It only took 39 years, but former Kansas City Chiefs safety Johnny Robinson is finally going to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, according to Vahe Gregorian of The Kansas City Star.
Robinson’s pending induction will be officially announced during the annual NFL Honors telecast on Saturday. He’ll don his gold jacket for the first time at the annual induction ceremony this summer in Canton, Ohio.
Robinson’s selection to the Hall has been a long time coming. Nominated as a regular finalist six times between 1980 and 1986, he was passed over each time. Some have suggested that this represents a bias against former AFL players among Hall of Fame voters — and back in the 1980s, there might have been some truth in that — but it’s hard to deny Robinson’s qualifications to be named one of pro football’s greatest players.
He was a member of the original AFL Dallas Texans team that would become the Chiefs when the team moved to Kansas City in 1963. He played at flanker for two seasons — he had been an all-SEC tailback for Louisiana State University — gaining 1870 yards from scrimmage and scoring 15 touchdowns in 1960 and 1961.
In 1962, the Chiefs moved him to safety. Over the next ten seasons, Robinson had 57 interceptions — more than at least 15 other players who have been named to the Hall. He played on three championship teams: the 1962 Dallas Texans and 1966 Kansas City Chiefs that won AFL Championships, and the 1969 Chiefs team that won the final AFL championship and went on to defeat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
He played in three of the most famous games in pro football history: the double-overtime AFL Championship game against the Houston Oilers in 1962, the very first Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers after the 1966 season, and the double-overtime divisional playoff against the Miami Dolphins on Christmas Day 1971.
That game would prove to be Robinson’s last. Speaking to me from his home in Monroe, Louisiana this week, Robinson’s most vivid recollection of the game was the injury he suffered.
“My injury occurred before halftime,” Robinson said. “The Dolphins had Paul Warfield, who was a great receiver and very fast. Paul was running a slant route across the middle of the field. I went to pick him up in coverage, and as I turned, I felt like I had been shot in the leg. I could actually hear (and feel) my groin muscle on the inside of my leg tearing. The pain was horrible.”
In the 21st century, there wouldn’t be any question: Robinson would have been out of the game. But this was still the 20th century, and they had to see if Robinson could come back to the game.
“I was taken into the locker room for an examination,” he recalled. “I received several shots of Novocaine in that area, but it wouldn’t stop the pain. I stayed in the hospital for a few days. Little did I know how long it would take to heal — and little did I know that it would end up being my last game to ever play in the NFL.”
Johnny Robinson was born in 1938 in Delhi, Louisiana — the second son of W.T. and Mattie Robinson. In 1948, W.T. “Dub” Robinson would become the men’s tennis coach at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge — a position he would hold until 1974.
So LSU (and tennis) would be a big part of Johnny’s life. He attended LSU’s Laboratory School (known as University High) where he was an all-state football, tennis and basketball player. After graduating in 1956, he committed to LSU, where he played both football and tennis — winning an SEC singles tennis title in 1958, and another in doubles tennis with his older brother Tom in 1959.
Robinson told me that while he continued to play tennis throughout his career to stay in shape during the offseason, he never regretted making the choice to play professional football.
“I never regretted playing football over tennis,” he said. “I never considered myself that caliber of a tennis player, although I had some success in college at LSU.” Besides, he said, “Tom was a better tennis player than me.”
In fact, Tom Robinson won a Louisiana state tennis title — or had been ranked first in the state — in every age division from the time he was 15 through his retirement from the game. In 2015, he was inducted into the Louisiana Tennis Hall of Fame.
And as it turned out, Johnny made the right choice.
If you look up Robinson’s football statistics from his time at LSU, they don’t seem that impressive; he had just 1316 scrimmage yards and 12 touchdowns between 1957 and 1959. But it’s important to note that in LSU head coach Paul Dietzel’s platoon system, Robinson split carries with another running back: none other than the great Billy Cannon.
Between them, the duo gained 1533 yards and 16 touchdowns in 1958 — when LSU went undefeated and won the national championship — and 1256 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns in 1959.
Cannon spent more time in the spotlight, but Robinson had his moments. Against Tulane in 1958 — the last game of the season — Cannon was held to just 41 yards in the first half, and LSU led just 7-0 at the break. But in the second half, Robinson exploded for four touchdowns as the Tigers cruised to a 62-0 victory to close the season. United Press International named Robinson their Back Of The Week.
