Alexander Robinson, ISU’s fourth all-time leading rusher, in action. (Photo courtesy Iowa State Athletics Communications).
Alexander Robinson felt alone. He felt homesick — sitting in Ames, Iowa, three hours south of his home, the Twin Cities.
Spring camp of his redshirt freshman season was underway. Robinson was absent and at a crossroads. The coach who had recruited him to Iowa State — Dan McCarney — was gone. So the highly-talented, but momentarily adrift Robinson was certain he was on his way out, too.
“(Then Cyclones’ head coach Gene) Chizik, to his credit, told me, ‘Don’t leave,’ very early on,” said Robinson, who eventually became ISU’s fourth all-time leading rusher with 3,309 career yards. “I went in — I sat down with him and he told me, ‘Don’t leave. Stick it out.’ So I stayed, I think, another two weeks and then I went in and told him again, ‘I’m sorry. I’m done. I can’t do it. I miss home.’ He said, ‘Oh, we’ll continue paying for your school through the semester, and then you’re kind of on your own.’ So when I came back, I asked him to come back and I had to walk back on. So I was a walk-on for that summer period and I ended up earning my scholarship back by the beginning of the fall season.”
Robinson almost missed out on 705 career carries. He almost missed out on carving out a niche as one of the Cyclones’ greatest running backs and forming lifelong bonds with former teammates such as Austen Arnaud, Zack Spears and Jeff Woody. He almost missed out on scoring 31 touchdowns — and playing a key role in ISU’s first bowl win in almost a decade.
But he persevered instead.
“I sat down with my parents and they said, ‘This is just one of those trials you have to go through,’” Robinson recalled. “It helped me grow.”
Now Robinson works in the field of finance. He graduated with a business degree from Iowa State in four years. He obtained an MBA from Hamline University in St. Paul in 2018 and for the past couple of years has also served as the running backs coach and offensive coordinator at his high school alma mater, DeLaSalle.
Robinson, you see, doesn’t quit. He keeps his plate full, constantly moving forward — even as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic threatens the very thought of having a 2020 football season.
“Just from moving from being a player into coaching and trying to help mold and teach the younger generation some of the things I’ve learned and wish that I’d know in high school has been a blast,” Robinson and. “And then the challenge, too, of competing and creating game plans and things against other coaches has been a blast for me, as well.”
So, too, was his time at Ames, which included a 2009 Insight Bowl win over his hometown school, Minnesota, and playing under three coaches — and seeing one in Chizik depart abruptly. Surreal? For sure. Worth it? Most definitely.
“I think we were at UDCC — the cafeteria — and we saw it on a sports ticker, or somebody had it on their phone that Gene Chizik’s leaving to go to Auburn,” Robinson said. “We were like, ‘What? We didn’t hear anything. That can’t be true.’ And then we all get a text that said, ‘Team meeting on Sunday,’ so it was, ‘OK, this must be true.’ That was an interesting situation. I don’t know. As I look back at it, it’s just one of those things that defined my college career, right?”
“To go through three coaches, to have that type of situation happen, I think it brought us together as a team. A lot of those guys — McCarney recruited a lot of those guys to that point — and then you lose him as your coach. Then you have another coach come in, you lose him. Well, the only constant in this is the players, right? So we kind of got to stick together and create our own destiny out of that and I think we did that first year that (Paul) Rhoads came in.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Robinson remembers his first touchdown. He was in the fourth, maybe the fifth grade and playing in a Pearl Park League. His team had no nickname. Just “the orange team.” Robinson was playing up a grade and received a handoff and bolted away at jet speed.
“The first time I touched the ball, I want to say it was a sweep, and I scored,” Robinson said. “It was probably like a 60-yard or something touchdown. To me, that feeling of being able to outrun everybody was just exhilarating.”
He continued accelerating. He was coming into his own as a sophomore starter as DeLaSalle and had his sights set on one certain college choice: The University of Miami.
“In all honesty, Miami was my preferred choice,” Robinson said. “My dad grew up in Florida, so we always watched Florida athletic teams. Florida State was real, real close to his home. I would say it was a five to 10-minute drive from where he grew up so it was there. You could see Florida State a little bit. But just looking at the Miami teams — just the confidence everybody at Miami played with, kind of their swagger, obviously the city, the different cultures mixed in there — that’s really where I thought I was going to go.”
So Robinson preferred Hurricanes to Cyclones … until fate took a hand.
