A {Chris Robinson} runs through it

GVL/Michael Dykstra

GVL/Michael Dykstra

GVL/Michael Dykstra

Pete Barrows

A {Chris Robinson} runs through it

Senior running back gives one final push toward his first championship

By Pete Barrows

[email protected]

After compiling one of the most prolific careers in Michigan prep football history, running back Chris Robinson has run through every obstacle in his path in pursuit of the one accomplishment that has continually eluded him like he defenders: A championship. 

With pads set low beneath his No. 28, and cleats dug deep into the Midland Community Stadium turfin a Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) state semifinal game in 2008, then-Ovid-Elsie junior Chris Robinson purveyed the field. Perched behind his offensive line, perhaps with a hint of a smile from knowing a secret unbeknownst to others, he glanced across the scoreboard that announced his Marauders led 21-13 early in the third quarter. 

With the stage set and the stakes high, Robinson broke his gaze at the call of the snap, and broke free for a 24-yard gain from midfield, only to have the play brought back on a holding penalty. It was a momentary setback, but in a way it still serves to represent Robinson’s football career in a microcosm – perhaps even more than the successes.

On the very next play, Robinson ran the ball in from 52 yards out without a flag in sight. Over the next seven minutes of football, proceeded to unleash a reign of dominance – touchdowns of 35, 43 and 42 yards for 204 yards total on 11 carries – rarely seen since the days of pixelated Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson.

Robinson finished the 55-20 victory over previously undefeated Standish-Sterling with a line of 370 yards and five touchdowns on 25 carries – a season worth of stats for some players – and helped secure Ovid-Elsie’s first ever state championship game appearance. Ovid-Elsie was slated for a spot in the Division 5 state finals at Ford Field the following weekend against Muskegon Oakridge .

Robinson needed just over 200 yards to break the state single-season rushing total of 2,890 yards, set by Chippewa Valley’s Chris Lomasney, and was eight rushing touchdowns from tying the single-season record of 48, paced by Livonia Clarenceville’s Tim Shaw.

“Kind of like here (at GVSU), I was focusing on the games on week at a time and we always had one goal as a team, as we still do – and that’s to win. All the other statistics get pushed to the side, as long as we’re winning,” Robinson said. 

Fast forward six years and Robinson, a fifth-year senior, is the leading rusher for a 3-3 Grand Valley State University football team clinging to abbreviated playoff hopes. Robinson has racked up with 414 yards and five touchdowns on 76 carries for an average of 5.4 yards per carry and 67.8 yards per game. Senior wide receiver Jamie Potts has helped should the load. Potts is the team’s leading receiver with 479 yards and five touchdowns on 27 receptions, good for an average of 17.7 yards per catch and 79.8 yards per game.

Yet, as close as the two are off the field, and as integral as they are to GVSU’s offense on it, their first experience playing for a championship with each other was notably distinct from their final push for one together this season. Potts, then a sophomore, quarterbacked the Muskegon Oakridge team that defeated Robinson and Ovid-Elsie 26-14 in the finals.

“That (championship game) was one of the biggest moments of my life, and we worked so hard to get there, but even though we had the talent, Potts got the better of us,” Robinson said. “I had hoped we might get a rematch the next year, but we both ended up losing in the playoffs. 

“I held a little bit of a grudge, but when I found out Potts was coming here – at the time I thought as a quarterback and then of course as a tight end – I was really excited about it, and we’ve been boys since he started.”

Potts still contests that Ovid-Elsie might have been dealt a different hand on the scoreboard had Robinson not sprained his ankle on a horse-collar tackle just before half, but the history stands. Just as it does with Robinson, who like Potts, ranks amongst the top-20 in a plethora of season and career MHSAA record categories. Such spots include fourth on the list for on the list for most career rushing yards (7,123), fourth for most career touchdowns (99) and first for most consecutive games with 100 yards or more (27).

Despite the look and resume of a Division I talent, Robinson inexplicably slipped through the cracks during the recruiting process in a way that ironically resembled the way the ball carrier patiently and purposefully meanders through seams in the defense.

The visits to elite programs – including trips to the Big House and Spartan Stadium – came early, but the official offers, limited by ACT scores, did not. And what started as Robinson’s loss became GVSU’s gain when coach Matt Mitchell traveled to pitch the promising prospect. 

“He was a late commit – mainly MSU and I think MAC schools like CMU and Cincinnati were still talking to him – but we kept grinding away,” Mitchell said. “We had him up on an official visit and then when I went back after some of the bigger schools didn’t come with what he had thought or had hoped they’d come with, I think he thought that this was a great place to extend his education and playing career.” 

Mitchell was right. 

