April 29, 2017
By John Heisler
“I knew about him before I ever stepped in a room with him because of the name, so I was already on the lookout for what Corey was about,” says Webster, named a captain of the 2017 Notre Dame football squad.
It was June 2014. Robinson already had completed his first full year in South Bend with the Irish football squad. Webster was beginning summer school classwork in advance of his freshman football season to come that fall.
Says Webster, “He was the first guy to come up and introduce himself. In a polite but strong manner, he said, `Hi, I’m Corey Robinson, if you need anything, let me know. I’m here for you.’
“I was no one at that point. So that first day, for him to introduce himself before I had ever enrolled in the fall, and he was just a sophomore–from Day One you got a sense of the aura about him, how he interacted with his teammates in terms of friendliness.
“There was not one person on the team who felt like he was unapproachable. If you wanted to talk about anything he would talk for hours and be fully invested in what you were talking about. In any conversation you had with him you were the most important thing at that time.”
That June day marked the first interaction between Webster and Robinson. There have been dozens more over the last three years–and Webster has watched Robinson’s growth and achievements on and off the field.
Says Webster now, “He’s either going to cure cancer, solve world hunger or become president.”
Robinson’s athletic resume at the University of Notre Dame ranks as an impressive one.
He earned three monograms as a wide receiver for the Irish–despite coming to South Bend as a self-described “late bloomer” in football–with Notre Dame the first school to offer him a scholarship. That’s after he did not start playing football until his freshman year in high school–before that preferring soccer, tennis and basketball.
“The person who changed the course of my life in athletics was my high school wide receiver coach, Brandon Parrott,” says Robinson. “He had confidence in me before I had confidence in myself.”
As a sophomore in 2015 Robinson caught 40 passes for the Irish, finishing in that category behind only Notre Dame All-American Will Fuller, now a starter for the NFL Houston Texans.
He caught eight passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns in 2015 in an epic battle in Tallahassee against Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and his defending national champion Florida State team.
Interestingly, the single play Robinson may well be best remembered for did not count–what might have been the game-winning TD reception with 13 seconds left against those unbeaten Seminoles, a play negated by an Irish penalty.
He played in three bowl games for the Irish–with his last efforts in a Notre Dame uniform producing three catches for 41 yards against Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl.
His career numbers show 65 receptions, 896 yards, seven touchdown catches.
And yet all of that barely touches the surface of what Robinson has meant to Notre Dame.
Remember the song “Is That All There Is?” that Peggy Lee crooned back in 1969?
She made those verses famous nearly three decades before Robinson was born–yet that’s the question Robinson was asking after his first semester on campus in the fall of 2013.
“My first semester here I wasn’t involved with anything–I just did football and school. It took up a ton of my time. I didn’t know what to expect and the season just flies by,” he recalls. “When I put my head up for air, I only knew the people in my section in my dorm (Knott Hall) and my teammates (in football).
“I thought, `There has to be more to college than just this.’ I looked for other ways to get involved. There had to be more communities than this.”
So Robinson became the athletics representative to Notre Dame student government–and a whole new world of connections opened up to him. A year later he became vice president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council. Then in January of his junior year he ran for student body president and won. Slated to graduate last May, Robinson was required to continue his year in office as an undergraduate so he took an additional minor in sustainability (his degree is in liberal studies).
“My work here was unfinished,” says Robinson of his upsized campus involvement. “There had to be more for me to do here. This (serving as student body president) was an opportunity to do something good for the university I love. How could I serve this community better? It’s been an incredible experience.”
For every line Robinson added to his football resume, he added two others away from the gridiron:
–He traveled to South Africa to study psychology and sport, did service work in Brazil (he speaks Portuguese)–the first of those as part of a new program offering foreign study and service opportunities for Notre Dame student-athletes. He spent three weeks in Jerusalem in 2016 with a group of Notre Dame students, studying the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
–His 3.83 grade-point average helped earn him first-team Academic All-America honors in football in 2015.
–He played piano and ukulele in a campus indie rock band (named “Rolfs Aquatic”) with football teammates and roommates Romeo Okwara (now with the NFL New York Giants) and Scott Daly–and Jordan Foster, a junior economics major from San Antonio. The group was managed by teammate Jesse Bongiovi, son of Jon Bon Jovi.
–He wrote two musical albums (recorded one of those) and wrote a screenplay.
–The student body platform he and vice president Becca Blais built featured five pillars: sexual assault prevention, community engagement, health and wellness, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability.
–He twice has been a Rhodes Scholar applicant and once was a finalist.
–He and former Irish track and field student-athlete Andrew Helmin helped create a nonprofit enterprise (One Shirt One Body) that found a way for athletes at programs all over the country to donate their extra athletic apparel to local communities. He and Helmin flew to Atlantic Coast Conference meetings in Greensboro, North Carolina, to present the concept–and did the same in Indianapolis in front of NCAA Division I SAAC representatives from schools all over the country.
–He played a key role in the athletic department’s Habitat for Humanity home build.
–He spent two months as a research assistant in the Notre Dame Law School in the summer of 2016.
–Last fall he and Rachel Wallace co-organized Race Relations Week (along with a series of other events throughout the year) on campus to encourage more campus dialogue on racial justice. Says Robinson, “This affects every single American. There are issues, but what are we actively doing as a university? The big part is to get our students to be able to look in the mirror and say, `I can make a difference now.'”
