Robey finds strength in challenges


Scandal, sanctions and uncertainty.

These are the labels Thursday night’s ESPN broadcasters will use to try to convince you that No. 14 USC’s season will not go so smoothly.

Although stories of controversy, instability and turmoil make for a catchy headline, an entertaining talking point during introductions or a time-filler in case the Warriors fail to show up for their primetime billing, they frankly miss the mark.

If you want a real story — the type that transcends the playing field and forces you to re-evaluate your own perspective on the daily toils of college life — look no further than the remarkable account of freshman cornerback Nickell Robey, a story built on the foundation of love, tragedy, wisdom and commitment.

On Feb. 2 — a day buried by the hype of big-name recruits such as freshman tailback Dillon Baxter and freshmen wide receivers Kyle Prater and Markeith Ambles — a 5-foot-8, 165-pound defensive back from Frostproof, Fla., signed his letter of intent to become a USC Trojan.

But before the ink had time to dry on Robey’s letter, the four-star recruit was dealt the challenge of a lifetime.

Though the Frostproof High School standout’s decision to come to USC was not met with the hoopla and grandiose publicity of the aforementioned crop of talent received, in a town of about 3,000 people, Robey’s cross-country trek didn’t just represent an individual opportunity or a chance to achieve national acclaim, but an unbinding promise between a mother and her child — a promise to follow the heart.

If ever there were a backbone in the budding career of Robey, it was, without question, his mother, Maxine.

From attending daily practices to cooking and cleaning for teammates to helping coaches plan team functions, Maxine Robey was, as her son puts it, “an all-purpose Mom.”

Although she was beloved by friends and teammates for her unyielding warmth and benevolence, it was the wisdom she bestowed upon her eldest child that, to this day, still resonates.

“My mom was just a loving person,“ Robey said. “What comes out of me from her is pretty much the wisdom part — being smart, using my head. She always taught me to make good choices.”

And when it came time for the No. 18-ranked high school cornerback in the nation to make his decision about where he would be taking his talents, Maxine didn’t mince her words when suggesting her son follow his California dream.

“I can remember when I was sitting in the living room, and I was just asking her ‘Mom what do you think I should do?’” Robey said. “She was like, ‘I can’t speak for any of the other colleges, but I know any school where Monte Kiffin and Lane Kiffin are at — and they told me they’d take care of you — I would go with them, because those are some great people.’”

Yet just days after he followed his mother’s advice, the newest member of the Trojan Family tragically lost the person who gave him that guidance.

In what can only be described as one of life’s cruel twists of fate, days after the Robey family informed Lane Kiffin and co. that their son would be attending USC, Maxine — Robey’s mother, mentor and moral compass — suddenly passed away of a massive heart attack.

For an adolescent, the idea of losing a parent is crippling. It is the type of moment that can define you, and in many circumstances, destroy the very existence you thought you had.

In the months that followed Maxine’s untimely death, Robey was forced to shed his label as an incredible athletic talent, and instead learned to cope with a new role: the man of the house.

“I feel like this is one of the tests that made me become more of a man, and had me thinking more about the responsibilities of a man,” Robey said. “You either go up or down and I just skyrocketed up. It boosted me. It strengthened my determination, it strengthened my confidence and also in terms of being just a more mindful person.”

In my mind, the word skyrocket doesn’t nearly do him the justice he deserves.

Despite losing his biggest supporter nearly eight months ago, Robey never waivered on his decision to fulfill his letter of intent — a choice that should be unanimously met with adoration from the entire student body.

Many athletes faced with similar circumstances would have likely asked out of their contractual obligation citing family issues, and no one would have questioned their motives.

For Robey, however, honoring his commitment to USC was more than a binding agreement to the university — it was a promise to his mother. It was a chance to celebrate her memory by following the path the two had always envisioned for him.

Since setting foot on campus, however, Robey hasn’t just honored his mother’s legacy; he has built upon it.

Through an uncommon source of motivation and an unflappable resolve, Robey’s maturation process — from an All-State football star to a promising collegiate phenom — can be seen through the grace in his stride, the compassion in his voice, the devotion to the game in his eyes and, most noticeable of all, the appreciation in his heart.

It is an appreciation, though subtle in nature, that extends well beyond his triumphs between the white lines these past few months. It can’t be fully understood simply by appreciating his capacity to make adjustments on the fly in an intricate Tampa 2 system, or watching him at 18 years of age handle the monotony of media interviews with the utmost professionalism — a rare quality for a young man who has far more important things on his mind.

No, this appreciation goes much deeper.

It is the reflection of a child’s everlasting affection for the woman who helped make him who he is today, and the remembrance he has courageously tried to maintain even in times of great strife and anguish.

“I write ‘Mom’ on my right wrist before I go out to the field,” Robey said. “I just look at it, and it just makes me appreciate my opportunity; it makes me go hard. I get really teary-eyed and riled up. She’s impacted my life a lot, and she’s done it well.”

In our entertainment-enthralled society, exploits of a son’s undying love for his mother often get overlooked. They lack the shock-and-awe value of an NFL franchise suing a college coach or traditional powerhouses seemingly marred by NCAA violations.

But what makes the story of Nickell Robey so applause-worthy is that the freshman cornerback doesn’t need to achieve a single athletic feat during his time at USC for us to all sit back and feel immense pride that he is a fellow Trojan.

While there remains a collective resignation that sports are most fascinating when conflict and salaciousness exists, Robey’s down-but-not-out tale illustrates the illuminating power of renewal and strength of character.

“In the end, it’s great what happened,” Robey said confidently. “Things happen for a reason, and I still don’t know the reason right now, but I am going to keep moving on and we will just see at the end.”

But when Robey’s time as a Trojan comes to an end, regardless of whether he’s accrued any All-Pac-10 accolades or whispers of a Heisman candidacy, he will still hold a title we should all be so fortunate to obtain: an all-purpose person.

It is a title that would surely make Maxine Robey beam from ear to ear.

“For The Love Of The Game” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Dave at dulberg@usc.edu.

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