He was all set to attend a camp in Miami “just to be seen.” Instead he tore his hamstring while running track. No trip. No real shot at becoming a Hurricane. And Robinson’s recruitment didn’t really amp until his senior season. To that point, he had just one offer, from Wyoming. So would he be a Cowboy? Robinson took an official visit.
“I got off the plan in Laramie and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them — but one of those dust balls from ‘An American Tail: Fievel Goes West?’ What, the tumbleweeds? One of those rolled across in front of me at the airport and I was like, ‘There’s no way.’ Coming from a city kid, I was like, “There’s absolutely no way. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with that.’”
So he didn’t. By the time Robinson was averaging more than 10 yards a carry and rushing for 31 touchdowns as a senior, his offer list expanded to half a dozen schools, including Iowa State and, ahem, Minnesota.
But the Gophers’ bid came with a caveat — and their interest in Robinson hadn’t always been keen.
“It was a bit of a contentious relationship,” Robinson said. “My junior year, they told me they didn’t think I’d be a good enough running back and like a couple other schools, once they offered me, they wanted me to play cornerback. My heart was set on playing running back. I said, ‘I feel like I’m a good enough running back to play, so that’s what I want to go play.’ That factored into my decision as well.”
Iowa State offered that opportunity. Robinson said former McCarney assistant Tony Alford touched base with him at a Nike camp both he and Arnaud attended in the summer after his junior year.
The Cyclones remained in touch and didn’t try to coax him to switch to corner — not early on, anyway.
“They were pretty upfront in saying we’re bringing in three freshman running backs and one of you is going to play right away,” said Robinson, who ranks in the top six at ISU in career touchdowns (31), 100-yard rushing games (13) and rushing touchdowns (27). “I wanted that opportunity to be able to compete and get a chance to play right away and prove that I belonged at the D-I level and could compete. That was part of the reason. It was close to home. Far enough where I could consider myself away from home, but close enough that if I ever needed to get back, I could always get back.”
That proved valuable when he went home almost every weekend during that fateful spring as he entered his second season on campus but almost left for good. Robinson stayed true to his course, but those trips home helped him redefine and sharpen his goals — and in that case, the classroom superseded the football field.
“I knew football was going to end at some point for me, but I wanted to get my degree,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want to prolong that. Looking back, I probably should have, but I wanted to graduate in four years, because I think athletes get a bad name. It’s, ‘Oh, they take easy classes,’ right? So I wanted to prove I could do it and graduate with a degree in business within that four-year period and then I wanted to play right away.”
Robinson worked his way back into the team’s good graces in the summer of 2007, but once again his planned ISU career at running back faced a roadblock. Chizik, it turned out, also wanted to move Robinson to cornerback. He’d mentioned it when Robinson considered quitting the team, but fortunately relented later.
Robinson went on to rush for 465 yards and six touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. He had emerged, at least, but wanted more.
“I just felt more comfortable with who I was, kind of as a person and things,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t so much me trying to find myself. That time away really proved a lot to me. To say, even though you go through some rough patches, you can come out the other side of it as a better person. … But I didn’t think I had arrived or anything. I felt like I still had a bunch more to do.”
It didn’t help that the Cyclones went 3-9 that season — one of three losing season Robinson and his cohorts endured before the 2009 Insight Bowl breakthrough under Rhoads.
“Losing, that weighs on you,” Robinson said. “Anytime, I think, if you’re a competitor, losing weighs on you. It gets hard to continue to work week in and week out. These practices — you’re preparing, you think you’ve got a chance and you lose the game, it kind of starts to weigh on you.”
But Robinson kept improving. He rushed for 703 yards and six touchdowns in Chizik’s second and final season. The Cyclones went 2-10 that year and didn’t win a conference game. Then came his abrupt departure for Auburn. The whole airport video. Just weird, man.
But in stepped Rhoads, like a breath of fresh, feisty air. His enthusiasm was genuine. The players noticed and responded.
“As we got to meet coach Rhoads and his staff, the guys he was bringing in; meeting coach (Yancy) McKnight, our strength coach, and seeing that they genuinely cared about our development (as) players and as men — I think that helped,” Robinson said. “And then there were a lot of guys who were in that senior class: Reggie Stephens, Marquis Hamilton, James Smith, Houston Jones — lot of guys that had just been through a lot. To see those guys continue to work and pull everybody together, I think there was a lot more camaraderie during the summer. Guys just hanging out and being around each other. The summer workouts. Having fun in those workouts again and competing — I think that just brought people together.”
