Disabled student the unlikeliest of players

Banneker's Gerard Robinson lives out his dream by running the play of his life

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

(16 November 2006) In a noisy moment at Banneker High's homecoming pep rally, coach Benny Crane felt a tug on his sleeve. It was not a yank, but a slight pull, enough to get his attention. He turned and glanced down into the excited yet concerned eyes of Gerard Robinson.

At 5-foot-3, Robinson is shorter than most of his classmates, but his audacity and charisma elevate his stature. As Coach Crane bent over to listen, he could see Robinson's mouth quiver.

The 17-year-old had a question: Would his name be called out with all the football players?

Although Robinson was not officially part of the team, Coach Crane assured him with a nod, a smile and a hand on the shoulder. Yes.

And as the look in Robinson's eyes shifted to sheer joy, another notion entered the coach's heart. Maybe there was something even greater he could do for this unlikeliest of football players.

A mutual passion for football

Crane first encountered Robinson five years ago, while substituting at Camp Creek Middle School, and was fascinated with the kid.

Cerebral Palsy affected his gait - his legs were spindly and seemed heavy by the way he dragged them. Attention deficit disorder robbed his focus. Crane actually timed how long the young man could stay on task: 30 seconds.

Yet, Robinson had magnetism. He could engage people like few kids his age. He was captivating, funny and not the least bit sensitive to his shortcomings. He was more class entertainer than class clown. Crane left school that day thinking, What a neat kid.

Two years later, when Robinson plodded into Crane's classroom again - this time as a freshman at Banneker High in College Park - the teacher's memory clicked, and he smiled to himself. Robinson did not remember Crane, but the two would become inextricably linked through a mutual passion: football.

Since he was 6 or 7, Robinson was drawn to the game, despite the muscle disorder that stole his coordination. Eager to play, he moved furniture in his family's College Park home to create a field on the living room carpet. A crumpled piece of paper was his football.

Becoming Banneker's team manager seemed only natural; it was his opportunity to be around the game. But he was manager mostly in name only. He was more like an adopted teammate whose energy and spirit created a fun, relaxed atmosphere. His name wasn't on the roster. He didn't have a uniform. But he offered encouragement from the sideline like any bona fide member of the team, and levity at tense moments.

A good-looking, clean-cut kid with lively eyes, Robinson became one of the most popular students. Administrators loved him because he was respectful and diligent, despite also having a mild learning disability. His classmates embraced him because he did not show self-pity. Rather, he carried on as if one of the gang.

At the South Fulton Classic basketball tournament at Tri-Cities High last year, he left his seat with the football team during a timeout and turned the court into his personal stage, putting on a dancing exhibition that rocked the house. This was not an unusual moment; Robinson delighted in his own daring.

The students called him "Radio" after the character in the 2003 movie of the same name. That character had a similar passion for football, but far more severe disorders. Yet, Robinson didn't mind the nickname. He reveled in it.

With a deep voice that belied his youthful, hairless face, Robinson would participate in cruel sessions of "joning" or playing the dozens with classmates, accepting barbs about his legs without a trace of indignity. He'd fire back with equally humorous and personal attacks. This - and his improved focus that allowed him to take standard classes - helped him fit in like a newly discovered first cousin at a family reunion.

This pleased his father, Larry Robinson. A general manager of a fast-food chain, he worked long hours, making the time he spent with his son more precious. If Gerard didn't have a hang-up about his disorders, it was in part because his dad consistently ignored them.

His fatherly advice branded Gerard's psyche like a tattoo: Do not let anything stop you from what you want to achieve. Nothing. And know that I love you and I am here for you for anything, always.

For the past several months, it had not been easy for Gerard to speak of his father without being overcome by sadness. Larry Robinson was in a car accident in March and died of his injuries four days later.

Losing his Dad felt like losing some of his soul. His mom, Earlene Robinson, was his most prominent ally and authority. But Gerard understood the value of having a father, a man.

