To many who know Falcons rookie Bijan Robinson, ‘blessing’ more than a buzzword

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

If you talk to those around Falcons rookie Bijan Robinson — those who really know him — there’s a word that keeps coming up.


Robinson’s football talent is undeniable. He turned three seasons at Texas into a highlight reel, and that ability and productivity convinced the Falcons to use the eighth overall pick on him in April’s NFL draft, even in an era when running backs rarely are selected that high. But when those who know him say the word “blessing,” they’re rarely describing Robinson’s football ability — they’re describing Robinson himself.

“It was just a blessing to see how much he took the coaching, how much he worked, how much he stayed humble, how much he celebrated others instead of celebrating himself,” Texas running backs coach Tashard Choice said. “And he had goals, but he didn’t broadcast his goals, he worked for them. And it’s pretty cool to watch it.”

“It was a blessing just to be able to one, play with him, and two, play alongside him in the same backfield,” former Texas running back Roschon Johnson said.

“To see him now, at the highest level, getting to play (in the NFL), it’s just amazing,” said Dennis Bene, his high school coach. “I feel very blessed again to have had a small part of it for four years, but more importantly, to still be in his life.”

Robinson loves the word, too. In his on-stage interview after he was drafted, Robinson thanked God for blessing him. Being in Atlanta? Blessing. In interviews since, it’s the same. His skill set? A blessing. His pass-catching ability? Blessing. The success he’s had? Robinson describes it as a blessing.

More than just a buzzword, it’s Robinson’s life’s mission. For the past two years, Robinson has tagged every non-sponsored Instagram post with the same slogan: #biablessing. More than anything else, #biablessing stands for everything Robinson stands for.

“Everybody can be a blessing in this world,” Robinson said. “And if everybody has the right mindset, and that they have their trust in God, then I think that you can be a blessing to anybody, whether it’s a kid, an adult, teenager, it doesn’t matter who it is. I just love that saying, and I just want to remind people, we need that positivity in our life.”

He seems genuine off the field and extremely talented on it.

Yet Robinson has entered the NFL in an era where running backs are less valuable than ever before. Teams can find similar, and more important, cheaper production late in the draft, as shown by the Falcons finding thousand-yard rusher Tyler Allgeier in the fifth round in 2022. Running backs are injury-prone and replaceable, so using a top pick on one, even one as talented as Robinson, is a risk.

Robinson said he’s more than a running back, and the Falcons plan to use him as such. So far, he’s shone in the locker room, on the field and in the community.

But that question still remains — in today’s game, is a top-10 talent and a top-10 person worth a top-10 pick, if that person happens to be a running back?

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

‘I want to put a smile on everybody’s face’

There’s a popular saying with celebrities: “Never meet your heroes.”

It’s easy to act one way when cameras are on. It’s easy to smile and wave, take photos and sign autographs, say all the right things and put on a false front.

People who know him say that’s not Robinson.

“He’s the real deal,” Bene said. " … The world needs more young people like Bijan.”

Robinson wears a continual smile. He estimated in his post-draft press conference that he smiles 85% of the time, and through practices, exhibition games, media scrums and Flowery Branch humidity, he’s proved it. That smile has remained as if superglued to his face.

If you ask Robinson how he got to this point, he talks about blessings, about his family, his coaches, and friends who pushed him. He said those friends knew “where God was trying to take (him),” and never let him settle for anything. Robinson keeps a tight circle to this day.

He was raised by his mother, LaMore Sauls, and his grandparents, Geraldine and Cleo Robinson in Tucson, Arizona. His grandfather, Cleo, was a Pac-12 referee over three decades, and Robinson learned the sport and inherited a love of football from him. Sauls gave birth to Robinson while she was in college, so his grandparents took on parental roles, with Robinson even calling them “Mom” and “Dad.”

He stood out in youth football, beginning his career with, of all teams, the Tucson Falcons. He drew attention, but his family made sure he was rooted in faith and humility.

When it came time to choose a high school, the Robinsons looked toward Salpointe Catholic, a school of 1,200 students, four required years of theology and a motto of “Prayer, Service and Community.” Salpointe also boasted a football team that won 10 regional championships in 12 years from 2002-13, although when Robinson arrived, it was in the midst of a three-year drought.

Bene, now the defensive coordinator at Arizona’s Sahuaro High, coached Salpointe from 2001-19. He had countless discussions with prospective students about enrolling at Salpointe, but he remembers his conversation with Robinson clearly.

“In true Bijan fashion, you could see as I tried to paint this picture of what I thought his future could be, his smile just got bigger and bigger and bigger,” Bene said. “Where I think we connected was, I said, ‘Listen, everything is here in place for you to accomplish all your goals. … Are you willing to meet the challenge, and are you willing to put in the work?’”

Most important, Bene promised Robinson and his grandparents that he never would put him in a position where he would fail. Robinson was sold.

That promise was tested early. As a freshman, Robinson didn’t play in the first three varsity games of the season, even when Bene had told him he would. Geraldine Robinson was mad, but Bene preached patience.

Robinson showed flashes as soon as he was called up. He hauled in a 58-yard touchdown pass six minutes into his first game, breaking multiple tackles to reach the end zone. He was unleashed as a sophomore, rushing for 2,023 yards and 26 touchdowns. He was even better as a junior, tallying 2,400 yards and 35 touchdowns, though Salpointe’s general dominance both seasons meant he rarely played in the second half.

