The inflection in Lucas Robinson’s voice has been wavering for the past 17 minutes. Conversation has jumped from family to tattoos to rivalries to grades to war to future plans.
Finally it stops on Robinson’s favorite subject: football.
When asked to describe how he feels to be back on the field after a year away, the Mesa Desert Ridge senior wide receiver speaks with a confidence as strong as his smile is broad.
“The games are just amazing,” he says. “The feeling of being in a game, making a great catch, it’s what we live for.”
That may sound like typical athlete hyperbole, but in Robinson’s case it’s closer to the truth than you know.
Robinson walked away from the game — a game he has loved since he first put on a helmet and pads in fifth grade — his junior year after a family tragedy. Now approaching the end of his high school career, he doesn’t know how he will survive without it.
A BROTHER LOST
On Oct. 6, 2005, Robinson got out of bed with the same numbness and excitement he had awoken with every Thursday for the past month. It was game day for the junior varsity team, and no other day compared to it — the butterflies, the chance to compete, the knowledge that you would be on center stage in a few short hours.
By second period class, though, thoughts of the game had vanished from Robinson’s mind; this Thursday had turned into one of the worst days of his life. A cousin stopped by his science class to deliver sobering news: Robinson’s oldest brother, Army Spc. Jeremiah Robinson, had been killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
“I just broke down crying,” Robinson said.
Jeremiah, a member of the 860th Military Police Company based in Phoenix and, Robinson said, “a role model son for my parents, a role model brother,” was 16 days shy of his 21st birthday.
That school year, Robinson tried to carry on as normally as possible but found he couldn’t, even while playing football. The emotional wound ran too deep, and he had no idea how to soothe it. Robinson, an A-B student his entire life, started skipping classes. He began drinking while hanging out with friends.
“I never got into drugs or anything like that,” he said.
“I definitely changed that year. I lost the drive to do a lot of things. My grades slipped a lot. ... I was mad at the world at that point.”
While the country takes time this week to remember and honor its veterans, including the nearly 3,900 who have died in Iraq since 9/11 — 88 are from Arizona — not a day goes by that Robinson doesn’t think of his brother.
As a reminder a large cross is tattooed on Robinson’s right calf. The cross is adorned with Jeremiah’s helmet, goggles, dog tags, name, dates of birth and death and the words “American Soldier.” Getting the ink has played a big part in the healing process, Robinson said, but it has still been a slow process.
Even after the tattoo was added in September 2006, Robinson, who had already decided to quit football, found himself more depressed than ever.
“I kind of got into the mind-set (going into my junior year) that I just wanted to work and get out of high school,” Robinson said. “Then the season came around. That’s probably one of the worst things I’ve gone through, having to watch the game from the stadium. I only went to two games because I couldn’t handle it. It would drive me nuts. I had people constantly tell me, ‘We need you out there.’ ”
Shortly after the season ended, Robinson decided he needed football as well.
“He came to me in December and asked if he could play,” Jaguars coach Jeremy Hathcock said. “He missed it really bad. I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ thinking in my mind, ‘Whatever.’ ”
Much to the coach’s surprise, Robinson was there on the first day of workouts this year and has been at all but two practices since. (He was excused from those to visit his only other sibling, Jake, who recently completed basic training in the Marines.)
“I can’t thank (Hathcock) enough for letting me back on the team,” Robinson said.
ON THE FIELD AGAIN
Robinson’s return has been mutually beneficial. Because of football, the 18-year-old is smiling these days. He is again waking up numb and excited on game day, and his revived morale has lifted the spirits of those around him.
“He has been a real strength for our family,” his mother, Amy, said.
“He has overcome a huge obstacle losing an older brother, and he’s done very well. He’s a well-adjusted boy and we’re very proud of him.”
And his grades are back to where they used to be.
“I’m getting two B’s and two A’s,” Robinson, who is hoping to land an electrician internship through the East Valley Institute of Technology, said proudly.
He’s also getting an A on the football field, his coach said.
“He’s been the hardest worker we’ve had bottom line, without a doubt,” Hathcock said. “He comes to work every day. Kids who are maybe more gifted don’t (work hard) because we’re at Desert Ridge so we don’t really know that mentality. He brought a blue-collar attitude to us. That’s been nice.”
It’s paid off during games. Robinson is third on the team in receptions (51), receiving yards (699) and touchdowns (five) and is quarterback Josh Cain’s go-to guy in the clutch.
“I played with him sophomore year, so I kind of missed him (last year),” Cain said.
“He’s one of the key receivers that I’ve always trusted, always thrown to. This year he’s been a big asset to the team, making key catches, running key routes. He’s probably one of the reasons why we have a winning record this year.”
The Jaguars are a school best 6-4 this season and Friday will host a playoff game for the first time.
“To have him play again and do so well and the team do so well, we’re very, very excited,” his mother said.
Robinson is counting on that game not being his last. He’s not ready to let go of the game just yet.
“Football is really important,” he said. “I’m kind of nervous. After football, I don’t know if I’m going to go back to my old ways, if my grades are going to slip. I’m really focusing on finishing out my senior year. Football is basically keeping my drive going right now.”