Tony Robinson, whose brief but brilliant career as a Tennessee quarterback was cut short in 1985 by a torn ACL and a subsequent drug conviction, trotted onto Shields-Watkins Field as a competitor for the first time in 28 years as part of an alumni game staged during halftime of the Orange & White scrimmage.
Showing they love him for what he did on the field – and forgive him for what he did off of it – the fans gave Robinson a rousing ovation when his name was called. It was fitting. It was touching. Most of all, it was sincere. The term "Vol for life" isn't just a slogan for Big Orange fans, as they showed "T-Rob" Saturday at Neyland Stadium … first when he was introduced, again when he intercepted a pass on the final play and yet again when he was awarded the MVP trophy moments later.
After a brief pause, he continued:
"It brings tears to my eyes just talking about. Not just for myself but for the other guys. We had fun, and it was thrilling to be back on the field, get out there and compete a little. It makes you want to suit up again."
Blessed with a whip for a right arm, Robinson showed during the alumni game that he still has some zip on his throws. That surprised the spectators but not T-Rob, who participates in a flag-football league back in his native Tallahassee.
"It's an adult league, and we've got age 20 on up," he said. "I'm 50, and I think I'm the oldest guy in the league. I played a couple of games during the spring."
Asked how his arm in 2014 compares to his arm in 1985, when he was arguably the most gifted passer in college football, Robinson laughed.
"Ha! Nowhere close to that," he said, "but I can still let it rip a little bit."
He proved that Saturday, completing several passes before closing his MVP performance by making an interception that would've been a pick-six if his Orange teammates hadn't swarmed him as he high-stepped down the west sidelines. So, where did he learn to play defense?
"I wasn't always a quarterback," he said. "I played some safety and cornerback up to my freshman year of high school."
When his high school team's quarterback struggled in the opener, the coach decided to give Robinson – then a lanky ninth-grader – a look behind center.
"My freshman year I played one game on defense," he recalled. "The coaches weren't happy with the starting quarterback, so they put me in at quarterback and I sat him down."
Robinson was thrilled to win the alumni game MVP trophy, noting: "Oh, man! That was great. I was just having fun. It was good that I could still move around a little."
Unfortunately, he drove back to Tallahassee without his trophy. That's because it stands 13 feet, 6 inches tall.
"It's still at the stadium," he said. "I couldn't put it in the truck. I guess the next time I come up I'll break it down or something. Thirteen feet … that's hard to tote right there."
Asked where he'll display the trophy once he gets it back to Tallahassee, Robinson chuckled.
"I don't know," he said. "I don't even think it'll fit in my house. I may take it to my mom's house. She's got high ceilings."
Robinson admitted it was "wonderful" to meet with the other ex-Vols who showed up for the alumni game. Even more wonderful, however, was the affection the crowd showed him during the afternoon.
"If I had to guess I'd say I signed 20,000 to 30,000 autographs," he said. "I wasn't counting or anything but I signed a bunch. I signed before the game and after the game. It was just like when I was playing."
As he left the locker-room area following the alumni game, Robinson was besieged by youngsters pleading for a memento of some sort. Showing patience and class, he distributed his wristbands among several young boys. He gave his cap to another. He donated his gloves to another. Rather than disappoint another little one, he removed and gave away his cleats.
Stripped down, he finally made his way toward the parking lot.
"They were asking for my shirt and my shorts, too," he recalled. "I said, ‘OK, that's about it right there."
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