MONROE — Johnny Robinson stuttered, swallowed, paused, then looked across the room.
Pictures of the former Kansas City Chiefs safety hung on the walls.
There he was, sitting on the turf of Tulane Stadium in Super Bowl IV, gripping a recovered fumble against his red No. 42 jersey with his right hand, raising an index finger in the air with his left.
In another, Robinson is laying out former New York Jets receiver Don Maynard, an image that captures Robinson’s reputation for being one of the most hard-nosed defenders of his era.
A painted profile hung above a desk. In it, Robinson’s brown eyes gazed boldly outward, his mouth curved in a closed smile and his jet-black hair slicked back in the style of the 1960s.
Robinson, 80, still slicks back his silver hair. His softened gaze flicked about the room as he puffed out short breaths because he was thinking, thinking.
He said he does more thinking than speaking now, especially on days when he’s most affected by aphasia — that speech-halting sickness that lingered after a stroke he suffered following quadruple bypass surgery nearly 10 years ago.
Robinson fought through that stroke, and he beat the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and thyroid cancer that followed within the same year.
He was a champion, remember? A member of LSU’s All-Century Team, part of the Tigers’ fabled White Team backfield with Billy Cannon that won the 1958 national championship.
Robinson had been a profound speaker, the play-caller on a legendary Chiefs defense who redefined the safety position in a 12-year professional career, the NFL scout who withdrew from the height of fame and eventually became a police chaplain in Monroe, where he started the Johnny Robinson Boys Home and found his true purpose: serving and mentoring broken and troubled young men.
Robinson has run the Boys Home for 39 years. He once lived in what is now an office inside the two-story house on 3209 South Grand Street.
Just outside the office, a certificate from Gov. John Bel Edwards hangs in the hall, proclaiming that May 1, 2016, be known as Johnny Robinson’s Boys Home Day because it “has successfully facilitated thousands of youth from all over the State of Louisiana.”
Soon, Robinson will have claim over another day: Aug. 3, 2019, when he will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — a day many believe took far too long to arrive.
Urged by a 2,000-name petition started by AFL historian Todd Tobias and a bevy of letters from other football greats, the Seniors Committee voted Robinson into the Hall of Fame in February.
And sitting in that Boys Home office, thinking, thinking, Robinson turned to his stepson, Bob Thompson, to answer just why it took this long.
“He should’ve been in 40 years ago,” said Thompson, who now runs the home along with Robinson’s wife, Wanda, and son, Matt. “Nobody knew why or how. We really believe it was God’s timing, because He wanted this. This was his calling and God has given back to him, I believe, as a gift.”
“I agree,” he said.
‘The best I played against’
In mid-October 1959, Hank Stram’s team was losing badly.
The former University of Miami assistant coach watched from the sidelines in Tiger Stadium as the reigning national champion LSU Tigers dismantled his Hurricanes 27-3.
Stram wouldn’t forget the Tigers or their talented tailback, flanker and defensive safety, Johnny Robinson.
When Stram was hired in 1960 to coach the Dallas Texans in the startup American Football League, the franchise signed Robinson to a three-year, $43,500 contract to play tailback and flanker.
By 1962, Abner Haynes had developed into an All-Pro running back and was taking up the bulk of the carries, and Stram had a new idea to better use Robinson.
Stram needed to improve his defense, and by combining Robinson’s knowledge of professional offenses and his history as a safety at LSU, Stram switched Robinson to an innovative free safety position that had more responsibility than other safeties previously had.
Previously, a team’s two safeties generally split the field and played zone defense, Robinson said. But in Stram’s defense, Robinson called defensive plays based on what he saw the opponent’s offense doing.
“I could see everything,” said Robinson, who relocated with the franchise to Kansas City in 1963. “I could see the whole field, and maybe other safeties couldn’t see that. I had played offense. I knew all the offensive formations and what they were trying to do.”
Robinson was known for his impeccable timing in delivering hits and defending passes.
“You were the best I played against,” wrote Hall of Fame wide receiver Lance Alworth, who played for the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys, in a letter to Robinson. “It was always fun to come across the middle (well — not really!)”
In 10 seasons as a free safety, Robinson retired in 1971 with 57 career interceptions, at the time third-most in pro football history.
When Robinson attended a February luncheon for Hall of Fame finalists before the 2019 class was announced, former Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed, who played from 2002 to 2013, introduced himself with thanks.
“We played because of you,” Thompson remembers Reed, a 2019 Hall of Fame inductee, saying.
Life after football
Robinson served as a scout for the Chiefs until Stram was fired after the 1974 season, and he coached defensive backs for the Jacksonville Express in the short-lived World Football League before the league folded in 1975.
Robinson scouted for Stram again with the New Orleans Saints. By 1978, Robinson had gone through a divorce and moved with his two sons, Matt and Tommy (who was killed at age 22 in a 1985 car wreck), back to Louisiana. He became an assistant football coach and head tennis coach at what is now UL-Monroe.
