ANN ARBOR — During a nationally televised hockey game earlier this season, the cameras zipped away from the players on the ice at Yost Arena and zoomed in on the University of Michigan student section.
A smiling, dreadlocked student bounced in the middle of the flock. But he wasn’t singled out for the enthusiasm he seemingly radiated.
Denard Robinson, quarterback on the Michigan football team, had been recognized again.
Five months after hitting Roy Roundtree for the winning touchdown against Notre Dame. Less than six months before he gave an impassioned speech at the Big Ten football kickoff luncheon in Chicago, and less than 10 months before his final regular-season game with the Michigan football team on Saturday at Ohio State.
Consider this Robinson’s swan song, though he was reticent to talk about that this week.
“I try to keep it away, and I try not to think about it so much, as far as feelings,” Robinson said. “I just try to think about this as a big game, and I try to make the most out of this opportunity.”
Offensive lineman Patrick Omameh spoke of the spotlight that seems to trail Michigan’s quarterback-cum-ambassador.
“It’s a lot of [the attention] that you get, being so high-profile,” Omameh said. “He’s a humble guy. He’s a smart guy. He seems like he takes it all in stride.”
Robinson’s personality, more than his football skills, could be a byproduct of his gratitude. In Chicago, Robinson talked candidly about his hardscrabble upbringing in south Florida, as well as the death of his brother and having college football coaches visit him at his grandparents’ house — because he was self-conscious about his own neighborhood.
“Where I came from, it was easy to do the wrong thing, quit school, do drugs, live the street life,” Robinson told the audience. “It's tough to do the right things.
“You may not know, my freshman year of high school I was ineligible to play spring football because of my grades. It would have been easy for me to give up and fall into what all the other students were doing. But it was my choice to be different. To be uncommon.”
Tom Dienhart, a senior writer and analyst with the Big Ten Network, can’t immediately think of another quarterback who has had such a unique influence. Maybe Tim Tebow, the former Florida quarterback who now plays for the New York Jets. Dienhart can’t recall a player as candid, either.
“I got the feeling, listening to Denard that day [in Chicago], of the gratitude he had for the opportunity he got at Michigan, and the doubters he had in his life,” he said. “I got the feeling that he’s motivated to succeed at many other levels in life, other than just football, and that his background and his motivation makes him get the most out of this experience.”
Robinson’s athleticism was evident in Michigan’s 42-17 win against Iowa. Robinson ran the ball. He handed it off. He caught a few passes too.
And the record books continued to swell, playing in a pro-style offense Michigan coach Brady Hoke tailored to bring out Robinson’s speed and versatility.
To date, Robinson holds the NCAA single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,702 yards, set in 2010), and is third in the NCAA and holds the Big Ten all-time mark for career rushing yards by a quarterback (4,273 yards). Robinson also holds Michigan’s record for career offensive yards (10,547 yards) and has the top eight total offense games in school history.
And Robinson missed two games because of an injury to the ulnar nerve in his right arm, suffered in a loss at Nebraska.
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said after the Wolverines’ 38-31 win over Northwestern on Nov. 10 that he saw Robinson’s enthusiasm — even when Robinson couldn’t do anything to directly affect its outcome.
“To see his actions when he wasn’t playing is why you think more of him than you could possibly think,” Mattison said. “He truly is into that game, and he truly is trying to lead when he’s not out on that field. It just keeps reinforcing how fortunate you are to have a Denard Robinson.”
Robinson is known for a certain energy that surrounds him.
“He always brings everything to practice, and sometimes it’s annoying,” Wolverines defensive end Craig Roh said. “But most of the time, it’s great to see it, that someone is always able to keep coming back again and again with that great, positive attitude he has.”
Yet without Robinson, where would the Michigan football program be?
“He’s the guy that’s sort of bridged the gap between the dark days of Rich Rodriguez and the revival of the program,” Dienhart said. “He’s got the galvanizing personality, and he’s a guy whose skills I don’t think the university or the Big Ten has ever seen a player like that before, who’s dominated in that way.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.