If Dave Robinson is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next year, he’s prepared to celebrate in a most unusual setting: the cemetery.
Former Green Bay Packer Robinson, a Mount Laurel native and Moorestown High School graduate (1959), doesn’t want to share the same fate as an acquaintance who missed the cut some years ago and afterward had to endure an endless evening of pity and sympathy.
“If I don’t make it, I don’t want to be in New Orleans (site of Super Bowl XLVII) and have all those sad looks and pats on the back,” said Robinson.
He’d much rather spend his time with his late wife, Elaine, and two (of three) sons, all of whom are buried in Lakeview Memorial Park in Cinnaminson.
“If I am elected (to the Hall of Fame), I’ll be close to let them know we did it,” Robinson said.
He’s been down this road before. Robinson was up for induction to the Hall of Fame back in 1989, as a modern-era candidate. Robinson, an All-Pro linebacker, played more than a decade in the NFL—most of it as a Packer—and won three world championships with Green Bay in 1965, ‘66 and ‘67.
He missed the cut in ‘89, though “someone told me I was real close,” he said.
Robinson is up for induction again, this time as one of two senior candidates, the other being defensive tackle Curley Culp.
‘He was great at every level’
Though Moorestown certainly isn’t short on sports legends, Robinson stands out among the rest, according to Lenny Wagner, a trustee at the Historical Society of Moorestown, and not just because of his achievements as a professional athlete.
Robinson was a four-sport student athlete at Moorestown High School, playing baseball, basketball and track, in addition to football, and excelling at every one.
“He was great at every level,” said Wagner. “If he never played another sport after he left high school and you were doing the sports legends of Moorestown, he’d be right in there.”
Robinson was among the athletes showcased in the “Sports Legends of Moorestown” exhibit at the Historical Society two years ago, alongside Joe Burk, the “Babe Ruth of rowing,” according to Wagner; All-American lacrosse and field hockey player Mary McCarthy Stefano; Al LeConey, gold medalist in the 4x100 relay at the 1924 Olympics, and many others.
“Someone from Moorestown has played in the Super Bowl, the World Series, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open (golf and tennis). Someone from Moorestown has won a gold medal,” Wagner said. “Which is pretty remarkable for a small town.”
The hardest job in America
Aside from his on-the-field accolades—including a remarkable career as a student athlete at Moorestown High School and Penn State—Robinson’s professional career is notable for one other reason: He was the first black linebacker to start in the NFL.
It was uncommon for teams to draft African-American players back then, he said. “(Vince) Lombardi was ahead of his time.”
It’s hard in 2012 to truly realize what life was like for black athletes in the ‘60s—Robinson was drafted to the Packers before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—and he relayed the hardships he, and particularly his wife, endured at the beginning.
“She’s a black lady, with two children … in a strange town,” he said. “Green Bay was an all-white town, you know.”
There were African-American women in Green Bay at the time, Robinson said, but many of them were go-go dancers, and many of them were prostitutes, which is how Elaine Robinson was often treated by white men on the street who didn’t know her husband was a burly Packers linebacker.
“One of the hardest jobs in America was to be the wife of an NFL player … I could talk for a half-hour about the things she had to endure,” Robinson said. “I wish she could share this with me.”
Which is why, the day of the induction ceremony, held the Saturday before the Super Bowl, Robinson thinks he’d rather be sitting in a South Jersey cemetery with the people he loves most in the world, than on the edge of his seat in a banquet hall surrounded by strangers.
Robinson has co-authored two books: The Lombardi Legacy: Thirty People Who Were Touched By Greatness, and Lombardi’s Left Side.