PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — Just days before Christmas, Fred Robbins dressed up like Santa Claus and spent the morning handing out gifts to the children and families in his community who needed it most.
After the ex-NFL defensive tackle and Super Bowl champion was done — and still dressed like Jolly Old Saint Nick — he weaved his way across the crowded gymnasium floor at the Wedgewood Community Center, not far from where he grew up.
You could just about tell the story of his life by the different reactions he elicited from people as he walked past.
The little kids stared at him in awe, and they were the best to watch. That was because they still believed in Santa Claus and right in front of them was living, breathing proof that Santa Claus actually was real, and he came in the form of the barrel-chested, giant man who had just spent hours dishing out bicycles, footballs, Iron Man masks and Barbie dolls to them.
Robbins exchanged knowing, approving nods with a group of teenage boys as they helped families take gifts to their cars, showed kids how to use the kickstands on their new bikes and put away tables and chairs, among other volunteer duties.
The teenage boys were too young to know much about Robbins’ fame, but they knew the key details about that part of his life from YouTube, and from stories their fathers and grandfathers told them. Stories about the kid from Tate High who could hit the baseball a country mile and was unblockable on the football field.
More importantly, though, the boys knew Robbins cared about them. They knew he cared about the little stuff, like how they got to school in the morning or which girl they had a crush on. They also knew he cared about the big stuff, like where they wanted to go to college and what kind of people they were going to become.
Then, there were the adults. They gave the most away. They stared a little longer at Robbins because they all still had clear memories of that one, unbelievable Super Bowl Sunday when the kid from Tate High helped pull off arguably the greatest upset in professional sports history.
You could almost tell the story of Robbins’ life from the way people reacted as he walked across that gym floor seven months ago.
But it wouldn’t quite be complete.
Because you wouldn’t know about what ended up happening with the boys, and how their lives changed over the next seven months, thanks in no small part to Fred and the people closest to him.
And, you wouldn’t know about Tia.
On a Saturday in October, two months before Christmas, Tia Robbins made the rounds at a bowling event in Pensacola to benefit Mr. Robbins Neighborhood, the nonprofit she founded in 2014 with her husband, Fred, a Pensacola native who played for the Vikings, Giants and Rams over 12 seasons.
Mr. Robbins Neighborhood does a lot of things to benefit young, area athletes, but at its core, it gets them to answer one question: “What will you do when you can’t play anymore?”
On this day, she stopped, mid-round, and pointed at her youngest son, 4-year-old Troi.
“Watch this, he really thinks he’s The Flash,” she said. “He really sells it.”
On cue, Troi, dressed head-to-toe like the Scarlet Speedster, froze in place in a runner’s stance. Then he took off, sprinting across the front of several lanes and toward his older brother, 7-year-old Tre.
Tia laughed and kept moving — shaking hands, thanking sponsors for the event and keeping an eye on her boys all at once.
This is a scene that has repeated itself over and over again the next seven months — Tia getting things done with a kind word, a laugh and two little boys in tow. And usually both dressed up like superheroes.
“There was a foundation set for me early on,” Tia said. “Church, family, being involved with the community ... . Those were the values I was exposed to when I was a child, and I take that with me every day.”
What’s key to understanding her is understanding where she came from. She is a second-generation firebrand, following her mother, Deborah Watts, a cousin of Emmett Till, the young black teenager who became an icon of the Civil Rights movement after he was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 following accusations of whistling at a white woman. Watts went on to found the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation and met face-to-face with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year to press him on enforcing a law that allows prosecutors to re-investigate old Civil Rights murder cases.
These are women who think big, and know how to get things done.
“My mother and I are so much alike,” Tia said. “I see it every day. I’m saying and doing things and all of a sudden I hear her voice popping in my head. My mother was always heavily involved with the community, so I think that’s where a lot of this comes from.”
“I grew up in a household where I was always watching my parents fight the good fight, so to speak, and that was something that they passed along to me. I want to make a difference in the community I’m in, just like my parents did, and it’s important to me that my sons see that I’m a strong woman who stood up for the things she believed in. That example I set for them, in my eyes, sets a course for the rest of their life.”
Mr. Robbins Neighborhood is helping set a course for the lives of area teens that could have a generational impact. It has evolved from a three-day camp called “The Game Plan” into a year-long program, now in its first year, called “The Playbook” that incorporates academics, athletics and, most importantly, plots out a course for the futures of local high school athletes that doesn’t necessarily include playing in the NFL.
This year’s group of participants, almost 20 in total, got to listen to speakers from all backgrounds — accountants, doctors, lawyers, ex-athletes — and attend seminars on things like handling their finances, public speaking, picking the right college and how to prepare for standardized testing.
