Imagine the doors that would swing open in Detroit for the son of Lee Iacocca. Think of the opportunities awaiting Tony Bennett’s kid in San Francisco, the Pope’s nephew in Rome or Cal Worthington Jr. and his dog, Small Spot, in Long Beach.
And then imagine the good times lying in wait in Los Angeles for the football-playing son of John Robinson, the man whose popularity at Southern Cal was exceeded only by Traveler and a couple of cheerleaders. This is the same man who now transforms thousands of Orange County CPAs and insurance salesmen into raving lunatics every Sunday afternoon as coach of the Los Angeles Rams.
When Chris Robinson, a fine linebacker at Blair High in Pasadena, decided Cal State Northridge was the place for him, he could have owned the team. CSUN football Coach Tom Keele and John Robinson were good buddies.
They played together on Oregon’s 1958 Rose Bowl team.
“We got to know each other very well,” Robinson said of his days as a Duck with Keele. “I knew he’d be a good influence on Chris.”
Keele returns the compliment with equal fervor.
“I’ve always liked and respected John Robinson,” he said. “He’s just a fine, fine man and a great coach.”
Into this mutual admiration society walked Chris, 18. Can’t you just see the first day of practice?
“OK, give me 20 laps around the field,” Keele barks.
Chris Robinson, a Panama hat pulled low over his eyes, taps his fingers on his pina colada and tells Keele, “Not today, buddy. I don’t run if it’s over 75 degrees. And hey, while you’re up, could you bring me another one of these drinks. And hold the umbrella and all that silly fruit. If you got a problem with that, talk to my dad.”
Game day rolls around. The Matadors stumble off a hot bus after an eight-hour trip. A white limo with the license plate “GridStar” slides up alongside. Chris Robinson steps out, followed by three ogling co-eds who make Bo Derek look like Bo Diddly.
“Coach,” Chris says, “Next time make sure there’s a phone in this thing. Oh, and here’s 100 tickets to the Rams-49ers game. When we get home, let’s do lunch.”
The kid wins the game for Northridge, throwing five touchdown passes, catching two more and kicking the winning field goal at the final gun.
His teammates carry him off the field, all the way to the airport. En route to L.A., he orders the pilot to dip a wing of the Lear jet in salute as it passes over the team bus chugging down Highway 395 near Lone Pine.
OK, wake up. Dream is over. Here’s the real story.
Chris Robinson won’t play a down for the Matadors this season. He’s only a freshman and the team is set in the defensive backfield, where Chris may someday get to see some action for the team.
“We may have to redshirt him,” Coach Keele says.
Preferential treatment? Forget it.
“He’s got to earn everything,” Keele said. “He won’t get any special treatment.”
And Dad, Southern California’s Mr. Football, won’t step in?
“He makes his own way now,” Robinson said of his son. “He is his own person.”
Chris Robinson would have it no other way.
“On the football field I don’t want anyone to think of me as John Robinson’s son,” he said. “He’s John Robinson. I’m Chris Robinson.”
This is not Hollywood, where sons become TV stars because their fathers were famous actors and studio executives tear the doors off the hinges to let the kid in. And it’s not the recording industry, where kids with bad voices and famous parents can be made to sound like Sinatra with the help of a million dollars worth of sound equipment.
This is football, where you are what you are. If you cannot catch a football, you will not be anybody’s receiver. And if you can’t throw the football or run with it or block anybody, you will be known as a fan.
But Keele, who has known John Robinson for nearly three decades, sees a lot of the father in the son. Based on that, he says that Chris may make a name for himself on his team.
“John just loved football when we played at Oregon,” Keele said. “He just loved it. He lived football. And he worked as hard as anybody at it.
“His son is just the same way. The kid has so much of his dad in him. He loves the game so much.”
John Robinson is recognized as one of the best coaches around--college or pro. How much of his vast knowledge of football did he pound into the head of Chris? About the same amount as Mr. Fairchild imparted to his daughter, Morgan.
“We didn’t play football or talk football very much,” Chris said. “He was my father, not my coach.”
The father says he didn’t want to teach his sons (he has another, David, a senior, who plays at Long Beach State) the inner workings of the sport. But he did teach them that football was, above all else, a sport.
“I tried to say away from influencing them in sports when they were growing up,” Robinson said. “We talked all the time, though, and I always told them just to have fun, to play hard and to get themselves ready to play.
“Mostly I stressed the fun. It’s got to be fun, at that level or any level. If you don’t recognize the fun that sports are supposed to be, the good times, then you’ve lost the whole idea.”
Much of the fun for a father is watching his kids playing sports. Because of John Robinson’s chosen profession, he has missed virtually all of that.
“Right now, to be able to see him play would be real complicated,” the father said. “We work here (at Rams’ practice) until noon on Saturday preparing for Sunday’s game, and then we check into a hotel near the stadium early in the night.
“It’s hard as a parent not be able to see your kids doing what they do. You’d love to be able to see them play football, or see them when they were in a band or in Little League or in the school play. I think they understand now that because of what I do I can’t always be around to watch them. Maybe when they were younger there was the feeling of, ‘Why can’t my father be here to see me like the other fathers?’ ”
Chris admits that having a famous father can be a problem, but said his father’s absence from most Pop Warner and high school games made his infrequent appearances a real thrill.
“I regretted it when I was younger when he wasn’t there, but when he came to games I’d get real excited and nervous,” Chris said. “Just by showing up for one of my games he would give me butterflies--just knowing dad was watching.”
When Chris arrived at Northridge, only a few close teammates, friends from high school, knew he was John Robinson’s son, “And I told them not to tell anybody,” Chris said.
Eventually more and more of the players heard the rumors and discovered the relationship.
“I guess I really don’t care if they find out,” Chris said. “As long as they understand that I’m me, and my father is my father.”