He served from 1956 to 1965 in the Air Force, and “Vietnam” appears on his gravestone. He cared deeply about postal workers’ issues as a two-term president of the Nation’s Capital and Southern Maryland Area Local, leaving his name here and there across news stories of the 1980s. He shared a marriage for 49 years with Dora, and they had two daughters and then two sons-in-law and then four grandchildren, all four of whom he sometimes and affectionately and mysteriously called “Hamburger.”
“He was a sturdy dude, a real thorough dude,” said his fourth grandchild, Ohio State football star Chase Young, and so when Young stood at 13 before the open casket in late 2012 after Carl H. Robinson died at 74 after a long illness, Young tried to halt the tears as boys might do until the tears won with breakaway momentum.
Authentic souls such as Robinson tend to linger vividly in mind, but as Young returns Saturday from a two-game suspension over NCAA questions about a loan he repaid, Robinson will live on in a different way as No. 2 Ohio State welcomes No. 8 Penn State. That’s because Young, a 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end and DeMatha graduate widely deemed college football’s best player and a realistic No. 1 NFL draft pick, reached adulthood and chose to honor Robinson in the 21st-century method of utmost tribute.
He had Robinson’s face and thin mustache and hat and necktie tattooed on his right arm, right around the bend from his considerable biceps, just beside the home area code 301 and beneath a set of stairs and above a further tattoo Young describes. “So basically this is a lion, right?” he said in an interview at the Ohio State football facility in Columbus. “And if you look at his eyes, he’s looking up. So I look at myself as a lion. So he’s looking up, and he’s looking up at my grandfather. And these are the stairs to heaven, and God welcoming him, you know, his hand out. And I’m looking at my grandfather going up into heaven.”
After Young grew up — and grew up and grew up — beyond his parents’ veto on tattoos in a household rich in chores and standards and home-cooked meals, made his own decision and got his parents’ approval, he consulted his teammates. That’s how he came to ride to Cleveland with teammate Jaylen Harris in mid-2018 and seek out the artists at a tattoo outfit called Focused after hearing they had the trust of, for one name, LeBron James.
So Young approached the ink without any nervousness about whether the artist, Jonny Hayden, could achieve much-desired accuracy. “And if you see the picture, [the tattoo] looks just like him,” Young said. “He did it, like spot-on. It was spot-on. Spot-on.”
Young’s mother, Carla, saw it and wept, Chase Young said.
“If he were here now,” Young said of his grandfather, “he would probably have died of a heart attack because he was so excited. He’d be too excited. He’d be bragging, probably, to everybody. I don’t know, I was thinking about if he was here, he’d be excited, though. He’d be at every game. He’d probably leave my grandma [each week] and be like, ‘I’m going.’ My grandma, she doesn’t like planes and stuff, but he was in the Air Force, so he doesn’t trip about no plane.”
After Young followed into the world by about two years his sister Weslie, who would grow up to play basketball at North Carolina Wesleyan, the 13 years and seven months in which Mr. Robinson and Mr. Young coincided in the world mattered deeply, clearly. They would sit on Robinson’s sofa in the upstairs den, watching movies Robinson would study in a prevailing quiet — always, always AMC: “Million Dollar Baby,” “Dances With Wolves,” “The Last of the Mohicans.” Young might fall into a nap, and when he would wake, there would be Robinson, watching on.
Sometimes Robinson would drive to the middle school and collect Young, whereupon they would venture giddily to Checkers and eat in the car. Grandfather things abounded: that gold tooth, some instructions about flossing, Robinson’s impeccable attire, some sort of irresistible knife-fork combo upon the TV in the grandparents’ bedroom that the children weren’t supposed to touch but sometimes did.
Thanksgivings came rich in football debates of fluctuating vehemence between Robinson, a Dallas Cowboys fan, and his sons-in-law, Washington Redskins fans. Those were Redskins days of Jason Campbell and Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts, but one of the debates might have exposed differences of opinion regarding the caliber of Tony Romo. Robinson, an eager debater, did not shelve his opinions at Young’s junior football games. He loathed, for one thing, when kids toyed around with their mouthpieces dangling out, and he shouted with enough candor that, once, the family returned to Robinson’s car to find that some offended sort had slit the tires.
In The Washington Post in August 1984, Robinson said of postal workers: “Our people work hard. It makes for a very disenchanted worker when he is told to his face that he is not worth what he is being paid. It hurts the man on the floor and it hurts supervisors, too, because they don’t get the voluntary performance above and beyond the call of duty that they would get if that worker was appreciated.”
With a sorrow only slight, Young noted they never did get to fish together. Young never got old enough while Robinson was well enough. Yet even that leads to a vivid tale of instruction:
“He always used to say he was going to teach me how to clean fish,” Young said. “That never happened, though. One time, he was trying to teach me how to fish. We had these stairs, the patio going down, and the stairs were down to this door in the basement. Over the steps, it was obviously like, what, like a little fence so you wouldn’t fall, just drop down by the steps. And he would go all the way down on the floor on the ground beside this door right here, and I’d be up here, and I had a fishing pole over it.
“And he would be holding it, he would be pulling on it, and he’d be like, ‘This is how a fish is going to be. This is how heavy you feel a fish is going to be when you try to reel it in.’ And so he would stand there, he would put, like, all his weight on that fishing rod, and I’d have to stand there. Obviously I couldn’t do it, because I wasn’t strong enough yet, but he would just be like, ‘That’s how it’s going to be.’ ”
Years on, on this past Oct. 26, that same grandson not quite strong enough proved strong enough to addle pretty much the entire Wisconsin offense in a staggering performance that shouted Young’s transcendence. And the following Monday he said of Robinson: “Yeah, when I was running over after my fourth sack, I think I felt his presence. And that’s why I just let, put my arms out when I was going to the sideline, I just felt it. And looked up, and I felt he was there. Felt like he’s watching over me.”
At Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery in Maryland, Robinson rests near those who also died in late fall 2012: a Navy veteran of Korea, an Army veteran of World War II, a Marine Corps veteran of Korea, a Navy veteran of the Persian Gulf, an Army veteran of the Persian Gulf, a Navy veteran of Vietnam. Surely all live on in people’s minds and maybe even in a tattoo here or there. It’s just that one, because he was so very much himself, is about to appear again before 100,000-some witnesses, bouncing and romping around the field of a renowned stadium in Ohio.