LAKELAND, Fla. — As the signing day ceremony wraps up at Lakeland High School, wide receivers coach Will Bahler feels his hip vibrating from a text message alert.
He pulls his phone out and quickly realizes his Wednesday is not over.
“Call me,” the text reads.
This comes just minutes after a 1-on-1 meeting between Florida coach Jim McElwain and athletics director Scott Stricklin behind closed doors, where the decision was made to allow 4-star wide receiver James Robinson to sign with the Gators.
UF director of player personnel Drew Hughes reaches out to Bahler and informs him that a letter of intent is being sent to Robinson. His mother rushes up to the school to join him.
“James is almost in tears, mom is crying,” Bahler says.
Robinson signs his LOI in a small fax room with three people present. No ESPN cameras. No hat dance. No auditorium stage. No crowd.
Two days earlier, the administration stepped in to prevent McElwain from adding Robinson to the 2017 class because of his marijuana citation at Ohio State, which occurred on Robinson’s recruiting visit to Columbus. This put Robinson’s childhood dream in jeopardy, and reclaiming it was very important to him.
“When you sign, that’s when the dream becomes reality,” Robinson says. “For most of my life, that dream seemed far fetched. I made mistakes along the way, but people don’t know my story.
“No one ever took the time to sit down, talk to me and understand my life. Where I come from, it’s hard to make it out.”
Robinson was born and raised in Polk County, though he and his family briefly lived in Jacksonville before returning home. After moving back to Lakeland, Robinson joined a little league football team and eventually caught on at wide receiver.
“It just felt like a natural instinct,” Robinson says. “First pass I caught was one-handed. After that, they just kept me at receiver because couldn’t nobody stick me.”
Robinson’s uncle, Stephon Thomas, coached him for his final year of little league. As Robinson’s talent became obvious, Thomas used football as a motivational tool.
“He used to push me every practice,” Robinson says. “One day he told me, ‘You can make it, man. Just keep doing what it takes to get up out of here.’ He knew that was my way to escape.”
Given Robinson’s upbringing, the idea of escaping of his environment fuels his football drive. The road to success looks much more appealing than the streets of his neighborhood.
“I walk outside my house and there’s homeless people sleeping in the building across from us,” Robinson says. “I walk up two streets to the convenience store and on the street in between my house and the stores, there’s drug dealers everywhere.
“I get stopped by police all the time just for walking past that street. My mom tried to move us away when we were young, but we had to come back.”
Robinson chose not to name the individual, but says a college coach started a rumor two years ago that he was a gang-banger. Robinson has vehemently denied the claim, and adds that his neighborhood friends would never let him get involved in the street life.
“I have a couple homeboys in the streets and they never want to see me around that,” Robinson says. “They tell me I need to be at practice. A lot of people don’t know that. I’m just guilty by association. But my friends actually tell me to do stuff right and make my momma happy.”
Robinson lives with his mother, Yolanda King, as well as his grandmother, Peggy King. Both have encouraged him not to be a product of his environment, and Robinson is well aware of the consequences.
“It wasn’t easy growing up,” Robinson says. “Because of what I was raised around, my mom always worried that I would end up like my dad.”
James Robinson III
The absence of a father made Robinson’s upbringing even harder. His dad, James Robinson III, is currently serving a 17-year sentence for drug-related charges.
He went to prison in Texas when Robinson was 5 years old, and Robinson hasn’t seen him since.
“When I was a kid, I felt abandoned,” Robinson says. “My mom was going through hard times, so it was really bad. We struggled, you know, and I never really had a father figure at home to show me right from wrong.”
Robinson’s father has been able to tell him, though. The two eventually got in contact by phone and have maintained a relationship for several years.
“I talk to him every week.,” Robinson says. “It’s tough. We’ve shed tears on the phone just because we haven’t seen each other in so long. I’ve been through a lot and didn’t have him by my side.
“I could be mad at him for it, but you don’t hold grudges. You live and you learn. People make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t love them.”
Robinson admits that he was knucklehead in middle school before football became serious for him at Lakeland. Once it did, conversations with his father centered around fulfilling that potential.
“I was on a bad path, but I had to learn and go through some things,” Robinson says. “But seeing what I see every day and having my dad gone for a long time, something’s gotta give. But I have to do what’s right.
“With him behind bars, he doesn’t want to see me in the same place as him. He stresses football to me. He’s supposed to get out the end of next year and I want his first time seeing me to be on the field.”
Free my pops he never seen me touch a ball .. it's crazy how my life is 😑😐😖
— JAMES ROBINSON IV 4⃣ (@_StunnaJayy_) August 3, 2016
Robinson’s recruitment started and ended — almost literally — with Ohio State.
Following his first season at Lakeland, Robinson and fellow freshman teammate A.J. Davis, a 4-star running back, received a visit from Stan Drayton, an assistant coach for the Buckeyes at the time.
“It was quick,” Robinson recalls, “but he told us, ‘I want to give y’all the opportunity to come play for us.’ So we walk off, think about it, then stop and look at each other like, ‘Did we just get offered?’ I didn’t realize what happened.”
That was the first of 38 offers for Robinson, but he had his eye on one school throughout the recruiting process. The Under Armour All-American always knew Florida would be his pick when the time came to make a decision.
“Heading into that last month, all I could see was blue and orange,” Robinson says. “I wanted to take official visits, but at the end of the day I knew where I was going.”
