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Saturday's game has special meaning for USC's Nickell Robey

The Trojans play Washington on the birthday of Robey's mother, who died not long after the sophomore cornerback signed a letter of intent to play at USC. Robey is dedicating the game to his mom.

November 11, 2011|By Gary Klein
  • USC cornerback Nickell Robey returns an interception for a touchdown against Stanford on Oct. 28. The sophomore is dedicating Saturday's game against Washington to his mother, who died last year.
USC cornerback Nickell Robey returns an interception for a touchdown against… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Watch Nickell Robey after he makes a big play. USC's sophomore cornerback subtly shifts his left hand over his right wrist to where "Mom" is scrawled on white athletic tape.

Then he touches the word twice. Tap, tap.

Robey is letting his mother know he is doing OK. That he's thinking about her. Tap, tap.

Maxine Robey died of heart failure in February 2010, not long after her son signed a letter of intent to play football at USC. She was 44.

Since then, her son has established himself as a playmaker and leader for the Trojans, who host Washington on Saturday at the Coliseum.

Game days are always special to Robey, but this one falls on his mother's birthday. His younger sister and other relatives have traveled from Florida to attend the game.

Robey is convinced his mother also will be watching.

"I know at times she's there — right there," Nickell says, tapping his wrist. "I know she's watching and she's just as excited as me."

Tap, tap.

Nickell Robey says he feels it on his shoulder, especially when he is pondering a decision.

Go to class or stay in bed? Tap, tap.

"I can never hide," Robey says, laughing, "because if I'm thinking of doing something wrong, she'll be watching to put me in a good spot."

Robey, 19, had not planned to attend college so far from his family's home in Frostproof, a town of about 3,000 in central Florida.

He played varsity football for Frostproof High as an eighth-grader and then became a four-year starter, just like his older cousin Carlton Thomas.

Size was never an issue for the 5-foot-8 Robey, whose father, Earl, first put him on the football field at age 6.

Robey's high school coach, Brad Metheny, can still see the time an opponent tested the smallish cornerback by sending a 6-6 tight end his way.

"After the fifth throw to him, and the third interception, they quit doing that," Metheny says. "Eventually, people realized, 'We're not going to throw it over there near Nickell.' "

Robey originally committed to Georgia, where Thomas had gone to play running back. But when Georgia's defensive backs coach was fired, Robey began looking elsewhere.

He attended a camp at Tennessee, drawing a scholarship offer on the spot after wowing Lane Kiffin and his staff with his athletic ability and desire.

"You could see it even then," Kiffin says. "He had heart."

Home visits by Tennessee coaches, especially ones that included Kiffin's father, Monte, made Tennessee Robey's choice.

"My mom loved Monte Kiffin," Robey says. "She was like, 'He's more than a coach. He's bigger than a coach. He stands for something.' "

Robey committed to the Volunteers in December 2009 and then watched in shock as the Kiffins and most of Tennessee's staff headed west to USC in mid-January.

"The first thing I said was, 'They're not going to come to Florida to come get me,' " he recalls.

But recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron was soon on the phone, asking — demanding, really — in his gravelly voice, "You want to be a Trojan?"

Robey visited USC later that month. He knew he would play for the Trojans the minute he saw palm trees and beaches that reminded him of home.

Robey and Maxine celebrated after he signed a national letter of intent with the Trojans on Feb. 3, 2010.

Two weeks later, she was gone and his world changed forever.

Despite a heart condition and high blood pressure, Maxine Robey worked two jobs, volunteered at church and made it to all of her son's athletic events.

She had recently returned home from a hospital stay when Robey awoke one morning, put on one of his favorite shirts and got ready for school. But before he left, an uncle who had stayed the night at the family home told him to check on his mother.

Robey found her on the floor of her bedroom. He instructed his uncle to call 911 and immediately began administering CPR.

"She was trying to talk, but she couldn't," Robey says. "I just tried to tell her, 'Everything is going to be OK.' "

Paramedics arrived and continued attempts to stabilize his mother's condition. Robey was instructed to go to school, but he eventually made his way to the hospital with his high school coach.

"I walk into the [hospital] room, see my family and the look on their faces and I knew right then and there she didn't make it," he says.

Robey asked for and received time alone with his mother's body. He spoke gently, tearfully, reaffirming the promise he had made to earn a college degree.

"I told her what I was going to do with my life," he says, "that I was sincere about it and that I'm going to come through."

Robey wasn't sure how he would adjust to new surroundings, West Coast culture and new teammates.

"The only thing I knew was I was coming here to do something great," he says.

Teammates noticed. "He was here for one thing," says former Trojans cornerback Shareece Wright. "To graduate and then go to the NFL."

Robey did not need to be motivated. Tailback D.J. Morgan, a fellow freshman, discovered that the first day they spent together as roommates.

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