At 5:28 pm on Aug. 28, Brian Robinson Jr. saw his football future flicker.
Two teenage assailants approached Robinson on a crowded Washington DC street lined with restaurants and bars. They were brandishing guns and they intended to rob the Washington Commanders rookie running back, police said.
Robinson fended off one attacker. The other shot Robinson twice, one bullet striking his right glute and the other passing through his right knee. Robinson’s injuries weren’t deemed life-threatening, but as paramedics treated him on the scene and transported him to the hospital, the Alabama product and third-round draft pick wondered if he’d ever play football again.
“That was probably the lowest point I’ve ever been in my life,” Robinson told reporters Wednesday in his first public comments since the shooting.
Thirty-eight days after the anguish of the shooting, Robinson experienced what he described as a “beautiful” moment. Not only did he return to practice with the Commanders on Wednesday, he also exceeded his own expectations with how much he was able to do.
A legion of video cameras and cell phones captured Robinson flashing his former burst going through agility and ball-security drills, and running a few plays with the Commanders’ offense. Robinson was so eager that he tried to sneak in a few extra reps, forcing head coach Ron Rivera to intervene and tell him, “No, no, no.”
The Commanders have a 21-day window to add Robinson to their active roster. Rivera isn’t ruling out the possibility that the running back could make his NFL debut as soon as Sunday against Tennessee. On Monday, Rivera said, “if he continues to progress, there’s a very good chance.” On Wednesday, Rivera reiterated that it depends on how Robinson responds to practicing for the first time in more than a month.
“That’s always a good indicator when a guy gets his first real workout is how he’s reacting the next day,” Rivera said. “And if he practices again like he did today, then we’ll see if there’s any dropoff.”
The strong-willed rookie has defiantly fought through adversity and beaten the odds at every stage of his football career. Entering high school, Robinson vowed to become the rare Tuscaloosa native to earn the chance to play for hometown Alabama. Robinson’s unlikely dream came true midway through his junior season when head coach Nick Saban offered a scholarship not long after watching the running back rack up 447 yards rushing in a single high school game.
The running backs room at Alabama was loaded with heralded recruits and future NFL draft picks when Robinson arrived in 2017. Instead of transferring when he couldn’t beat out the likes of Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris, Robinson waited his turn and then unleashed a 1,343-yard, 14-touchdown tour de force last year as a fifth-year senior.
The Commanders selected Robinson in the third round of last April’s NFL draft, a decision that he validated with an impressive training camp. The rookie appeared to be on his way to seizing a significant role and perhaps even unseating starting running back Antonio Gibson until the robbery attempt two weeks before the Commanders’ regular-season opener.
At first, the ill-timed setback was a gut punch for Robinson.
“My passion for this game runs so deep,” he said. “I never thought I’d be in a situation where I had to question or be questioned about if I could return to playing football.”
Robinson’s mindset gradually improved thanks to support from his teammates and coaches, and an encouraging report from his surgeon. The bullet that went through his right knee somehow did not damage any bones or ligaments.
“Once the doctors told me I’d be able to play ball again,” he said, “my mind automatically clicked into what I needed to do to get myself back on the football field.”
Within two days, Robinson was back at the team facility, a cast on his right leg and crutches under both arms. He even brought a pack of Oreos, fulfilling his rookie duty to provide snacks for the running backs room.
Coming back from such a chilling incident was “by far the worst I’ve ever dealt with,” Robinson admitted, but he leaned on his history of overcoming obstacles.
“This is just another situation where I had to be stronger than what I was up against,” he said.
A healthy Robinson projects as an ideal physical, north-to-south complement in the Commanders’ backfield to the shifty Gibson and to pass-catching specialist JD McKissic. During training camp, the physical 228-pounder also surprised the Commanders with his knack for catching the ball and making defenders miss in open space.
While the Commanders have started 1-3 and have dropped a pair of games against divisional opponents, Rivera is hopeful that Robinson’s return could help spark a turnaround. Carson Wentz has been sacked 16 times during the Commanders’ current three-game losing streak. A more robust running game could make it more difficult for defensive linemen to tee off on Wentz and could open up play-action opportunities.
“Hopefully it’s going to be a nice shot in the arm,” Rivera said. “Hopefully we get what we were expecting to get — that’s the other quality running back that we’re looking for.”
At least, Robinson’s return should provide an emotional spark. Thirty-eight days ago, many wondered if Robinson would play again. On Wednesday, he was back on the practice field, dancing, laughing and doing what he loves.