The Return of Corey Robinson: Changing Notre Dame, Reaching the World

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College Football: Portrait of former Notre Dame Wide Receiver Corey Robinson and his father, former NBA basketball player with the San Antonio Spurs, David Robinson during a photo shoot in front of Hesburgh Library on the ND campus.

Todd Rosenberg / Sports Illustrated / Getty Images

College Football: Portrait of former Notre Dame Wide Receiver Corey Robinson and his father, David Robinson during a photo shoot in front of Hesburgh Library on the ND campus.

When Notre Dame signed Corey Robinson to play football, the Fighting Irish thought they’d landed a late-blooming wide receiver who could help them win some games.

The Irish had no idea they were getting a future student body president. A student-athlete who would become the first sophomore in the nation to make Academic All-America since 2008. An enterprising humanitarian who would co-found a non-profit (endorsed by the NCAA) for athletes to donate athletic apparel to children. A missionary who would spend one summer serving the homeless in Brazil, another summer serving the impoverished in South Africa. A Liberal Studies major whom the school would nominate for a Rhodes Scholarship.

When Robinson left San Antonio Christian High School for South Bend, Ind. in 2013, the Irish had no idea they were getting a global visionary who would touch people on three continents – before graduation.

Now here he is, returning to San Antonio this weekend in a role no one imagined. When Notre Dame (3-6) and Army (5-4) kickoff on Saturday at the Alamodome, Robinson will be on the sidelines as a student assistant coach.

His days of catching passes (65 in three seasons), racing downfield (896 career yards) and scoring touchdowns (7) are over. His impact at Notre Dame and beyond is just beginning.

When Robinson left football in June after suffering a third concussion, Notre Dame lost its best returning receiver, a fine NFL prospect. The school, however, gained a more focused student body president, elected in February, who would change campus culture and extend his influence across the nation.

In October, Robinson organized Race Relations Week with events designed to promote student dialogue about racial justice. He created a mock presidential election for students to vote on Nov. 1 at campus polling stations. He and student government vice president Becca Blaise have advanced sexual assault prevention measures and led an overhaul of the student shuttle system.

“I’m focused on making the biggest impact I can on the team and the university,” Robinson said. “That is taking up all my time.”

Notre Dame Senior Associate Athletic Director John Heisler has never seen anything like it, and he’s been at the university since 1978. In a piece for und.com, Heisler wrote, “ … it’s hard to recall the last time a Notre Dame football player made more of an impact outside the athletic realm.”

Robinson is eager to return home. He was born and raised in San Antonio, discovered by Notre Dame in San Antonio and played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl at the Alamodome. The 6-foot-4 ½ inch son of 7-foot-1 Hall of Fame basketball player David Robinson made national headlines before he graduated from San Antonio Christian. Sports Illustrated dubbed Corey, “The Little Admiral.” Late-blooming David played his first season of basketball as a high school senior, Corey his first season of football as a high school freshman.

Corey and David will make multiple appearances during fan festivities at the Shamrock Series, Notre Dame’s annual home-away-from home game. Most prominently, father and son will address fans at an Irish marching band concert Friday night in front of the Alamo.

The Alamodome last played host to the Shamrock Series in 2009. Notre Dame delivered a 40-14 victory over Washington State for its local and visiting fan base – 53,407 attended the game – and generated $27 million for the local economy.

“I think the economic impact will be similar,” said Valero Alamo Bowl spokesman Rick Hill. “People will be traveling a long way. And you don’t stay for one night. You stay for two or three.”

“I get to go back home to where it all started,” Corey said. “It will be an awesome experience for me.”

The world is Corey’s mission field: the destitute in Recife, Brazil, the children with HIV in Cape Town, South Africa, the homeless in South Bend, Ind.

On the last day of a three-week mission trip in Recife, Corey Robinson lowered a bucket of soap and water beside a shoeless stranger in Derby Park, an urban gathering place for the homeless. Corey knelt beside the man on a ragged blanket, washed his feet and wiped them dry with a towel, inscribed with a verse from Psalm 23.

For half an hour in late June 2014, Corey bathed the feet of men and women, boys and girls, some addicted to drugs, under the watch of a missionary from his home church in San Antonio, Dennis Downing. The footwashing folded into an afternoon of ministry called “Jesus In The Streets.” Corey moved comfortably among the hungry, distributing food, praying for the poor in halting Portuguese, strumming a ukulele and singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

“Whether everyone understood the words or not,” Downing recalled, “I know those homeless men and women could all relate to being on the wrong side of the rainbow, wishing they could find their way home. Here was this giant with the gentle voice, reminding them that they were special enough for someone to travel thousands of miles just to sing to them, serve them a meal and wash their feet. It was powerful.”

One year later, Corey walked through a square in Cape Town, South Africa, hollow-eyed children at his side. A large percentage of girls, he learned, will be raped before they turn 15.