For a time, Gerard's bright light of a spirit dimmed. His mother postponed her grieving so she could keep a watchful eye on her son. When he finally returned to school, he asked for a few private moments with Coach Crane.

Coach, he said, I really want to rely on you to be a male figure in my life. I lost my father, and I feel like I need you to take that role for me.

The 32-year-old Crane was surprised, honored, moved.

A sensitive man with a firm handshake, he has no kids of own, but considers himself a father to all the boys of Banneker High.

Of course, he told Gerard. No matter what, he would be there for him. He explained that, as a part of his team, he was under a lifetime contract.

An anxious mother

With the idea of calling out Robinson's name at the pep rally came another inspiration - to fulfill the senior's four-year plea to dress out for a game.

So, when Crane spoke at the pep rally in the gym Oct. 27, he told the crowd Radio would be in uniform the following Friday, for the final home game of the season. A huge cry filled the auditorium. Robinson nodded his head the way a cocky defensive back would after breaking up a play.

To call Robinson excited would be akin to calling fire hot. That weekend, at his job at McDonald's, he spread the news about his impending debut against Creekside. People had cheered for him all his life. Now, he had reason to cheer himself, and he did not botch the opportunity.

The Monday before the game, Coach Crane's cell phone rang during practice. The number was familiar: It was Robinson.

Coach, I'm in the store right now, buying my cleats. I just want to make sure I get the right kind. And is there anything else I need to get?

Crane could only smile in admiration. Robinson's jubilation oozed through the phone.

The next day, the excitement mounted. Robinson took his mandatory physical, received the medical permission to dress out and was both relieved and ecstatic.

His mom, meanwhile, was less than thrilled.

She did not know what to think about him being on the field among much bigger and stronger kids. But she often acquiesced to her persuasive son, and would this time, too. He had already gotten her to pay the $130 required to be on the team by emphasizing it was his last chance as a senior.

At school, word that Robinson would be in uniform on Senior Night spread through the hallways. Everyone was excited for the boy so popular he could have won the Mr. Banneker title if the ballot had listed him as "Radio" instead of Gerard Robinson.

On game day, he wore his jersey to school - No. 13. It was not an unlucky number to him. His undersized chest stuck out like a barrel.

All that Friday, he thought of football. How would he look in his uniform? Would his mom be proud? What would it feel like?

About two hours before kickoff on Nov. 3, he made his way to the locker room and started shedding his clothes. He did so slowly, as if he were savoring the experience.

The bulky shoulder pads almost tilted him over. The helmet had plenty of room for more head. And yet, Robinson felt transformed.

Like I could be undefeated, he would later recall. Like nobody could touch me. Like the king of the world. Friday night lights, baby!

Watching Robinson in uniform, Coach Crane felt like a proud father.

A banner start for Radio

As Crane gave his team some final instructions in the locker room, Robinson fidgeted. He adjusted his shoulder pads. He looked down at his new cleats. His teammates smacked his helmet.

On the field during warm-ups, he searched the stands for his mother.

Finally, just a few moments before kickoff, it was time for the team to execute the pre-game ritual of running through the large banner created by the cheerleaders. Every week, the sign held a different message for the Trojans. This time, it said: "Radio Is On The Field."

Earlene Robinson had never been to a Banneker football game before. She watched teary-eyed as the coach sent her son out on the field with the captains before kickoff.

Once the action began, Banneker was not much of a match for Creekside and its sensational quarterback. By the second quarter, Creekside was well in control. It was then that Crane felt that tug on his sleeve. It was not a yank, but a slight pull, enough to get his attention.

Robinson wanted in.

Coach, I'm ready, he said. Coach, I'm ready. I'm gonna get down for you, Coach. I can be the difference.

Crane was patient but anxious, and tried to calm his player.

I got you, dog. I got you.

He was just waiting for the right moment - even trying to create the right moment, calling timeouts so the clock wouldn't run out and he could get Robinson in.