“I had dreamed of going to a big-named school as a kid, but after all the flash of the process, I remember coach Mitchell coming down to the school and saying to me ‘hey, we’re a Division II program’ – which I really didn’t know much about at the time – ‘but we have a winning tradition and national championships’ and that got my ear real quick,” Robinson said.

Robinson was red-shirted as a freshman in 2010, but came on strong towards the end of 2011 as a sophomore. Then, as a starter in 2012, he picked up right where he left off until an ACL injury sidelined his season. Due to the timing of his injury (four games into the year), Robinson’s season was prohibited by the NCAA from being salvaged. 

Instead of throwing in the towel, as he could have after the penalty against Standish-Sterling or after a disappointing recruitment, Robinson reset instead of relenting, and rehabbed hard. He grew out his distinctive beard and dreads, and transformed his body from a speedy 205-pounds to a powerful 220-pounds in preparation to contribute as part of the three-headed monster backfield with Michael Ratay and Kirk Spencer coined by Robinson as “Pop-Smash-and Dash”. 

“When I came in at around 200-pounds, I’d look at some of the older guys taking a beating, and thought maybe I need to build myself to be able withstand hits,” Robinson said. “So I developed this mentality that if I’m going to be this big and sacrifice some speed to get the size, I might as well be the hammer. We talk about that role all the time in meetings, and I guess I really embraced that job.”

The trio paced GVSU’s offense last season with 2,342 combined yards and a 5.9 yards per carry average all the way to an NCAA Division II semifinal game. Through six games in 2014, the running backs are just slightly off last year’s per game average of 156 yards per game (150). 

That trio has since been depleted.

Ratay (Dash) suffered a season ending ACL tear for the second year in a row after leading the Lakers with 1,002 rushing yards through nine games in 2013. Spencer (Pop) left the 17-3 homecoming victory over Wayne State University with an injured foot, leaving Robinson (Smash) – who rushed for 56 yards on 20 carries against WSU, and for 157 yards on 22 carries in a victory the week before against Hillsdale — to carry the load. 

“With so many different types of backs in the running back room – and there have been since I’ve been at GVSU – your job then becomes easy knowing you just have to go in, and work to be one-eleventh of the offense,” Robinson said. “Now having Ratay and Kirk – backs that can do everything including lining up in the slot and blocking – I’ll have to step up to fill those roles to become a bigger part of the offense like I did in high school, but it’s just another thing on my plate that I can and am going to have to be able to control.”

Mitchell commented on the expanded role. 

“Spencer is touch and go, so Chris is going to be counted on to be our workhorse and he has stepped up as our main guy,” Mitchell said. “He’s a really big, physical runner, and is the kind of guy that gets better as the game progresses. I don’t think a lot of people realize it, but he’s also really good in protection – like an Emmitt Smith — and we don’t really have to sub him out for anything.”

The Lakers’ inauspicious 0-3 start has dampened what might be Robinson’s last legitimate chance at a football championship, but the back (who former opponent Potts says makes his job as a receiver easier with play-action sells and blitz pickups) and Potts (who Robinson estimates catches around 98-percent of the passes thrown to him) remain undeterred.

And he’ll continue to take the bad breaks in stride.

Robinson wanted to honor best friend Nick Greenhoe, who passed away due to leukemia

following the 2008 season, by continuing to wear No. 2 as a tribute. As a senior at Ovid-Elsie, Robinson made the jersey switch from No. 28 to No. 2. Unfortunately, Robinson lost an impromptu best-of-seven rock-paper-scissors showdown to a teammate, which prevented him from taking No. 2. Now, Robinson, wearing No. 3, shows no signs of slowing down, grateful for what’s there instead of lamenting upon what’s not.

Grateful for the offensive line that he credits largely for his high school accolades and promises to return home to someday to buy them personal pizzas. Grateful to freshman roommate and defensive lineman Isiah Dunning who jokes that he taught Robinson everything he knows about playing running back. Grateful for Potts’ friendship and play, and grateful for his running back teammates for making him better and for the opportunity he’s been given at GVSU. 

For more than any physical trait or style or record, what perhaps separates Robinson most – even more so than his patented spin move or breakaway speed – is his ability to make the best of situations. Endowed with the drive to run through his problems north-to-south, never from them east-to-west, Robinson will play his part to sustain GVSU’s slim playoff hopes – starting again with a game at No. 20 Michigan Tech on Saturday.

“Obviously, we didn’t start the season off the way that we wanted to – we didn’t expect to be 0-3, even with three tough games to start the schedule, and I don’t think anyone else really did either – so we’re just taking it one game at a time,” Robinson said. “But hey, in football things don’t always work out the way you want them to, and what went wrong can’t be the focus. We have some momentum built up now, and we know the kind of football team we’re capable of being. 

“Hopefully we can keep winning the next game, but we’ll control what we can and trust the rest to take care of itself.”