–His student government administration focused on a commitment to end sexual assault on campus, addressing safety concerns while also supporting the wider “It’s On Us” campaign. He helped support the Sexual Assault Survivor Group (created by Grace Watkins from the student government team), the first support group resource for Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students.
–He earned an ACC postgraduate scholarship, traveling to Greensboro in April to receive the honor.
–He authored a series of first-person pieces for the Sports Illustrated web site.
Notre Dame vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick uses the phrase “no limits” when he talks about Robinson:
“He just has so much energy, so many ideas . . .”
David Robinson notes his son’s sustained interest in serving mankind: “He’s going to blaze a trail and people are going to follow.”
Blais didn’t need much time to appreciate her running mate’s passion.
“He wants to do everything he can to make people’s lives better,” she says. “Corey is going to change the game.”
The Notre Dame Scholastic in February said Robinson and Blais “have raised the profile of the executive office of Notre Dame Student Government to new heights. From the onset, the novelty of a former Division 1 athlete serving as student body president brought new attention to the actions of the Robinson-Blais administration. Transparency and visibility became themes that ran through the entire term.”
Notre Dame student-athletes have had a pretty good run of late when it comes to major accomplishments. First, in 2012 former Irish fencer Mariel Zagunis served as flag-bearer for the U.S. Olympic Team at the Summer Games in London. Then in 2014 the NCAA elected Irish soccer player Elizabeth Tucker as Woman of the Year, as prestigious an honor as that body presents to a current student-athlete. Next, rower Anna Kottkamp earned recognition as valedictorian of the Notre Dame senior class in 2015. Fencer Alex Coccia was elected student body president in 2013-14 and won a Rhodes Scholarship–and Robinson attempted to follow in his footsteps. Robinson and Coccia spent time together trading notes on how to balance the athletic and student body assignments.
While the demands of major-college athletics make the football/student body president combination an unlikely one these days, Robinson’s campus role actually is a throwback to a century ago when players such as Thomas Cavanaugh (a starter at guard in 1895-96), Dom Callicrate (a first-team end and halfback from 1905-07) and Frank Coughlin (starting tackle in 1916) all served as class president.
Ironically, Robinson had more time to devote to his role as student body president when he stepped away from football last June after suffering a third concussion in a 12-month period. He continued to work with the Irish receivers as a student coach during the 2016 campaign.
“That was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make,” he says. “But I couldn’t walk away from my team.
“Football has meant much, much more than just X’s and O’s on Saturday. Football has been a great tool for me to tackle life. How can I handle adversity? How can I work in a team environment? Those are all valuable lessons I wouldn’t trade for the world.
“What happens when you’re done playing the game? Notre Dame prepares you for that.
“So I’m pleased with where God has placed me.”
Robinson is hardly the only member of his family to spend time in the limelight. His father David was a 10-time NBA all-star with the San Antonio Spurs–though Corey knows his dad as much through the lens of his father’s extensive post-basketball achievements. Corey’s younger brother Justin was a redshirt freshman on the Duke basketball team in 2016-17 (he played in six games as a 6-8 reserve forward).
Says Corey, “The greatest lessons I’ve learned about culture are through the Spurs. You’ve got to buy into an ideal for how their team operates, no matter how talented you are. And the proof is in the pudding.”
Robinson laughs when he considers all the different answers he’s had through the years for the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
At various times Robinson might have responded with doctor or veterinarian (he decided all the blood involved was a bit much), marine biologist, naturalist, chef (he spent time working in a Wolfgang Puck restaurant), art dealer or curator, musician/actor/filmmaker or something in finance (he interned for a month with Notre Dame’s endowment office). After his May graduation he’s currently set to spend a summer internship in New York at Gagosian, a contemporary art gallery.
He recalls hearing stories about his great-grandfather who worked for 40 years in the Little Rock, Arkansas, post office without a promotion–and a great-uncle who was not permitted to play basketball because of his race.
Says Robinson, “My dad ultimately learned he could do anything he wanted to do.”
Regardless of where Corey ends up, David made certain his son understood some of the advantages Corey enjoyed growing up.
“I told him from an early age 99 percent of kids haven’t seen what you’ve seen or been in the positions you’ve been in. You have a tremendous responsibility to use the gifts you’ve been given and the legacy you leave is going to be how you impacted the people around you. How did you inspire people? That’s what leadership is about. I think he understands that–he takes that very seriously.”
Adds Corey, “The biggest lesson I learned is to listen to the people you lead.
“People at Notre Dame want to change the world. Every day at Notre Dame I’ve been surrounded by people who want to make a difference. Everyone is driven by this notion of faith and service.”
Webster thinks back to all the conversations he experienced or watched between Robinson and his football teammates:
“He made you feel important — that’s one of his strongest suits. He relates as a student and as a student-athlete, so you feel comfortable talking to him.
“He was one of the most uniquely friendly and approachable guys I’ve ever met. I got that from Day One.
“Just a crazy, unbelievably nice guy.”
The title of that age-old Peggy Lee song–“Is That All There Is?”–is not likely to be a question ever proffered when it comes to Corey Robinson.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.