood and sell it to his schoolmates. It wasn’t long before he was busted and placed on a type of probation that sent him to boot camps and behind-the-scenes tours of adult prisons in Texas.
“I just was trying to provide money for my mom to get away,” he says. Instead, “before (the show) ‘Beyond Scared Straight’ was on TV, I went to a prison to try to get scared straight.”
The lessons from Robinson’s experience in the juvenile justice system didn’t entirely stick. He fought with kids he perceived to look down on him in high school. He brawled with a substitute teacher and attended an alternative school for a while as his mom and other relatives admonished him to either shape up or end up like his father, locked up in one of the correctional facilities he visited after being caught peddling dope to his peers.
“I was trying to keep him out of prison and out of the grave,” Adalicia Robinson says. “And I always told him that.”
Fortunately for her son, he was good at football. He was an all-district and All-Central Texas player as a running back at Belton High; nearby Baylor as well as Texas Tech set their eyes on adding him to their programs.
The BB-gun affair derailed that. Afterwards, his only real opportunity was more than 1,300 miles away from home: at Mesabi Range College, a community college in Virginia, Minnesota, a city of about 9,000 people.
He represented the Norse well for 10 games, accumulating 893 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 160 carries; completing 3 of 4 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns; and catching 15 throws for 105 yards. Mesabi Range won that year’s state championship.
But Robinson grew homesick, a feeling exacerbated when he said a group of men driving by him in a pickup truck yelled at him, “Go back home to the country!” and hurled a racial slur at him. He said the opposition was “kind of too easy” and that he wasn’t really learning.
So Robinson researched the best junior-college football teams in the U.S. and settled on Blinn in Texas. He transferred but, during spring practice in 2009, he tore an ACL and was redshirted for the following season.
Robinson underwent surgery and rehabbed on his own, mostly limited to light jogging on Blinn’s football field as Cam Newton — now quarterback for the Carolina Panthers — led the school’s team to a National Junior College Athletic Association championship.
Robinson suited up for Blinn in 2010 — at safety. Nonetheless, he shined, landing on the second-team all-conference defense.
Observing him all the while was Colby Carthel, the defensive coordinator and son of the head coach at West Texas A&M, a Division II program. Carthel recruited Robinson to join him and his dad, Don, at the school in Canyon, Texas, on a partial scholarship to play running back again.
And there, before things almost fell completely apart again for Robinson, they started well enough.
‘Do what you need to do’
It was impossible for West Texas A&M coach Don Carthel to ignore how it appeared everyone on his team avoided putting themselves in position to tackle Robinson.
“He was very intense at everything he did — it didn’t matter if it was a Monday practice or a Friday practice, he was going to go full-speed,” Carthel said. “He was a horse to bring down.”
He quickly proved it in games, too. His first year, when West Texas A&M was a respectable 8-3, he required just 103 carries to tally 669 yards and 11 touchdowns while also hauling in 22 passes for 182 yards and two scores.
Yet between his first and second seasons in Canyon, he collided with the trouble he had been in and out of for much of his life.
He tested positive for marijuana. Also, while in the weight room one day, he got into an argument and physical altercation over what the best offensive scheme was for West Texas A&M. His opponent on that one was wide receiver Brittan Golden, who was Robinson’s teammate in 2011 before entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent.
All of that occurred after Robinson claimed that — while at Blinn — he emerged unscathed from selling drugs and even being shot at on two separate occasions. West Texas A&M suspended Robinson for two games of the 2012 campaign, and it finally dawned on him that he’d never go as far as he was supposed to if he didn’t change — completely.
Robinson vowed to control his temper and quit dabbling in pot. He dedicated all of his waking moments to his classes, the weight room and the football field, the words of his mother from way back when echoing in his ears.
“Do what you need to do.”
And Robinson did. Even though he was sidelined for two games, he rushed for 15 touchdowns and 1,621 yards, breaking the single-season school record of 1,571 yards once held by Eugene “Mercury” Morris, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Miami Dolphins in the 1970s.
Robinson caught 38 passes for 430 yards and four touchdowns as West Texas A&M won 12 of 15 games and reached the D-II semifinals for the first time. He completed his major in sports and exercise science.
“That,” Carthel said, “is all pretty impressive.”
What unfolded next has been well-documented. When he declared for the 2013 NFL draft, none of the 32 teams in the league selected Robinson, and he ended up signing with the Saints as a rookie free agent for a $1,000 bonus — a small sum by pro football standards.
But remaining faithful to the approach that allowed him to have his historic year at West Texas A&M, the 6-foot, 220-pound Robinson won Saints fans over after averaging more than 4 yards a carry, gaining 224 yards and punching in a touchdown on 54 rushes over 10 regular-season games in 2013.
In the first week of the playoffs, he picked up 22 yards of a clock-draining, 34-yard drive in Philadelphia that set up a last-second field goal and secured the first road playoff victory in Saints history. He punched in a 1-yard TD a week later in a losing effort at Seattle, which went on to win the Super Bowl.
This season, in two defeats as the backup to veteran Mark Ingram, Robinson had 59 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Ingram fractured his hand in Week 2 and, since then, Robinson has picked up 245 yards and a TD while the Saints have won two of three games.
Yet anyone who witnessed Robinson’s last touch against Tampa Bay last Sunday saw the running style that has defined him.
Robinson took the handoff left from behind Tampa Bay’s 18, speeding inside and past blocks by fullback Austin Johnson as well as guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans. No one accounted for Tampa Bay safeties Mark Barron and Bradley McDougald, who barreled into Robinson about 7 yards from the goal line.
Robinson plowed through both. He high-stepped the rest of the way for a dramatic score that prevented the Saints’ record from falling to 1-4 and essentially kept the team’s season alive.
Listening to even the briefest portion of Robinson’s story, it’s not difficult to grasp why he’s running so desperately — or what he’s running so frantically from.
“I don’t want to go back to any of that — not because of what it is, but because I’ve been through it,” said Robinson, referring to the homelessness, his mother’s depending on a man who nearly killed her, the ways he gambled with a future that would let him economically support his loved ones in a manner that was unimaginable a few years ago.
“That’s what motivates me each day ... (to) lift my head up and smile, because I could be in jail. I could be hungry. ... What motivates me ... is that I’m not supposed to be here.”
Adalicia Robinson was working at her salon when her son scored against Tampa Bay, as is typical for her. She couldn’t watch the play live.
Informed that the run made Khiry a hero in New Orleans, she said, “Well, he’s been one at home, too.”