Hall of Fame Football

LSU and Kansas City chiefs great Johnny Robinson waves to the crowd during the gold jacket ceremony in Canton, Ohio, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.

CANTON, Ohio — Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement Saturday is a beautiful celebration of an often brutal and unrelenting game.

Lives and careers are consecrated. Old grudges and rivalries, sweat and pain — they all melt away in the face of laughter, tears and utter joy.

It was that way for all of the inducted eight here Saturday. Even the family of late Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, who had the task of exalting his memory and mourning him in the same bittersweet moment after his death in June.

There was still yet another feeling as Johnny Robinson and his stepson, Bob Thompson, took the stage in Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. At long last, they unveiled the Robinson bust that will live here in Canton as long as there is a Hall of Fame and people to marvel at the deeds of the game’s greatest heroes.

It was a feeling that a great wrong was finally, thankfully being righted.

“I think everyone feels he’s come home where he belongs,” Thompson said Friday.

Way back when, Robinson never imagined he would be here after his football days at University High and LSU were over.

He figured he might become an Air Force pilot instead of a professional football player. Or maybe he could have considered being a tennis pro like his father, legendary LSU coach W.T. “Dub” Robinson (football coach Paul Dietzel would give permission for Johnny to miss practice for tennis matches).

For all the Hall of Fame voters figured, he might as well have.

Nominated in the 1970s after his glittering career with the Kansas City Chiefs ended in 1971, Robinson’s candidacy faded into twilight as the years passed and the never-ending assembly line of new candidates came into view.

New didn’t necessarily mean better.

Robinson finished with 57 interceptions during his 12-year career with the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs, still 13th in pro football history, third-most when he retired.

Robinson had four more interceptions in the postseason, including one in Super Bowl IV in New Orleans, despite playing with three broken ribs (he also recovered a fumble). He was the only man to lead the old AFL in interceptions (in 1966) and the NFL (in 1970), both times with 10. He also scored 18 touchdowns, most of them as a halfback before converting to safety in 1962.

Did he have an impact? The Chiefs were 35-3-1 in games when Johnny had one or more interceptions.

He was a six-time All-AFL pick, a seven-time AFL All-Star and was named to the AFL’s all-decade team. There was a time he was considered the premier player in the game at his position. In a defensive back-laden Hall of Fame class — Robinson goes in alongside Destrehan’s Ed Reed, Ty Law and Champ Bailey — Robinson more than holds his own.

What took so long, then? The only answer: prejudice against the AFL and its players after the upstart league merged with the older, established NFL in 1970.

“This is the most gross injustice,” AFL historian Todd Tobias said of Robinson’s candidacy. “There are a number of other (AFL) players who deserve consideration and detailed looks into their careers. There are probably a number who deserve to be in. But Johnny’s was the most egregious case.”

Then again, the arc of Robinson’s post-football life could only have been undone by a timely enshrinement in Canton four decades earlier.

Sometimes there is no escape from your destiny. It runs you down and overtakes you the way Robinson used to do ball carriers and receivers and madly scrambling quarterbacks.

For Robinson, it was destiny that led him to create the boys home in Monroe that bears his name. The lives he changed for the better are too many to count.

Had he been enshrined in Canton back in the 1970s, Robinson may have lived the jet-setting life of a Hall of Hamer. And the Johnny Robinson Boys Home would likely never have come to be.

“He wouldn’t have been in Monroe,” Thompson said. “He would have traveled. That was his life. There wouldn’t be a boys home.”

There isn’t a Hall of Fame for people who give up a piece of their lives to create such a haven. But in a way, he’s honored for his entire life here now.

For his part, thankfully, Robinson seemed to be enjoying himself immensely this weekend, despite an arduous schedule of appearances that would drain the batteries of a much younger man.

“I’m so glad he was able to see it with his own eyes," Thompson said, "and that he’s here for everyone to see.”

Yes, self-conscious concerns about the aphasia brought on by a stroke 10 years ago kept him from addressing the crowd, either at Friday night’s Gold Jacket Dinner or Saturday night’s enshrinement (Robinson pre-recorded two videos). But he looked as fit and strong as a man who turns 81 next month can look, seemingly invigorated by the spotlight.

"I'm so happy for Johnny," said former Chiefs defensive backfield mate Emmitt Thomas, a 2008 Hall of Famer. "This is long overdue."

In his video Saturday, Robinson spoke of his wait to be welcomed to Canton.

"I thought I had been forgotten," he said.

Misplaced for awhile, Johnny, but fortunately not forgotten.


Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com