Behind 27-0 in the fourth quarter, Crane spent several minutes waving and yelling, trying to get the attention of Creekside coach Kevin Whitley from across the field. Finally, Whitley noticed Crane, who then motioned toward Robinson. Whitley gave Crane a thumbs up - he understood - followed by an index finger, meaning hold on.

Creekside scored a final touchdown, and a moment later, Whitley, accompanied by a referee, ran across the field.

How do you want to do it? he asked Crane.

I was thinking of throwing him a pass.

Will he catch it?

I'm not sure.

How about a run to make sure he gets his hands on the ball?

Crane agreed. The play was set.

Just then, Earlene Robinson got up from her seat to head home. She felt happy. She had seen her son in a football uniform. What could be better than that?

'You're in'

After the kickoff, Banneker had the ball on the 34-yard line. Coach Crane's heartbeat quickened. There was less than a minute left in the game. Just enough time to achieve his mission.

He did not have to search for Robinson - he was stuck to his side.

You're in, he told him.

Those were the words Robinson had dreamed of hearing for four years. Now all he could think was, lights, camera, action.

Suddenly, the crowd in the stadium got loud, and Earlene Robinson, on her way toward the exit, looked up to see her son on the field. He moved slowly toward the huddle, his gangly gait accompanied by a symphony of cheers.

When the new player reached the huddle, quarterback Darrell Simmons looked around at teammates he considered rugged and tough - and saw tears in their eyes. He cried, too. He felt it was the nicest moment of his high school career.

Robinson was not surprised by the show of emotions from his teammates. They have a relationship with God, he thought, and want to see me get in the game.

Robinson tried to talk, but in his excitement, his words were indecipherable. Finally, Simmons got control in the huddle and called the play: 23 lead.

Robinson took his place in the backfield, hands on knees, anxiously awaiting the snap. As Simmons turned to hand Robinson the ball, it was as if the volume was turned down in the stadium. Silence, save for the band.

Creekside defenders, clued in to the play by their coach, made token contact with Banneker players. Then they turned into spectators as Robinson headed left, through the correct opening, moving at the pace of an 18-wheeler on a steep incline. It seemed in slow motion to everyone but Robinson. He was flying.

He crossed the line of scrimmage, into the open field. The stadium was quiet still, as Robinson kept moving. With the ball tucked in his right arm, up against his chest, he veered slightly right as he approached midfield. His teammates ran behind him, yelling.

Go, Radio. Go.

They reveled in their buddy's moment. They were losing 34-0, but they felt a sense of pride. They were pulling for Robinson to go the distance, score a touchdown and follow it with one of his patented dance moves.

Robinson only wanted the ball.

Just beyond the 50-yard line, he brushed up against a teammate, teetered right, lost his balance and fell.

He did not fumble.

The crowd roared, even in the Creekside bleachers. Teammates helped Robinson off the ground. He had carried the ball 19 yards. He wanted more.

Yeah. Give it to me again, he said. I'm feeling it.

On the sideline, Coach Crane felt it, too. So much so that he called for his team to take a knee to end the game. To him, those 19 yards represented victory beyond the final score.

Earlene Robinson held her hands over her mouth, tears streaming down her face. She was proud, relieved.

After shaking hands with the Creekside team, the Banneker players continued their celebration of Radio Robinson and all that his first and only football game had inspired. They lifted him on their shoulders and carried him over in front of the band, where together they sang the school song.

The Creekside team stayed around to see it all. The coach wanted his kids to understand how blessed they were to play the game, what a privilege it was to witness Robinson's passion.

In the Banneker locker room, Crane gathered his players together and told them his mantra: that he loved them and that they should love each other, that Gerard Robinson symbolized love.

As Robinson broke down and let the tears flow, Coach Crane rubbed his back.

Your father is looking down on you now and he's proud, he told his player. Just like everyone else.

With that, Gerard Robinson slowly composed himself. He sat at his locker in uniform a few more minutes, absorbing for a little longer the feeling of being a football player.

It felt good, he thought. Like I was the big star of the game.

No one would argue with that.

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