But instead of a springboard to NFL success that many predicted, Robinson’s performance stands as a one-hit wonder, in a game remarkable enough to inspire a Hollywood movie, “The Replacements,” starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman.
After that game, the Tallahassee native embarked on a different sort of career, one that would repeatedly put him behind bars. A steady stream of convictions, most of them for drug dealing, and probation violations brought him one jail term after another. Together they amounted to an adulthood largely locked away from the game — and the family — he loves.
Finally, at 48, Robinson is happy to celebrate a milestone. Not the 25th anniversary of his brief Redskins career, though he is clearly proud of his three-game stint with the team, especially his role in the 13-7 upset win at Dallas. No, after leaving jail for what he hopes was the final time in 2008, Robinson has marked an unprecedented four consecutive years of freedom.
“I don’t plan on going back to jail,” he said on a recent Sunday, settling his lanky, 6-foot-3 frame into a chair on his sister’s porch. “I’m not trying to live that life anymore.”
Robinson owes his brief NFL career to the hardball labor negotiation tactics that the league adopted in 1987, when it employed replacement players because of its experience with the strike of 1982. No games were played for about two months that year. The players emerged from that strike with a significant pay increase and the owners were left with huge losses in revenue and fan interest.
Five years later, the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement expired, and the players’ union was threatening to strike over the issue of free agency. This time, the league’s response would be different. Its strategy would give disgruntled players more incentive to cross the picket line and provide TV networks something that could at least be called NFL football.
On Sept. 22, 1987, two weeks into the regular season, the players went on strike. But the league announced that the show would go on, with or without athletes anyone had actually heard of. Games resumed Oct. 4.
The scramble for replacement players was on, and the Redskins were ready.
“We went at the whole thing very aggressively,” said Bobby Beathard, then the team’s general manager. “And looking back and hearing some teams talk about it, and even some friends, they didn’t go at it aggressively, I guess either feeling the strike would end soon or it wasn’t that big a deal.”
It was a big deal for the Redskins, who had seen the rival New York Giants win the Super Bowl the previous season and were determined to take advantage of any opportunity to get back on top.
The team’s first priority was players who had been in recent Redskins training camps. They also called every agent and beat the bushes for anyone they thought could play.
The Redskins acquired so many players so quickly that on Sept. 23, they held a practice with nearly 50 participants. One of them was a skinny kid by the name of Tony Robinson who had been recommended to then-Coach Joe Gibbs by a semipro coach he knew in Richmond.
College star falls to earth
Robinson was hardly an unknown. He played college ball at the University of Tennessee, and played well. He had a strong, accurate arm and was elusive in the pocket. As a junior, he led Tennessee to a 7-4-1 record and had the Volunteers up 21-0 on 12th-ranked Maryland in the Sun Bowl before the Terps stormed back for a 28-27 win. To this day, there are Vols fans who rank Robinson alongside the finest quarterbacks to play at Tennessee, including Knoxville deity Peyton Manning.
In 1985, Robinson’s senior year, Tennessee toppled No. 1 Auburn and soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson. The victory landed Robinson on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which blared, “The Tennessee Waltz: Tony Robinson Buries Auburn.”
Three weeks later, however, Robinson’s college football career came to a crashing halt when a pair of Alabama defenders slammed into him and shredded his right knee.
In January 1986, Knoxville police arrested Robinson and his roommate, former Vols running back Kenneth “B.B.” Cooper, on charges of selling just over an ounce of cocaine. There is no dispute that Robinson handed a bag that contained cocaine to an undercover officer. At trial, prosecutors described Robinson as fully complicit in a drug distribution ring. To this day, he insists he was innocent, that he “didn’t know what was in the bag” and that Cooper should have taken the rap by himself.
But Robinson also admits he knew that Cooper was planning to sell cocaine to an acquaintance, and had asked Cooper to leave him out of it. So at the very least he was guilty of a gross error in judgment.
Robinson pleaded no contest to the cocaine charges and eventually was sentenced to nine months at the Knox County Penal Farm. But in the spring of 1987, after he had served six months, Robinson was offered a deal: He would be allowed to pursue a career in professional football if he returned to serve his last three months after the season ended.
Robinson arrived at Redskins Park amid a labor battle unlike any in the history of U.S. professional sports. There had been plenty of labor disputes in the past, but never one that prompted management to hire replacement players.
Washington would become the only team in the NFL never to have a player cross the picket line. When a bus showed up on the second day of the strike, carrying a load of replacements, defensive tackle Darryl Grant punched the vehicle, cracking a window. “I look at these guys as guys who would steal shoes off a dead man,” Grant said later that day.
Nevertheless, the “Scabskins” forged ahead, and may have bonded more quickly because, as replacement safety Skip Lane put it, “we had the Hogs outside wanting to kill us.”
Gibbs and his staff took their playbook and, according to Beathard, “simplified it, and made it much, much easier for these guys to get in, study it and digest it all.”
Robinson might have had an easier time than most because his first stop after prison was the semipro Richmond Ravens, who ran their own version of the Redskins offense. But as Robinson sat out nearly the entire first week of practice, waiting for an NFL-mandated drug test to come back clean, fellow quarterback Ed Rubbert claimed the starting job.
Rubbert acquitted himself well in the replacements’ first game, even if only 27,728 people, about half the normal RFK Stadium crowd, were there to see them beat a St. Louis Cardinals team that had several regulars in its lineup.
It was the first time since 1966 that the stadium was not sold out for a Redskins game, but it was a huge throng compared to crowds in pro-union cities such as Philadelphia (4,074) and Detroit (4,919).
The fans who showed up at RFK Stadium were surprisingly supportive of the replacement Redskins. That moved defensive back Charles Jackson to state exuberantly, if erroneously: “We are the official Washington Redskins. We represent the entire state of Washington.”