In Monroe, Robinson’s life began to move away from football. He became an associate pastor at Bethany Full Gospel in West Monroe, and the police department hired him to be a chaplain to the local prisons.
Robinson said he met a 10-year-old named Jimmy who had been sexually abused in the juvenile prison, and Robinson eventually gained custody of the boy.
Soon, the Robinson home got to be very full.
“All of the sudden people started calling me,” Robinson said. “After I got about seven kids, they said ‘You have to be licensed by the state.’ “
Once, on his way back from the juvenile prison, Robinson had seen a man hammering a For Sale sign into the front yard of 3209 South Grand. With a donation from friend and former LSU teammate George O’Neil, a successful businessman, Robinson purchased the two-story house and opened his boys home in 1980.
Robinson resigned from coaching and dedicated his life to his new purpose.
Had Robinson been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame before 1980, he said, the Johnny Robinson Boys Home most likely would never have existed.
Perhaps he would have remained in coaching, or perhaps he would have stepped into the sports broadcasting world, as many of his contemporaries had done.
Robinson’s life, he said, would have been “nothing but football.”
“This guy was in such high demand,” Thompson said. “I had Coke bottles with his face on it. He was in the elite. There was no question in anybody’s mind of his status of going in the Hall of Fame. But God had other plans.”
‘He touched my life’
Robert Wagnon has known the influence a father can have on a son.
Wagnon was still a young boy when his father would come home drunk. He would have to group with his stepmother and two sisters to protect them.
His childhood memories are filled with fighting and stealing. One day, a little blue two-door car picked him up from his New Iberia home at age 10 and drove him 200 miles north to Monroe.
The driver led Wagnon across a lawn, into a two-story house, and knocked on an office door.
The driver said “Johnny, here’s Robby Wagnon.”
Robinson sat Wagnon down and looked him in the eye.
“Look, you’re here,” Wagnon remembered Robinson saying. “We’re not going to worry about the things that brought you here. We’re going to work on getting you on the right track.”
Robinson walked Wagnon out of the house and showed him a bicycle rack, loaded with donated bikes from the police department. Robinson told Wagnon he’d have the first pick.
“He touched my life in a way that’s never been touched,” said Wagnon, 45. “The next three years were honestly the best three years of my life.”
Much has since been updated at the facility, which has seven buildings, including a cafeteria, indoor basketball and tennis courts and an off-site classroom built inside an old Alcoholics Anonymous building.
But the living quarters remain mostly the same: spacious rooms with bunk beds connected by a hallway. The rooms have no doors, and chairs are spaced throughout the hall, because the state requires the boys to be monitored at all times.
There were levels of privileges depending on a boy’s behavior, Wagnon said.
Level “Restriction” meant you had to sit on your bed in silence, and if a football game was on television, “you’d be lucky to hear the sound because the door was closed.”
Then there was Level “Privilege”; those boys could ride their bikes around the neighborhood. Robinson’s son Matt took them out fishing and skiing, and on Friday nights, Robinson would take them to the skating rink.
Everyone called Robinson “Dad,” Wagnon said, because that’s who he was.
Robinson was filling a need in the juvenile justice system. The Johnny Robinson Boys Home was one of the first of the 15 such homes in Louisiana today sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice.
Dr. James Bueche, the OJJ’s deputy secretary, said 70 percent of the boys who have been sent to Robinson went on to a conviction-free life within three years — a rate that is more than a percentage point higher than OJJ’s most recent statewide rate.
“These (boys) are a challenge to deal with from a standpoint of providing service in a residential type of program,” Bueche said. “It takes someone who cares about kids, who wants to make society in the state better.”
Wagnon said he returned to a troubled path when he left the boys home in Monroe, but it was Robinson’s influence that eventually righted him again.
He dropped out of high school at 18, left his stepfather’s house and lived in what he described as a “drug house” on Atlantic Street in the New Orleans suburb of Algiers.
“There were times I would think back and wish I could go back to when I was 10 again,” Wagnon said. “When there was normalcy. It was perfect.”
One day, Wagnon left the drug house and called collect to his aunt and uncle in Mississippi asking for help. They picked Wagnon up, he moved in, and after graduating from high school, he spent 20 years serving in the Navy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now Wagnon is a deputy sheriff in Milam County, where he supervises and mentors students as a resource deputy at Cameron Independent School District.
“I can pour into these kids the same way Dad poured into us,” Wagnon said.
In June, Kansas City Chiefs staff members visited Monroe to put together a production on Robinson. Thompson called Wagnon and asked if he’d speak on the phone with the team.
Instead, Wagnon chose to drive more than 300 miles to see Robinson again.
They embraced in front of the house, sat on the porch swing and talked about how far they’d come.
In that moment, Robinson had both his rewards: the upcoming spot in the Hall of Fame, and his influence on another life.
“The talk was a very surreal moment,” Wagnon said. “God knows how to make us feel humble to remind us where we are.”
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