In late April, Tia walked up and down a hallway outside of the Mr. Robbins Neighborhood offices in Pensacola, checked in on a class of boys listening to a presentation on financial literacy, set up interviews with a handful of boys in another room and simultaneously kept an eye on her two sons, who were bouncing off the walls in her office.
“I’m taking them to go see the new Avengers movie later,” she said. “They might be a little excited.”
On this day, several boys in the yearlong session fail to show up for the morning session. It’s frustrating for Tia, and she doesn’t try to hide that part.
“We don’t ever want to sugarcoat things,” she said. “If it’s disappointing, we don’t try and hide that we’re disappointed. Part of this whole thing is being accountable, of being where you say you’re going to be. If you’re not there, you can’t really be a part of the program. You have to be here. You have to be accountable.”
“It’s not an easy journey . . Sometimes they don’t understand how much we expect.”
What gets lost in all of this is that both Fred and Tia, if they wanted to, could lead a much different life — Fred played all but one year of several lucrative contracts totaling upwards of $30 million. Add in that his tastes seem to run more toward big trucks and Jordans instead of Bentleys and Versace slippers, and you get a sense of a man who took pains to protect his wealth.
Tia, if she wanted, could be a stay-at-home mom to her two boys. Or, if she felt so inclined, she could re-enter the private sector and let some lucky Fortune 500 company sign her checks as a public relations and marketing whiz, which was her career before she married Fred.
So why not that life? Why not be that stay-at-home mom, sit back and attend charity functions instead of organizing them?
“I never wanted any part of that life,” Tia said. “That’s just not how I’m wired.”
Connor Brasell knows about being accountable. The junior at Navarre High was there that morning in December with Fred dressed up like Santa Claus, moving tables and chatting about college football games he’s attended with his father, Doug, who sets up halftime shows for bowl games, and about being part of the yearlong program for Mr. Robbins Neighborhood.
“Fred is a mentor, definitely, but to me he’s also like a friend,” Brasell said. “Which I know probably sounds weird, because I’m just a kid and he’s an adult and he’s played in the NFL and won a Super Bowl, but that’s just how I feel.
“To me, a friend is somebody you know has your best interest at heart, who doesn’t just tell you things you want to hear. That’s how Fred is, and that’s how Tia is.”
Brasell is also there in April, showing up early for the class on financial literacy in Pensacola. For everybody else, their day is just starting. For Brasell, it’s a different story. He’s up before dawn to train for football season with weights and cardio, then he’s at the Navarre fishing pier by 5 a.m. for a part-time job.
“I’m tired, sure, but being here is worth it,” Brasell said, smiling. “The stuff we talk about . I mean, I don’t know about the other guys, but it’s stuff I didn’t know about yet. And you’re hearing about it from people that have been through it, who really know what they’re talking about.”
With one year left in high school, Brasell likes the idea of maybe going to school in Mobile at the University of South Alabama, but also knows his mom, Charlotte, wouldn’t mind him staying close to home and going to the University of West Florida.
“You can’t beat staying home when you live in a place like this, because we’ve got the beach,” he said, smiling. “And you can’t beat keeping your mom happy.”
Omari Green, another Navarre High football player, is also there that morning in December. He doesn’t open up quite as fast as Brasell, but he comes around eventually.
By early May, before his high school graduation, he listens to a recording of his first interview and shakes his head in mock disgust.
“I sound terrible!” Green said. “I’ve gotten better at (the talking) part. Much better . but I can still get better at it. Totally different now, though.”
A lot has changed for Green over the last seven months. In December, his plan was to walk-on at Oklahoma State, not far from where his father, Otto, grew up. Now, he’s changed course and will play running back at Huntingdon College in Alabama with several of his Navarre teammates.
“It’s a lot to prepare for, as far as moving away from home and living on my own,” Green said. “That’s where (Robbins) has really helped, because those are things they talk about all the time. About paying your bills. About having a budget.
“It’s the stuff outside of football that you start to pick up on. Stuff like the interviews, about how to speak and how to act. That’s something Fred always talks about. Make eye contact. Speak up. Act right. And when you see the improvement . that’s when you know it’s making a difference.”
Green was tight-lipped in December. Autarius White was almost monk-silent.
While he wouldn’t reveal much initially, the Booker T. Washington senior wide receiver did make one thing clear: Being part of Mr. Robbins Neighborhood is very, very important to one person in his life he does not want to disappoint — his mother, Shea.
“She is the one who wakes me up early, makes sure I’m getting where I need to be,” White said. “She thinks all of this will pay off for me, eventually. She knew it was important for me to be here and I’m rolling with it.”
By April, it’s obvious his mother was right. He doesn’t have to be prodded for answers anymore, and an uncertain future when it came to college in December has been replaced by a concrete plan for the next four years and beyond, hopefully.
“I’m applying to several different colleges,” White said. “And I know I want to get a culinary degree, if possible. I want to be a chef. It’s something I’m really passionate about. Right now, there are some four-year schools I’m looking at, but I might also end up at a junior college.”