Both Robinson and Cannon would be drafted by teams in both the NFL and the brand-new AFL. Robinson was drafted in the first round by the AFL’s Texans, and in the first round (third overall) by the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Cannon (who had won the Heisman Trophy in 1959) was chosen by the Los Angeles Rams as first-overall pick in the NFL draft, and by the Houston Oilers in the first round of the AFL draft.
The Rams and Oilers had to go to court to settle their competing claims for Cannon, and he ended up playing for the Oilers. Cannon’s story wasn’t unique. In those early days of the AFL-NFL rivalry, the two leagues often battled over players both wanted. Big contracts were offered, and sometimes nefarious tactics were utilized to keep a player out of reach of the other league.
But none of that was necessary for Robinson.
“It was very simple for me,” Robinson told me. “I didn’t like the idea of playing way up in Detroit in the cold. I signed when the Chiefs’ franchise was the Dallas Texans, and it was warmer to play in Dallas — and much closer to my hometown of Baton Rouge.”
As he had done in college, Robinson played on offense for the Texans, gaining 1069 yards from scrimmage — averaging 7.7 yards per touch — and scoring eight touchdowns as a flanker in his first season. But the Texans also had the great running back Abner Haynes on their roster, and in 1962 — now with two new rookies in tight end Fred Arbanas and fullback Curtis McClinton — head coach Hank Stram decided to move Robinson to defense and play him at safety.
It was an inspired move.
Only 14-14 in their first two seasons, the Texans would finish 11-3 in 1962, and win the AFL Championship — due in no small part to Robinson. He intercepted four passes during the season, and in the championship game against the Oilers, he would intercept two more in a thrilling double-overtime victory — one of them picked off in front of his old LSU teammate Billy Cannon.
Over the next nine seasons, Robinson would terrorize opposing offenses with his hard hitting and his instinct for the ball.
Last August, Hall of Fame AFL receiver Lance Alworth explained to the Talk Of Fame podcast why Robinson deserved to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I used to laugh and say Johnny’s the only guy that was in the right place in the wrong time… for us,” he said. “I don’t think you can say any more than that.”
Except that Alworth had lots more to say.
“He knew the game so well, and he understood the game so well, that when you were running patterns against him, he saw the whole pattern. He didn’t just see people coming into a zone or coming into his area. He immediately knew what was happening with the flare-action the backs were using and the routes that the outside receiver and tight end were putting together.”
Alworth even wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame supporting Robinson’s bid for the Hall of Fame.
“Simply put, Johnny Robinson is one of the greatest safeties that I ever faced,” Alworth wrote. “In fact, I can’t think of any that I’ve seen in the 50 years since that have been better. When we ran cross patterns against Kansas City, I knew that I was going to get hit hard. I had to prepare myself specifically for him, both mentally and physically.”
In 1966, Robinson led the AFL with 10 interceptions as the Texans — now the Kansas City Chiefs — won their second AFL Championship and faced the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I. The Chiefs lost the game, 35-10, but would return three seasons later after winning the last AFL Championship to face the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
Robinson demonstrated another one of his qualities in that game — his toughness — famously playing with three broken ribs, and still recording a fumble recovery and an interception in a 23-7 Chiefs victory. The game was played in Tulane Stadium — the same stadium where he had such an electrifying performance for LSU against the Green Wave in 1958.
The game also produced an iconic photograph.
There are now three future members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the picture.
In 1970, Robinson would once again lead the league in interceptions — but this time, it was the modern NFL that was created when the AFL and NFL merged after the 1969 season. Robinson thus became the only player to lead both the AFL and NFL in interceptions. Then came the 1971 season — and the looming showdown with the Miami Dolphins in Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium on Christmas Day.
While the game would turn out to be a turning point for both the Chiefs and Robinson, he agrees with the oft-stated opinion of Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt: the 1971 squad was the best one the franchise ever fielded.
“I believe that we were the best,” Robinson said. “There really weren’t any weaknesses on our defense. Our linemen, linebackers and corners were great. I think time and statistics have proven just how great we were as a defense. We were very balanced on both offense and defense.”
