GVSU to lean on C-Rob amid injuries at RB

GVL/Michael Dykstra

GVL/Michael Dykstra

GVL/Michael Dykstra

Pete Barrows

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. Robinson is in pursuit of the one accomplishment that has continually eluded him: a championship. 

With pads set low beneath his No. 28, and cleats dug deep into the Midland Community Stadium turf in 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, Robinson 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 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 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 across the goal line from 52 yards out. There wasn’t a flag in sight. Over the next seven minutes of football, Robinson ripped off touchdowns of 35, 43 and 42 yards for 204 total yards on 11 carries.

Robinson finished the 55-20 victory with a line of 370 yards and five touchdowns on 25 carries and helped secure Ovid-Elsie’s first ever state championship game appearance. 

Robinson needed just over 200 yards to break the state single-season rushing record of 2,890 yards, and was eight rushing touchdowns from tying the single-season record of 48.

“Kind of like here (at GVSU), I was focusing on the games one 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 the Grand Valley State University football team. Robinson has racked up 407 yards and five touchdowns on 76 carries for an average of 5.4 yards per carry and 67.8 yards per game. 

The 3-3 Lakers, however, are clinging to abbreviated playoff hopes. A trio of losses against tough opponents to start the season has placed GVSU’s – and Robinson’s – dreams of championship glory to the brink.

Ovid-Elsie and Robinson fell in the Division 5 state championship game to Muskegon Oakridge, which was quarterbacked by then-sophomore and current GVSU wide receiver Jamie Potts. Robinson and the Marauders failed to snag a championship in 2009, and it was off to college for C-Rob.

Despite having the look and resume of a Division I talent, Robinson slipped through the cracks during the recruiting process.

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. What started as Robinson’s loss became GVSU’s gain when GVSU coach Matt Mitchell traveled to pitch the promising prospect. 

“He was a late commit… 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-name 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 a redshirt 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. 

Instead of throwing in the towel, Robinson reset instead of relenting. 

He rehabbed hard, grew out his distinctive beard and dreads, and transformed his body from a speedy 205 pounds to a powerful 220. The new-look tailback was ready to contribute as part of a three-headed monster in a backfield with Michael Ratay and Kirk Spencer. The backfield was coined by Robinson as “Pop, Smash and Dash”. 

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

That trio, however, has been depleted.

Ratay (Dash) suffered a season-ending injury 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 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. “I’ll have to step up to fill (Ratay and Spencer’s) 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.”

Then, there are things beyond his control. Even with these obstacles, Robinson thumps on.

Robinson wanted to honor his best friend Nic 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, takes it all in stride, grateful for what’s there instead of lamenting upon what’s not. 

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 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 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.”