When Matt Robinson points to the body parts he has injured during his college football career, the Maryland linebacker looks like he’s dancing the Macarena. Torn right labrum and torn right bicep in 2011. Torn left labrum in 2012, plus a strained groin. This season, he lasted five games before hurting his rotator cuff, and his mother started calling him the Bionic Son.
“Until I got to college, I didn’t have problems with anything,” Robinson said. “Then I feel like to have all these problems come derail my plan. But I’m still here.”
He has survived, and to Robinson, that matters most. He has fought through a lifetime’s worth of ripped cartilage, pulled muscles, staff shakeups and a positional switch to become one of Maryland’s most valuable players, an indispensable, cerebral field general on defense entering Friday’s Military Bowl game against Marshall. He also represents the last vestiges of the old regime, one of only three current Terrapins to appear in the same bowl game three years ago, when Ralph Friedgen was coaching on borrowed time after getting fired, and uncertainty reigned in College Park.
This summer, though, Robinson was more worried about lasting through camp. Every practice ended with cold baths that numbed his aching muscles and clumpy bags of ice strapped to his shoulders. His eyes were trained on the season opener against Florida International. All he wanted to do was get through August without any setbacks.
“Once I’m there,” he said, “it’s going to be smooth sailing.”
A criminal justice major whose mother, Pamila Brown, serves as a judge in Howard County, Robinson quickly learned to avoid trouble from an early age, even if bad luck kept finding him in college. His earliest goals were to reach the NBA, but in 10th grade, simple mathematics opened his eyes to different opportunities. College football programs simply have more scholarship spots than basketball teams. As Robinson weighed the odds, with the same shrewdness he carries at outside linebacker, he realized he should focus on football.
Robinson was always studious in both sports, and his class notebooks contained equal parts lecture points and X’s and O’s scribbled into the margins. He is quiet on the field, shying away from trash talk or even primal screams after big plays, but he studies enough film to call out certain offensive plays before they happen. Cornerback Jeremiah Johnson, one of Robinson’s roommates, said it’s “kind of like having a coach or a graduate assistant on the field with you.”
Whenever football ends, Robinson plans to enter the coaching ranks, but he still has a fifth season at Maryland to go. Things are more stable now. The team enjoyed its best season under Coach Randy Edsall and enters its first postseason game since 2010. Many players from that victory over East Carolina left after Edsall arrived. Edsall’s rules were stricter, and some took umbrage with them, Robinson said.
Chris Robinson explained the situation to his son another way: “A microcosm of life,” he called it, like a new boss taking over the company. So for those who stuck around — only Robinson, linebacker Bradley Johnson and offensive lineman Nick Klemm will have a chance to play in both Military Bowls, though a handful of others redshirted that season — moving from 2-10 to 4-8 to 7-5 validates their decisions to stay.
“You never want to quit something,” Robinson said. “That’s basically what it comes down to. You want to start and you want to finish at the same place.”
This spring, months before Robinson would finish fourth on the team in tackles and third in tackles for a loss, football threw one more wrinkle his way. Edsall wanted Robinson to switch from safety to linebacker, the same move that failed the year before with Kenneth Tate.
The links were quickly drawn. Both Robinson and Tate possessed the athletic attributes necessary to compete at the second level but still came burdened by long injury histories. Besides, Robinson was still wearing a sling from shoulder surgery. How would he handle rehabilitation and learning a new position too?
“The challenges were significant,” Brown said. “It was really a struggle. After surgeries on both shoulders, that was a despondent man.”
Tate’s predicament — once projected as second- or third-round NFL draft pick at safety, he never rediscovered that success at linebacker and finished his college career hampered by injuries — at first gave Robinson pause, but he soon convinced himself things would be different. He started lifting weights with the one healthy arm and ate voraciously to pack on pounds. This season, Robinson was named the ACC linebacker of the week for his career-high 17 tackles against North Carolina State.
On Sunday evening, with his parents filming from the stands, he walked across the stage at Comcast Center and obtained his undergraduate degree alongside many of the teammates he entered school with years ago. This week, he will start in the Military Bowl, back in the game that once coincided with such ambiguity for the Terps. Before he takes the field in Annapolis, Robinson will think about change, and how he managed to outlast it all.
“That’s just big for them moving forward, whatever they want to do, to say they survived it,” he said. “They were able to stay positive through it and help build the program back up when it was torn down. That’s how I feel. I can’t imagine what they feel.”
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