Hunt and Robinson have it right. In 1971, the Chiefs ranked eighth in offense and fifth in defense. The team sent eleven — eleven! — players to the Pro Bowl. But with Garo Yepremian’s field goal in the second overtime period on Christmas Day, the tide finally turned against the Chiefs. The Dolphins would lose the Super Bowl that season, but return the following year and complete the only undefeated season in NFL history.
The Chiefs wouldn’t return to the playoffs for fifteen long years.
Now 80, Robinson still has his memories of the game he played so well. I reminded him of the social upheaval that was taking place outside his 1960s locker rooms, where his team was being led by Hank Stram — a coach who was well-known for being blind to race.
“We didn’t have any problems,” he responded. “We were all teammates. All of us. And, we treated each other with great respect and dignity. I share a common bond with my teammates that no one else can take from me. I believe that our friendships endure, even though time has passed and we don’t get to see each other that often — except for maybe a team reunion now and then.”
I asked him about the best player he had ever seen, and the best he had ever played against.
“I really can’t name just one single player,” he replied, “because there were some great ones playing at different positions. Of course, I always thought very highly of Chargers receiver Lance Alworth, and the Dolphins had receiver Paul Warfield who was so fast. The Texans had Abner Haynes and the Bills had O.J. Simpson. Both were tremendous running-backs and very athletic. Of course,” he added, “I played on a team that had some of the greatest football players to ever play the game.”
That much is true. With Robinson’s election to the Hall of Fame, there are now eight Chiefs players from the 1969 championship team in the Hall of Fame: Len Dawson, Curley Culp, Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, Emmitt Thomas and Jan Stenerud have previously been inducted.
Perhaps... someday... Otis Taylor will become the ninth.
Robinson said he sees a lot of differences in the game being played in the NFL today.
“Certainly, the protection that players get while playing the game today — because of rule changes — has been significant,” he said. “When I played it was more physical in the respect that a defensive back could contact (or bump) a receiver all the way downfield until the ball was in the air, then you could not touch him until he touched it. Now a defensive back can’t touch the receiver after five yards.”
A lot of old-school NFL players think that’s an unwelcome change — and Robinson doesn’t disagree. “As an old defensive player,” he said, “I liked being able to contact a receiver going down the field.”
But in Robinson’s mind, some of the changes are positive. He mentioned something we rarely think to mention when we talk about how much placekicking has improved since Robinson’s playing days.
“I think moving the hash marks on the field has been a big change to the game that a lot of people don’t think about. When I played, the kickers had to kick at more of an angle from the wider hash marks.”
And he supports the rule changes that have made the game safer.
“Another big change is that a defensive player can’t lead with his helmet for helmet-to-helmet contact,” he said. “I think the helmet-to-helmet contact rule is a good rule [for] the safety of players.”
His attitude isn’t surprising, because for nearly four decades, Robinson has devoted himself to the welfare of others. After a divorce and a stint as an assistant coach with the Jacksonville Express of the short-lived World Football League, he was lost — drinking too much and seeing no purpose in his life. But then one day, he chanced his way into a Florida church and re-established his religious faith.
He returned to his roots — and Louisiana — where he became the assistant football coach (and head tennis coach) at Louisiana-Monroe, and eventually became an ordained minister.
And then there was another chance encounter.
“I was an associate pastor at a local church and had the opportunity to meet a ten-year-old boy who had been placed in a state juvenile prison located in town,” he told me. “I found out that the boy had been horribly abused by older boys there.”
“I drove by a large home just as a realtor was placing the For Sale sign in the yard. I knew at that moment that I would be taking a different course in my life. I was able to purchase that home and founded the Johnny Robinson’s Boys Home in 1980.”
His brother Tom — then an ophthalmologist — helped Robinson get it started, as did his old teammate Billy Cannon, who had become a dentist. Tom helped with financing, Billy provided dental care for the boys who lived there — and both helped raise more money. Later, Alcoholics Anonymous would contribute a building to the enterprise, and there would be a grant from NFL Charities, too.
Today the Johnny Robinson Boys Home has 30 full-time employees, and houses about 30 young men who have been abused, neglected or are otherwise at-risk.
“I’m eighty years old and I still go to work every day at the Boys Home,” said Robinson, who wears his Super Bowl IV ring on one hand, and his 1958 National Championship ring on the other.
“I feel that I have lived a very blessed life, and I am fulfilled.”