Many are at high-risk of contracting HIV. Parents, he was informed, do not discuss sex with their kids. Corey commenced a game with 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds, who placed their hands behind their backs and tried to figure out who had a bottle cap. After many incorrect guesses, a lesson emerged: Just like you can’t tell who has the bottle cap, you can’t tell who has HIV. The only way to know is to get tested.

The trip to South Africa was part of a study abroad tour Corey made with 15 Notre Dame athletes. On one stop, he played soccer with children in an orphanage. In Cape Town, he provided AIDS education and awareness. Some children were dying. The lesson: sports can be a tool to save lives.

In South Bend, Corey volunteers at a homeless shelter. He’s helped build a house for a family through Habitat for Humanity. At San Antonio Christian, he took two mission trips to Costa Rica, where he delivered soap, toothpaste and clothes, pulled weeds, painted a church and shared Bible stories with children.

As summer approached after his first year at Notre Dame, he pondered his options, among them: lounge on a beach or find someone to serve.

“I didn’t want to go on vacation,” Corey said. “I wanted to make an impact on somebody’s life.” Off to Brazil he went.

Downing, the Brazilian missionary, tells the story of a Corey in a hospital. It centers on a visit to a young mother whose daughter was battling pneumonia and the fear that gripped them both.

“I remember Corey standing there in a room with four beds, a doctor instructing some interns in the background, noise from the streets outside and other patients wandering the corridors,” Downing said. “But Corey managed to focus on the moment. And with his big open hands turned toward heaven, he prayed for Soraia, the mother, and Victoria, her daughter, in the quiet gentle voice of someone who knows that someone bigger and stronger was listening and would be acting on those prayers.

“Victoria was healed. And when she and her mom left the hospital, I know they carried with them the memory of that big gentle man who prayed for them: the American in the yellow Brazil soccer shirt, whose Portuguese was halting at best, but who seemed to know pretty well the one he was talking to.”

Corey possesses an uncommon view of his gifts. He recognizes his musicianship – he plays several instruments, including the keyboards, saxophone, flute and bass – as a means to lead worship. His size and engaging personality are tools to connect with youth, his oratorical skills for preaching the gospel. Like his father, Corey believes his abilities were given for a higher purpose. “He has a heart for God,” David said.

Deep in that heart lies an astonishing zeal for learning. Corey taught himself to play the guitar and drums. Curious about animals, he took an internship in a veterinarian’s office. Intrigued by cooking, he worked as a prep chef in a Wolfgang Puck restaurant. Unable to relax on a family winter vacation, Corey found employment in a pro ski shop.

At Notre Dame, he majored in the challenging Liberal Studies program because it required him to read Homer and Aristotle, Plato, and Thoreau. After returning from South Africa, Corey plunged into a theology class – “War, Peace and Revolution”– and an internship with a nonprofit devoted to understanding climate change. Ask about his most memorable classes and he’ll mention opera. “My teacher was an opera scholar from Italy,” he said. “It was really cool to learn a new art form.”

Corey may be the most inquisitive, scholastically-oriented, servant-minded student assistant in college football. His father is a deep thinker, voracious reader and gifted musician himself, an avid learner who earned a Master of Arts in Administration in 2011 while managing business ventures, philanthropic interests, family affairs, and a minority ownership stake in the San Antonio Spurs. So demanding was his schedule, The Admiral could not begin studying until midnight. Corey, though, manages coaching, school, personal adventure, and community service without losing sleep.

“I don’t know how he finds the time to get it all done,” David said. “He is such a hard worker, so focused, so driven. Whatever goals I set for him, he goes way past them. It blows my mind.”

The best part of college life? So much to choose from. At David’s urging, Corey commenced adventure and exploration. Books. Art. Languages. Cultures. Post-graduate work. Yes, as a sophomore Corey applied to become a Rhodes Scholar, and Notre Dame nominated him as a candidate. He did not earn the scholarship but has applied again.

The Rhodes Scholar website offers a description that seems to fit Corey: “Rhodes Scholars are chosen not only for their outstanding scholarly achievements, but for their character, commitment to others and to the common good, and for their potential leadership in whatever domain their careers may lead.”

“I should know by the end of November whether I got the Rhodes Scholarship,” Corey said. “It’s pretty exciting.”

So he waits – but not like anyone you know. Corey does not sit still. In his free time, he’s written a screenplay, recorded an album and sung the national anthem at an NBA game. He plays in a band managed by cornerback Jesse Bongiovi, son of rocker Jon Bon Jovi, and recently performed at an off-campus establishment on the ukelele with Todd Rundgren, artist-in-residence at Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters Department of Music.

“After the performance,” Indy Star reported, “fans mobbed Robinson, taking pictures and generally chatting him up.”

He’s not afraid to say it. Corey misses football. He misses the camaraderie, the competition, the adrenaline rush of game day. Though doctors cleared him to play, he has no regrets about leaving football and a likely NFL career. “Absolutely not,” he said.

There’s the big picture, you know. There are people from South Bend to South Africa who need help. And the senior who once wore No. 88 has a platform, a voice, a vision for the world.

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