The Cyclones hadn’t played in a bowl game since suffering a narrow loss to TCU in the 2005 Houston Bowl. They hadn’t won a bowl game since McCarney’s crown jewel nine-win team in 2000 topped Pitt in the Insight.com Bowl. So they were hungry. Fans were particularly starved. McCarney had raised expectations. Chizik had come and gone. Rhoads was new, but “one of us” — a native Iowan.
ISU’s players certainly rallied together, but it’s crazy to think how close the Cyclones were to not being bowl eligible in 2009. One win in particular stands out during that 6-6 regular season: A 9-7 win at Nebraska, for obvious reasons. ISU hadn’t won in Lincoln since 1977, but forced eight Huskers turnovers for the stunning triumph. The Cyclones became bowl eligible with a win over Colorado three weeks later.
”Weird, weird game,” Robinson said. “You think about it, you lose Arnaud and myself. We both ended up sitting out that game. The number of guys that were sick in that locker room. Ter’Ran Benton broke his leg, I think, in the first half. You have seven or eight turnovers. You have Jerome Tiller making his first start. Jeremiah Schwartz, I think, making his first start. There were just a lot of guys that hadn’t really played, so I think removing a lot of those expectations helped, right? We knew everybody had probably stacked the chips against us. It was just the guys in that locker room who believed we could get it done and we did. We definitely did.”
THE BOWL GAME AND BEYOND
Robinson didn’t even know the Cyclones would be spending the week in Tempe preparing for the matchup with the Gophers. It seemed like just another road game — but with higher stakes, of course.
“We were kind of green going into it,” said Robinson, who rushed for 137 yards in the 14-13 win. “We didn’t know you’re going to be there on-site for a week. I always thought we were going to train here in Ames, we would fly down, play the game, and fly back — like we do for any other away game, right? So a lot of us were green behind the ears.”
Arnaud threw one touchdown pass and rushed for another score. The Cyclones overcame four turnovers and gutted out the win. Afterward, they celebrated with a throng of fans in Sun Devil Stadium. None smiled more broadly than Robinson, whose history with the hometown Gophers had been, as noted above, complicated.
“The first series, I think I had two or three carriers back to back,” Robinson said. “Just the excitement of being out there and going against their safety, Kim Royston — actually we went to middle school together, so going against him and one of their linebackers, Nate Triplett, they beat our team pretty bad my junior year in high school when he was a senior, so going back against him and trying to get some payback for that. Going against my hometown team — a university I went to high school five minutes from, right across the river in downtown — that game was huge for me. I think that entire game I was kind of on an emotional high; just being in that game and playing against the hometown team and wanting to win so bad. Looking back, I don’t think I missed a snap in that game and that’s just because I wanted to win that game so bad.”
The Cyclones narrowly missed a bowl game in Robinson’s senior season, but he retained hopes for a pro career. This time, his hometown team — the Minnesota Vikings — was truly interested in him, but he was cut in 2011 four minutes before the “safe” time. He was invited back in 2012, but didn’t make the team. Robinson’s playing days abruptly had come to an end and it was initially a hard reality to face.
“I’ll be honest with you, that was probably one of the worst things I went through,” Robinson said. “A lot of people, as you look at it, you say you don’t want sports or football or anything to define you, but after you pour so much in for such a long length of time, it does kind of come to define you. So, post-that, I struggled a bit. You know, what did I want to do? Who was I? Was I going to let it define me? Who was I now that sports were gone? But I took lessons from football: the teamwork, overcoming adversity, all those lessons I learned, I applied to business.”
Now, he’s successful in it and constantly learning, even though his dad, Antonio, jokes with him about having “only” one master’s degree.
Antonio Robinson served 20 years in the U.S. Army before completing his undergraduate degree but has since eclipsed his son on the academic front.
“He teases me to this day,” Robinson said. “My dad has two or three masters’s now, so he says, ‘You still have to catch up.’”
That’s his lifelong mission: catching up with and surpassing expectations. Robinson didn’t quit 13 years ago and is excited for what comes next, even as football — for the Cyclones, and his DeLaSalle Islanders — is once again up in the air.
“Best fans in the nation,” Robinson said of Cyclones fans. “Keep supporting. I think (Matt) Campbell has changed things quite a bit. You look at the way he’s recruited; his ability to compete at a high level with great teams, no blowouts this year, always consistently in games, competing. Have faith in him and his staff and continue supporting. Whether or not there is a season, we will be back. This is a temporary period of time, but we will be back. Definitely, we’ll be back.”