White eventually picked a college — he’s going to play football for East Central (Mississippi) Community College in the fall.
“I just thought, going into his senior year and getting into this program was something we needed to do,” his mother said. “He’s not really a person that opens up, and that’s partly my fault because I think he got used to me talking for him. . He had to get used to talking with people and sometimes coming up with things off the top of his head. It’s something he needs to learn, as an athlete or for job interviews or whatever else comes up in the future . you need to be able to communicate.”
Fred’s athletic career was an anomaly, and defined by several deft decisions that propelled him forward.
First, there was the decision to go to Wake Forest. There were schools that were better at football that wanted the 6-foot-4, 317-pound athlete who could play pretty much every spot along the defensive front. But Fred wanted something else.
“It was something my parents instilled in me, to have confidence in what I could do,” Fred said. “And I don’t mean what I can do on a football field. I’m talking about what I could do academically. How could I push myself to be a better student? What would a degree from a school like Wake Forest mean for my future?
“Growing up, I knew if my grades weren’t where they needed to be and I wasn’t doing the right things, sports weren’t even an option. That’s why I’m so thankful for my parents and that they instilled that in me so early. School always came first.”
Fred propelled Wake Forest’s defense from the bottom to the top of the ACC, started every game his last three years and was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2000, where he got the opportunity to learn the pro game under the wing of NFL Hall of Famer John Randle as a rookie.
“In the NFL, sometimes, there’s this thing where the guy ahead of you who plays your position doesn’t want to help the new guy,” Fred said. “That was not a problem with John Randle, because he was not someone who ever entertained the idea that someone could take his spot. The reason he thought like that was because he was one of the best to every play that position, and I’m grateful for that time.”
It was also in Minnesota where he met Tia, through mutual friends. After four seasons with the Vikings, he parlayed that into a lucrative free-agent deal in 2004 with the New York Giants for $20 million over six years.
On Feb. 3, 2008, Fred started on the defensive line in one of the greatest football games ever played — the Giants’ 17-14 win over the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. It’s a game that’s canon among the greatest upsets in professional sports.
“The plan was we just wanted to hit (New England quarterback) Tom Brady, just keep coming at him,” Fred said. “Stay fresh, keep moving and keep attacking.”
And attack they did. The Giants sacked Brady five times, and the pressure they put on him is widely regarded as one of the keys to the historic upset — the Giants entered the game as 12-point underdogs.
Fred married Tia in Destin in the summer of 2009, a lavish affair that was profiled in Essence magazine. He planned to retire after the 2009 season and the end of his contract with the Giants. He was lured back by St. Louis Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, his defensive coordinator in New York, who signed him to a three-year, $11.4 million contract. Robbins played for two more years, then retired.
Fred and Tia moved back to Pensacola to give their family roots in 2012, not long after the birth of Tre, and it wasn’t long until both of them began to think of ways they could help give back to the community.
“If every kid you talk to says they want to play in the NFL, the reality is that’s going to be a very, very low number,” Fred said. “There might be a lot of guys in the NFL that come from around (Pensacola) at any given time, but every year we are lucky if it’s one or two more we add . and some years, it’s none.
“Our intent isn’t to step on anybody’s dreams, which we would never do. What we’re saying to these kids is that they need to have a backup plan. Ask yourself: ‘What’s beyond that part of my life?’ ”
Statistics — both local and national — back that up.
In 2017, out of the 13 high schools with football teams that the Pensacola News Journal covers, there were 273 seniors on the combined varsity rosters. Out of those 273 players, nine (2.6 percent) signed with Division I schools, which is just below the national average of 2.7 percent, according to NCAA statistics. Out of those nine players, only two (0.73 percent) signed with schools from Power Five conferences, where players arguably have the best chance to make it to the NFL.
So, a plan started to fall into place. And with a little help from Tia’s mother, Deborah, things started happening.
″(Deborah) was coming here when we first moved back here, and it wasn’t like she was just coming for vacation,” Tia said. “She was showing up, hosting her own events to give back to the community and opening doors for us, in turn. She walked us through all of the steps to set up a nonprofit. She was instrumental in what we’re doing now.”
What they’re doing now, for the Robbins, always seems to lead to what they’re doing next.
Right now, that means doing interviews with students and their families for the next yearlong Mr. Robbins Neighborhood session — a more rigorous screening process than ever before. In September, those sessions will begin with even more benefits for the students, including customized ACT prep sessions.
And maybe, in December, Fred will put on his Santa Claus outfit again.
And we’ll see the way people look at him, and we’ll start to understand a little bit about this man’s life. We’ll know about his family’s life, and what it means to them to give back.
What it means to care.
What it means for people like Fred and Tia to put themselves out there.
To fight the good fight.
Information from: Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, http://www.pensacolanewsjournal.com