The Hall of Fame, via Green Bay: Dave Robinson finds his rightful places
Dave Robinson didn’t see any of this coming. Not when he took a scholarship to play football at Penn State University. He wasn’t even looking then, in fact. But the financial aid that brought him to Happy Valley turned into more than a chance to go to college. 50-some years later, Robinson is one of the greats in Green Bay Packers history and, as of last weekend, finally a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Many football players talk of growing up, throwing the ball around in some backyard, dreaming of playing on Sundays. Robinson was fine with a more-ordinary life before realizing his talents were anything but.
“I never planned to play pro football. I never set my dreams or my career towards playing pro football,” Robinson, who earned a degree in Civil Engineering from Penn State, said. “I set my dream for one thing: get that sheepskin (diploma), get a job and get married and raise a family. That’s all I planned to do.
“But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t afford to do it without some help and the help came in the form of a football scholarship. That’s the only reason why I played football. I never thought I’d go pro.”
Instead, Robinson became a versatile outside linebacker for 10 seasons in Green Bay, winning five total championships, including Super Bowls I and II, during the Vince Lombardi era. Robinson, at 6’3 and 245 pounds, was known for his ability to harass passers or rushers in the backfield and also drop into coverage, where he blanketed receivers and generally made life difficult for an opponent’s passing game.
“My approach to football was seek and destroy, plain and simple,” Robinson said. “I understood my job: anything that came outside the tackle-guard gap was my responsibility in the run. I had to close down the off-tackle play, I had to break down the long trap, all those plays to the inside. And if they tried to go outside with the quick pitch or power rollout or power sweep it was my job to stop it.”
“In the passing game my job was to take any back or anybody that came out one-on-one. I had to cover guys like Gale Sayers down the field 30, 40, 50 yards, and I didn’t have a lot of help.”
In his career Robinson tallied 27 total interceptions (21 with the Packers). He was the total package as far as outside linebackers go and, all told, had the skill set that may have transferred to today’s popular hybrid-linebacker position. Robinson says he played his position to its exact definition.
“When we worked out seven-on-seven we worked out with the defensive backs all the time, four DBs and three linebackers,” Robinson said. “Then when we changed to the other seven-on-seven, it would be four defensive linemen and three linebackers. We went seven-on-seven with both; we were truly linebackers. We were supposed to be linemen and also backers.”
Robinson is the 22nd member of the Green Bay Packers to receive a bust in Canton, Ohio, and the 11th player of the Lombardi era squads to go in along with the legendary head coach. He is a three-time Pro Bowler and was selected to his share of All-Pro teams throughout the 1960s. He became a Packers Hall of Famer in 1982.
Drafted in the first round of the 1963 NFL Draft by the Packers, Robinson was also selected by the San Diego Chargers, then a member of the AFL, in the third round. Robinson was set to join the Chargers in sunny San Diego, but the team ran out of signing money after inking their picks from the first and second rounds.
“They said they’d trade me to Buffalo,” Robinson said. “My wife wanted to go to San Diego, she had been to Buffalo and all over the news it said (Buffalo had) 20, 30, 40 inches of snow, so she said, ‘I don’t want to go to Buffalo.’ So I went to Green Bay by default.”
With Robinson’s late wife, Elaine, on board it was off to Green Bay and the great unknown. Truth is, that was what Robinson wanted all along. To him it wasn’t so mysterious.
“Actually I wanted to go to Green Bay all along,” Robinson said. “My theory was, you start with the best and then you can work your way down the rest of the league.
“Here, you’d at least decide what caliber of a football player you are, and luckily I started at the top with Green Bay.”
They may not have totally escaped the whole winter thing, but as is often said after turns of fortune like this, the rest is history. Robinson joined vaunted linebackers Ray Nitschke and Lee Roy Caffey to make up one of the most formidable linebacking trios of that or any era.
He also aligned on the left side of the defense with defensive end Willie Davis in front and cornerback Herb Adderley behind him, a side Robinson believes is “the strongest in the history of football.” Robinson was an irreplaceable part of the Packers’ success during the 60s — he was named a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for that span.
That’s why, as many other members of the Lombardi era Packers got their calls to Canton over the years, he couldn’t help but worry his career achievements wouldn’t be enough for reasons outside his control.
“A lot of people told me the problem was that there were too many Lombardi era Packers in there already,” Robinson said. “I can understand in some respect how they felt that way.”
Still, Hall of Fame-worthy is Hall of Fame-worthy.
“Not to blow my own horn or anything,” Robinson said, “but I felt when I retired from football that I had a Hall of Fame career, and as the years went on you start to doubt yourself more and more.”
Now, obviously, the doubts are gone. They were long ago in terms of his importance to the Packers’ greatness in the 60s, and now they can be in his own mind too. With a lifetime in football, a relatively accidental one at that, plenty of people and coaches along the way steered Robinson in the right direction, convinced him to keep going with football.
Because of this, his Hall of Fame speech was a difficult thing to write, or more specifically, edit. Robinson has too many names, too many people to thank, but a 45 minute acceptance — where it started out — probably wouldn’t fly on an August afternoon. When we met at the Packers Hall of Fame Golf Classic, it was down to 20 minutes. Speaking again in late July, it’s ready. Just like Robinson deservedly is, and has been.
“I re-did it one more time since we last spoke, and I think I like it,” Robinson said. “I think I’m going to stick with it.”
Like football and the Green Bay Packers, when Robinson sticks to something it usually turns out pretty well.