NFL Historical Imagery

Safety Johnny Robinson of the Kansas City Chiefs drops back to defend a pass against the San Diego Chargers on Sept. 19, 1971 at San Diego Stadium.

The image on YouTube is a wobbly videotape copy, the colors blurred by time, the sound muddy.

The picture of one particular man, however, is indelible.

It is Week 2 of the 1970 NFL season. Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts’ legendary quarterback, drops back in the pocket and lofts a pass over the middle. His receiver falls down, however, and the ball instead finds the arms of Kansas City Chiefs free safety Johnny Robinson.

“Robinson, in the free safety position — he’s recognized as the best that there is, especially in the American Football Conference,” Dandy Don Meredith tells the Monday Night Football audience. “He’s been picking them off like that for about 10 years.”

Robinson had two more interceptions that night. And recovered a fumble.

“I don’t know how he knows to get in the right place all of the time,” Meredith, himself a former quarterback, says admiringly, “but he sure does.”

Robinson was in the right place most of his career.

He was in the White Team backfield with Billy Cannon and Warren Rabb — three homegrown kids from University High, Baton Rouge High and Istrouma High, respectively — leading LSU to the 1958 national championship.

He was in the secondary when the Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings to win Super Bowl IV in January 1970 at long-demolished Tulane Stadium.

Everywhere, it seems, except where he should be:

In the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Friday, the Pro Football Hall of Fame Senior Committee will sit down to consider a list of 100 candidates for Canton’s Class of 2019. They will pare the list to 15 finalists. This, being an even-numbered year, they can only put forward one name to the overall selection committee.

Robinson hopes to be on the list of finalists, and he hopes Pro Football Hall of Fame President Dave Baker will make a now-famous knock on his hotel room door in Atlanta on the Saturday before Super Bowl LIII.

“I’m hopeful I’ll go in,” Robinson said by phone Thursday from his home in Monroe. “I’m 79 years old. I’ll be 80 in September. It’s been a long time.

“Hopefully, I’ll live to see my bust in Canton.”

It's been a long time indeed for Robinson, who wrapped up his 12-year pro football career in 1971, all played with the Kansas City Chiefs and in their first home when they were known as the Dallas Texans.

It's been too long for Todd Tobias, who runs a website called TalesFromTheAmericanFootballLeague.com and is a historian of the NFL’s old rival league. The AFL, where Robinson played most of his career, existed from 1960-69 before merging with the NFL after Super Bowl IV.

Robinson is one of only 20 men to play for an AFL team in all 10 years of its existence. Tobias is convinced Robinson is the best player from the AFL who is still not enshrined in Canton.

“It is a huge disservice,” said Tobias, who lives in San Diego.

Tobias said Robinson was on the Hall of Fame ballot six times after his career ended. Eventually, however, players exhaust their regular eligibility for Canton and are relegated to the senior committee.

Tobias, who wrote a book about the then-San Diego Chargers, has made Robinson his personal project. His website has a petition which people can sign electronically, a list of names which will be presented at the senior committee meeting by longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin (formerly of the Dallas Morning News) and Boston Globe sports columnist Rick Borges.

Tobias describes the competition for that one spot on the list of this year’s finalists as “dense,” but he is hopeful for Robinson’s sake.

“I’ve talked to a handful of Hall of Fame voters,” he said. “They believe he’s the most deserving player who isn’t currently in.

“We’re trying to give whatever possible nudge we can to the senior committee.”

Robinson’s contemporaries think he deserves to be in, too — people like former Chargers and Cowboys receiver Lance Alworth, who should have been joined by Robinson when Alworth was enshrined in 1978.

“I think the offensive guys always got a little more attention than the defensive guys,” Alworth said. “That’s the way it went in those days. He deserved to be in like I was.

“All the receivers in the league didn’t like to go across the middle when we played Kansas City.” 

Bobby Bell, a 1983 Hall of Famer and Chiefs linebacker from 1963-74, has also lobbied for his former teammate.

“I put him at the top as a safety,” Bell said. “Playing with Johnny was like having a coach on the field. Johnny Robinson should have been put in the Hall of Fame long ago.”

Despite spending his first two seasons as a receiver, Robinson recorded 57 career interceptions — still tied for 13th in pro football history with, among others, former Southern and Steelers great Mel Blount (he was inducted in 1989).

Robinson and former Chiefs cornerback Emmitt Thomas (he was inducted in 2008) are the only men to lead the AFL and NFL in interceptions, Robinson doing so in 1966 and 1970. Robinson also led the AFL in interception return yards in 1969.

He was a seven-time Pro Bowl and six-time All-Pro selection. Among those eligible for the hall with six or more All-Pro seasons, only Robinson, former LSU and Steelers guard Alan Faneca (who should also be elected), Tony Gonzalez (eligible in 2019) and another Kansas City player from the AFL era, Jim Tyrer, are not enshrined in Canton.

Tobias believes players like Robinson, who spent most of their careers in the AFL, have suffered from a bias against what was once an upstart league.

“There are those who say the AFL was an inferior league in those early years,” Tobias said. “But honestly, tell me NFL teams wouldn’t have taken Lance Alworth or Johnny Robinson in their prime. Don’t tell me they weren’t on the NFL’s radar.”

Certainly they were. Robinson was the third overall pick of the 1960 NFL draft by Detroit.

Robinson is humbled by the attention Tobias and Johnny’s contemporaries have given to try to revive his candidacy.

“I’m just amazed at the people who have come out for me,” he said.

A member of the LSU, Louisiana, Kansas City Chiefs and Missouri sports halls of fame, Robinson said he has come to terms with the possibility of never making it to Canton.

“I’ve gotten some attention,” he says modestly. “I’m proud of the accomplishments I have. I’m satisfied if I don’t go in this time I’m sure that I’ve been blessed, you know?”

We know, Johnny. Just as much as we know you deserve your place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

---

To sign the petition for Johnny Robinson, visit TalesFromtheAmericanFootballLeague.com.

The Johnny Robinson file

  • Hometown: Delhi
  • High School: University
  • College: LSU, 1957-59
  • NFL/AFL: 1960-71, Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs
  • Games played: 164
  • Interceptions: 57 (13th all time)
  • Rushing: 150 attempts, 658 yards, 6 TDs
  • Receiving: 77 receptions, 1,228 yards, 9 TDs
  • Pro Bowls: 7
  • First-team All-Pro: 6
  • Led AFL with 10 interceptions, 1966
  • Led NFL with 10 interceptions, 1970
  • Led AFL with 158 interception return yards, 1969
  • One of two players to lead AFL and NFL in interceptions
  • Played in Super Bowl I
  • Won Super Bowl IV

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​