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Robinson visited Florida on Jan. 13 and silently committed to the Gators during his trip. He revealed his intentions in McElwain’s office in front of his mother and wide receivers coach Kerry Dixon II.
“I was kind of scared to tell them,” Robinson says. “But I was like, ‘Coach, I got to tell you something. I’m coming. You can tell all those other receivers it’s a wrap.’
“Coach Mac was like, ‘I’m glad to have you. This is what we’ve been waiting on. Let’s get this show started.’ At that point, my recruitment was over in my mind.”
Surprisingly, Ohio State assistant Tony Alford contacted Robinson after his Florida trip. He hadn’t spoken to OSU in several months, but Alford wanted to conduct an in-home visit with Robinson and then bring him up for an official visit.
“That whole week he pressured us to start liking them again,” Robinson claims. “I let him know the visit wasn’t something I wanted to do, but he told mom I said it was OK. I felt like he tricked us, but my mom wanted to go so I went along with it. But it didn’t feel right.”
Robinson declined to gives details on the Ohio State incident, but sources close to the situation told SEC Country he and three OSU players were smoking as a group. Robinson was the only person cited for marijuana and received a $93 fine.
“I regret everything I did up there. I wish I never went,” Robinson says. “But at times, I’m glad that happened at Ohio State. I had to mature and figure out what I wanted to do in life.
“Do I want to stay in Lakeland the rest of my life and do what my dad did, or do things the right way and live life without regrets? I had to really look in the mirror and step up.”
Realizing his dream
McElwain initially decided to keep recruiting Robinson after investigating the incident and meeting with him in person at Lakeland High.
But when news of his citation surfaced, the UF administration went against McElwain’s wishes.
“Coach Mac called and let me know he couldn’t take me anymore, and that was devastating,” Robinson says. “It was a tough conversation. I could tell he was shaken up. I felt like Coach Mac wanted to cry. That’s how upset he was.”
McElwain reached out to 18 schools to help Robinson find a new destination, but he had plenty of suitors.
“That Monday night, I literally got 60 phone calls in four hours,” Bahler says.
Most programs were willing to take Robinson on signing day, but Ole Miss is the only one he seriously considered. However, Florida reached back out to him the night before his scheduled announcement on ESPNU.
“They told me, ‘Don’t sign anywhere and just wait, Coach Mac has some tricks up his sleeve.’ But I had to keep it on the low,” Robinson says.
Bahler adds, “There was a chance. I couldn’t put a percentage on it, but the needle was leaning more towards it’s not going to happen. We didn’t know when we woke up that morning.”
Neither did Florida’s graphic designer, apparently. When McElwain got the green light on Robinson and broke the news on Twitter, Robinson’s photo was the only image without an edit that day.
— Jim McElwain (@CoachMcElwain) February 1, 2017
Robinson called his signing a big relief, but he wasn’t able to celebrate the moment with his family, friends and teammates.
“It was a bad feeling,” Robinson says. “I felt devastated. I was punishing myself and just crying because that’s not how my recruitment was supposed to end. But I was still grateful that I signed with my dream school.”
His father, however, did not rejoice at the end result. He feels Robinson should have faced harsher consequences for his mistake.
“My dad was pissed off the Florida Gators gave me a second chance,” Robinson says. “He told me, ‘They shouldn’t have done that. They should have made you learn from your mistake.’ I kind of got in trouble for the same thing he did, so he doesn’t want me following in his footsteps.”
Bahler believes Robinson’s ordeal served as a wake-up call, but acknowledges that his star receiver still has more growing up to do. Some of Robinson’s behavior is not going to fly in college, but he will also be challenged like never before.
“Obviously you want the light bulb to go on,” Bahler says. “Does he respect and listen to me? Yeah. But I’m still his coach, an authority figure. I don’t think he’s ever had a peer hold him accountable. There’s never been a kid here that’s gotten in his face. He’s always been bigger than everybody else.
“It will take one or two older guys at Florida putting him under their wings and teaching him the way. Somebody grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and being like, ‘This is how we do it. You’re going to buy in or get gone.’ That’s what he needs. I think it’s going to take some tough love.”
McElwain went to bat for Robinson because he wants to expose him to the culture, camaraderie and family atmosphere at Florida. He hopes that can make the difference in Robinson’s life.
“As soon as you start throwing stones at somebody for making a mistake, look in the mirror and see if you’ve ever made one yourself,” McElwain says in regards to Robinson. “Yet the most important thing is knowing he’s going to have a great support system here to help him be successful and learn from different things that go on. He’s committed to that.
“We’re excited that we’re going to be a big part of helping him. … The guys on our team itself, they can tell you we truly care, more than just if you can score touchdowns. We have a lot of guys that haven’t even ever played that are learning a lot and are given a chance to be successful and grow in life. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.”
When Robinson was young, he looked up to former Florida running back and Lakeland alum Chris Rainey. Now Robinson is in Rainey’s shoes, with kids viewing him as a role model.
“Every day when I wake up, I tell myself there’s a kid out there who wants to be like me,” Robinson said. “That motivates me a lot. I can’t let nobody down. It’s not even about me anymore.
“I want to make it for the people who stood behind me through the good and the bad — my family, Coach Bahler, the Florida coaches. I want to give everyone a reason to be proud of me.”