The following week, the Redskins scored an even bigger divisional victory, beating the Giants, 38-12. New York fell to 0-4 while Washington improved to 3-1.
Then came Dallas. But the strike was ending, with the players’ union defeated. It would be the third and final week for the replacements, and the Redskins would play on Monday night, Oct. 19. It was one last chance for most of the players to make an impression. For Robinson, who hadn’t seen the field in the first two games, it was his only shot. But for a time, it was unclear whether the Redskins’ replacements or their regular players would face the Cowboys.
One last chance
The regular players had returned to work, hoping that a deal could be reached to let them play right away. The replacements were holed up at a nearby hotel. Gibbs had two teams on his hands, neither of which he could prepare to play Dallas.
The Cowboys didn’t have the same problem. Many of their stars already had crossed over to join the replacements. Defensive tackle Randy White bolted on the first day and was eventually joined by defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones and quarterback Danny White. Even running back Tony Dorsett caved, after previously calling Randy White “Captain Scab.”
In all, the Cowboys would face the Redskins with six starters, including two future Hall of Famers, and 21 players from their regular roster.
The game turned out to be a mismatch, but not in the Cowboys’ favor. Dorsett fumbled twice in the first quarter and the Redskins’ defense was dominant, especially in the early going. Washington intercepted quarterback Danny White once and sacked him six times. Dallas did not take a single snap inside Washington territory in the first half.
Late in the first quarter, Rubbert hurt his shoulder. As Robinson recalled, Gibbs “looks at me and says, ‘You ready?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I’m ready. Let’s go.’ ”
With little practice time and no NFL game action, Robinson calmly executed the offense. He did throw two interceptions — a fact that brings an incredulous reaction from him when it is brought up 25 years later — but they did not lead to any points for the Cowboys. He completed 11 of 18 passes for 152 yards, drawing praise from a game announcer for his ability to remain “very cool under tremendous pressure.”
Robinson said he just “took it as a challenge. No pressure or nothing, just a challenge, and being confident in myself that I could get the job done.”
A last-ditch Cowboys drive ended at the Washington 13-yard line, and Robinson took the final snap. He and his teammates sprinted jubilantly to the locker room, where Gibbs told them, “This is one of the most exhilarating nights we’ve had as Redskins.”
The replacement team had done its job, going 3-0. The regular Redskins took it from there. They finished the season 11-4 and won two playoff games to reach the Super Bowl, where they trounced the Denver Broncos, 42-10.
The newly crowned champions gratefully voted their counterparts full playoff shares, which worked out to $27,000 apiece, but the replacements did not receive Super Bowl rings.
Some of Robinson’s teammates were able to stick with the Redskins for the rest of the season, including Rubbert, who was placed on injured reserve. Robinson was let go. He tried, but failed, to latch on with the Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers and with the Canadian league. It was time to go back to prison.
That was where Robinson watched Washington’s Super Bowl win. At least he made some money on the game. Other prisoners “were betting me John Elway was gonna beat the Redskins,” he said. “I took all bets, I sure did.”
Robinson was released a few weeks later, but no amount of wishing he was free of the Tennessee courts could make it true.
The Richmond Ravens called. Trouble was, Robinson was supposed to stay in Tennessee. To hear Robinson tell it, he and his parole officer “didn’t see eye-to-eye,” although he admits: “I was wrong for leaving the state. I didn’t have permission to leave.”
In May 1989, Robinson was arrested for violating the terms of his release by using cocaine and marijuana.
Four months later, he was picked up by police at Fairfax High School for violating his parole. He had joined the Virginia Storm of the now-defunct Minor League Football System. He was sent back to prison and served his time, but was sent back again in 1991, this time on a forgery conviction.
Robinson finally left the Tennessee prison system in 1993 and wasted little time heading back home to Tallahassee. His criminal record there picks up in 1995. It runs until 2006, with 25 separate entries. Possession of drugs and/or paraphernalia are by far the most common charges.
He said he was trying to pick up honest work, mostly tying steel at construction sites, but fell into an all-too-common pattern. “I get a job, and all of a sudden, we finish the job or something like that, and wouldn’t have any work,” Robinson says. “Money’s short, so I just fall back on what I know I can get some money. Fast, easy money. That just kept happening.”
Robinson’s brother Frederick, who employs him as a painter, said, “Maybe he had to grow up a little bit, grow up as a man, and stop all the childish things, running the streets a whole lot.”
The final set of charges on his record landed him in prisonuntil May 1, 2008. That day, he walked out of prison and he hasn’t been back.
“When you gonna let us see your Super Bowl ring?”
One of the many children in pads and cleats is running after Robinson, hoping for a glimpse of the glory he’s heard associated with his new coach.
The quarterback who marched the Redskins up and down Texas Stadium all those years ago is currently the offensive coordinator for the Country Club squad in Tallahassee’s Pee Wee league, and he is surrounded by family. His brother Broderick is the team’s defensive coordinator. Brother Frederick has a son who also helps coach the team, which is headed up by a longtime acquaintance of Tony’s, a rival from their high school days.
One day, Robinson said, he could see himself coaching a high school team, but for now he wants to make sure people can say, “Tony hasn’t been in trouble for a while. Tony’s been doing good now.”
“I’ve just been living under the radar, just working, just surviving, you know what I mean? I’m just now starting to step back out and let people know I’m in town,” Robinson added.
Now, when he encounters his old running mates from the streets, things go a little differently.
“You see, when people haven’t seen you in awhile, they think you’ve been locked up, that you were in jail,” Robinson explains. “But I haven’t been in jail.”
He repeats the thought with a laugh. “I haven’t been in jail.”
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.