The 23-year-old rookie from Alabama had impressed in his first training camp with the Commanders, so much so that he was on track to play a key role in the offense along with fellow backs Antonio Gibson and JD McKissic. Robinson offered a new wrinkle as a bigger-bodied, downhill runner who had rare quickness for his size and sound catching ability.
But his future changed instantly when he was shot twice, in the right hip and knee, during an armed robbery attempt.
“When the doctors told me I would be able to play football again, my mind automatically clicked into what I needed to do to get back on the football field,” he said.
On Wednesday, about five weeks after the incident and subsequent surgery, Robinson practiced for the first time, moving one step closer to being activated from the non-football injury list and making his long-awaited NFL debut. Washington has up to 21 days to add him back to the active roster, and his schedule will depend on how his body feels after resuming practice.
It could be as soon as Sunday, when the Commanders host the Tennessee Titans at FedEx Field.
“It’s always a good indicator when a guy really gets his first real workout is how he reacts the next day,” coach Ron Rivera said. “So if we get into it and he practices again like he did today, then we’ll see if there’s any drop-off. We’ve got GPS trackers and they’ll be able to give us the speeds just to see where they are.”
Robinson’s return to the field could be a boon for Washington’s struggling offense. It has also been a shock to the NFL world.
Brian Robinson Jr. should be okay. Don’t forget the victims who don’t want to.
“Getting back on the field, having fun, being around my coaches and team again, it was just a beautiful day for me,” Robinson said.
The shooting took place shortly before 6:00 PM on the 1000 block of H Street NE. Two male assailants approached Robinson, who was able to wrest a firearm from one of them before the other shot him, police said. A firearm was discovered near the scene and the stolen vehicle the suspects used to flee was found about four miles from FedEx Field.
Police released security camera images of the suspects and asked for the public’s help in identifying them. The investigation is ongoing.
Word quickly got out to the Chiefs’ front office and coaching staff that night. Rivera was watching film of Robinson when he got the call. He told running backs coach Randy Jordan, and the two traveled together to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where they were joined by team president Jason Wright and owners Daniel and Tanya Snyder, among others.
“That’s all I needed at that point was the love and the care and the respect from just the situation I was in,” Robinson said.
Many of Robinson’s teammates recalled believing the initial reports were erroneous. They learned of the shooting primarily on social media, and they worried whether Robinson was alive, let alone whether he would be able to recover for football.
“You just see a lot of things in life that happen to you that you can’t control … but how you respond, how you lean into the community, the support you have, the things you learn through those trials — it can help define you and help you grow as a person,” receiver Terry McLaurin said. “… To go through something like he has that was so unimaginable and for him to come back on the other side and be stronger and never lose your spirit … to be a young guy with that disposition and have that outlook on life is definitely one of a kind.”
Robinson’s quick return has been an inspiration to teammates and others — and it’s raised other theories.
“He’s half Wolverine or something,” said colleague Jonathan Williams. “I don’t know. I didn’t know the schedule for it. I’m not a doctor. But nothing really surprises me about him.”
The bullet in Robinson’s knee avoided tendons and ligaments and did not break bones, sparing him a more extensive recovery. He returned to the commanders’ facility a day after surgery, walking with the aid of crutches and carrying a bag of Oreos. The rookie still had a job to do, bringing snacks to his fellow runners.
Because the team placed Robinson on the NFI list, he was required to miss at least four games before returning to practice. But nearly two weeks after the shooting, he was back on the sidelines of the team’s practice field, riding a stationary bike and working with the strength and conditioning staff as the team ran through drills.
Less than two weeks after that, he was back at FedEx Field, running routes as his teammates warmed up for their Week 3 game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
By Wednesday, Robinson was back in a helmet and pads, running through individual drills with his fellow backs and taking eight to 10 reps, according to Rivera’s estimate.
“It’s a blessing for that turnaround to see him back out there making cuts and hitting holes. [He’s been] to hell and back again,” Gibson said.
Robinson tried to join the Commanders’ scout team for a few reps, but was told to take it slow.
“What the doctors [and trainers prescribed] we were out there working out, doing a couple of sets on the side with the strength and conditioning staff and the coaches, and then when he was done they would let him come over and do some work,” Rivera said. “He finished in good shape so he came over and they gave us an opportunity to put him in a smidgen of play every period. He took those plays and looked at it pretty well and like I said because he did so much work, then we’ll see how he does tomorrow. But I think right now he’s in a good place and for us as a football team it’s good to see him back out there.”
One of the more promising signs Rivera witnessed were the few cuts Robinson made that required him to plant his injured leg and forcefully push it off.
“And he did,” Rivera said. “… Sometimes guys come back from injuries and you can see there’s a little bit of hesitation, and if we have a hope that they’re going to play soon, you can’t have that hesitation. It’s funny because he started kind of gradually – I didn’t notice anything different, but it was just kind of a gradual build-up and the more and more he did, the more and more confident I think he got.”
Brian Robinson Jr. was patient in Alabama. Next: The Commanders’ Hinterlands.
With the physical recovery has come a mental comeback that Robinson said taught him a few things about himself. He describes himself as the “King of Adversity” and said this latest hurdle was the toughest he has faced.
“I’m definitely ambitious and I’ll fight for everything I believe in,” he said. “If I believe I can get back on the field and do what I need to do to the level I want to do it, then those are the steps I take to put myself in that position.”
“I want to be a footballer,” he added. “I want to be here.”
Robinson said he is unsure if he will play Sunday. He refuses to look too far ahead. Just weeks after experiencing his lowest point in that hospital bed in DC, he was back on a rain-soaked field feeling stronger than he has before.
“My passion for this game runs so deep,” he said. “… It’s been five long weeks, but it’s a lot of work. We have put in a lot of work during that time. I can say I did everything I had to do during that period to make sure I was here today.”