Bills' Robey-Coleman makes triumphant return to USC — and end zone

Bills' Robey-Coleman makes triumphant return to USC — and end zone
Bills cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman heads to the end zone for a pick-six interception as Rams receiver Pharoh Cooper falls to the turf. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Buffalo Bills cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman has never been afraid to take risks.

Months after losing his mother, he left Florida and came across the country to play at USC. He built a reputation as a gutsy playmaker.


Even though he was undersized at 5 feet 8, 165 pounds, he was determined to play in the NFL. Against the advice of coaches and evaluators, he left school a year early and entered the 2013 NFL draft. He was not selected.

The Bills signed him as an undrafted free agent, and Robey-Coleman has rounded into a fixture on their defense. In Sunday's 30-19 victory over the Rams, the smallest guy on the field made some of the biggest plays.

"He's tenacious, and he plays bigger than his size," Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said Sunday after Robey-Coleman's game-clinching, two-interception performance.

As for Robey-Coleman's risk-taking, that was on full display late in the third quarter with the game tied, 16-16. He stepped in front of diving rookie receiver Pharoh Cooper, picked off a Case Keenum pass and returned it 41 yards for what would be the winning touchdown.

"I feel like it sparked us," Robey-Coleman said of the pick-six. "It gave our defense some juice, gave the sideline some juice, and sometimes that's what you need to bring everybody together."

While the Bills were juiced, the play momentarily pulled the plug on the raucous Coliseum crowd and was a deflating gut punch to the Rams, who had clawed their way back from a 10-point deficit in the first half.

For Robey-Coleman, who shares the USC record for pick-six scores with three, the play was reminiscent of an interception for a touchdown he had against Stanford's Andrew Luck in 2011. That score happened in the opposite end zone at night and, of course, ignited the Coliseum.

"He's played this season with a ton of confidence," Bills Coach Rex Ryan said of Robey-Coleman. "I think it's based on the fact that he allows himself to really be coached and he's buying into it — the film study, the preparation and everything else. He's got a lot of ability, but he doesn't rely just on his ability. He's a tireless worker, and it's really paying off for us."

The pick-six wasn't the last  the Rams would hear from Robey-Coleman. With 1 minute 48 seconds remaining and Los Angeles backed up near its goal line, Keenum tossed a desperation fourth-down pass as he was being spun around and pulled to the ground. Again, Robey-Coleman came up with the interception, this time sealing the victory.

It was a magical moment for the fourth-year cornerback, especially considering the locale. He had many big games at the Coliseum. Afterward, he gathered with three other former USC players — fellow Bills Robert Woods and Kevon Seymour, and Rams safety T.J. McDonald — and posed for pictures. He and McDonald swapped jerseys. Buffalo running back Reggie Bush, formerly of USC, also appeared briefly in the game but wasn't part of the gathering of Trojans who stuck around on the field afterward.

"It was kind of weird coming in here this morning," said Robey-Coleman, who had never been in the Coliseum visitors' locker room until Sunday. "But then I thought, this is a place I made a lot of plays at, a lot of memories. I just came out there today and played my game. I just knew I was home. I had a lot of people watching, so I just feel like I had to come through."

He went from Robey to Robey-Coleman this year in honor of his late mother, Maxine, whose maiden name was Coleman. She had a massive heart attack during Nickell's senior year at Frostproof (Fla.) Middle-Senior High School.

"It was unexpected," he said. "I was there that morning. I was about to go to school and catch the bus. Every morning I'd go to check on her. I came in there, and she was on the floor having a heart attack. I did CPR for like eight minutes, and then the ambulance finally got there. They tried to do their work, but she was pretty much gone by that time."

Remembering his mom, remembering his years at USC, remembering his draft setback and what it took to get this far made Sunday even more poignant for Robey-Coleman.


Looking back, the day started with a good omen. He walked into the cramped locker room and instantly noticed something. The padded folding chairs were printed with USC logos.

He pulled up a chair and truly made himself at home.

Twitter: @LATtimesfarmer