He became “the man” on campus, but Bene never saw any change in Robinson. Though he grew bigger, the smiling five-star recruit chased by Texas, Ohio State, Alabama and others still was the smiling kid Bene saw when he was an eighth grader.

As Robinson’s legend grew, so did the crowds looking for a glimpse of him. Away games became events, where fans would pack the stands hoping to see Robinson go for a long touchdown run. Those same fans would pack the parking lot after the game, asking Robinson for pictures or autographs.

Robinson didn’t shy away. Some coaches would have sent someone with their star player to provide protection. Bene assigned an assistant to Robinson to ensure he wouldn’t sign all night.

One example stands out. Near the end of Robinson’s senior year, Salpointe had posted a dominant win, and Robinson had rushed for over 300 yards. As usual, Bene sent an assistant to walk with Robinson.

“It took us like 30 minutes to get from the field after everything was over to the buses, like it was that many people,” Bene said. “Bijan’s talking to everybody, he’s doing interviews. And anyway, we left him. I said, ‘Everybody on the bus?’ ‘Yeah, everybody’s good.’ So we take off and we left Bijan. He was still engulfed by the fans.”

The star player, left behind. Robinson laughs at the memory.

“I was out there signing for a long time,” Robinson said. " ... I didn’t want my coach to find out, so I kind of kept it a secret. Obviously he found out, and he was like yeah, that’s never happened to me.”

Even after signatures cost Robinson a ride home, he didn’t change. Former Texas running backs coach Stan Drayton, who recruited Robinson to Austin, remembers a similar experience.

Before a game, Drayton walked with Robinson into Texas’s Memorial Stadium. 100,000 people screamed his name, asking for autographs, selfies and hugs. Drayton let Robinson sign, and sign, and sign. Eventually, he realized Robinson would be late to the game if he didn’t cut him off.

“That is the kind of person he is,” Drayton said. “He’s never met a stranger, and he’s never going to lose the opportunity to leave an impression on someone if that person is ready to receive it. That’s just who he is, and I love him for it.”

Robinson keeps the same mentality to this day.

“I want to put a smile on everybody’s face,” Robinson said. “Everybody wants to get that one autograph. It might be that person’s first time. I want to sign everybody there.”

He wants to be a blessing, even if it costs his own time.

“I’m a person that kind of never tries to change,” Robinson said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

‘That young man left an impression on me’

Robinson’s senior year of high school is full of stories that emphasize his character. Bene is ready to share.

After seasons of 2,000-plus yards as a sophomore and junior, Robinson was poised to shatter the Arizona career rushing record midway through his senior season. The setting was perfect. Salpointe Catholic had a home game and a massive crowd, and at halftime, Robinson was a few yards away from the record.

One problem: The Lancers led by 39.

Some would have complained when their coach put a hand on their shoulder pads, pulling them when they were that close to breaking a record at home. Not Robinson.

“He’s like, ‘Coach, don’t worry about it. If it’s meant to be it’ll happen,’” Bene said. “... And then he became a cheerleader on the sidelines for his teammates. That’s just the way he conducted himself.”

Another came in the All-American Bowl, where Robinson and the nation’s top recruiting prospects played in a showcase at San Antonio’s Alamodome. Bene was invited as Robinson’s guest. Adidas designs uniforms for each year’s game, meaning helmets, gloves and jerseys often become personal mementos.

Not for Robinson. Instead, as the game ended and fans were allowed onto the field, Robinson found a little kid and gave him his helmet and cleats.

Even as a high school senior, Robinson was giving.

“That’s just the kind of person he is,” Bene said. “He’s blessed to have nice material things, but those things don’t define him. At the end of the day, (his relationships are) really who he is.”

That maturity stood out to Drayton. Now the head coach at Temple, Drayton remembers the conversations he had with Robinson were different than with other recruits.

“He was interested in me as a family man,” Drayton said. “He wanted to know a lot about my family, wanted to meet my family. … He was a big brother to my daughters. He was a son to my wife and a son to me.”

Drayton thought Robinson was genuine from their first conversation. Some players are focused on offensive schemes, NIL and ‘What can you do for me.’ Although Robinson was recruited before NIL, he was most interested in mentorship and growing as a person.

Drayton felt the relationship he forged with Robinson was special. Still, after attending a camp with some of the nation’s top prospects, Robinson told Drayton he planned to commit to Ohio State. Drayton was crushed.

Two weeks later, Drayton called him. He wanted to check in on him to see how Robinson was doing. The two talked about everything but football. At the end of the call, Drayton had to get something off his mind.

“Right before we hung up, I said, ‘Bijan, I wish you all the best of luck, but I just feel like I should be coaching you,’” Drayton said. “And I really meant that. It wasn’t like I was trying to make it tough for him in that moment, but there was something where I felt like I needed to be coaching that young man.”

Robinson didn’t respond, instead saying he’d call him right back. Drayton sat and waited, thinking he’d blown up their relationship. After about two hours, Robinson’s phone buzzed.

“He had his parents on the phone and his grandparents on the phone,” Drayton said. “(He) said, ‘Hey, you’re right, Coach, I’m gonna play for you. I’m coming to Texas.’”

Drayton has celebrated to this day.

“(I’m) just so happy he chose Texas,” Drayton said. “That young man left an impression on me that I will have on me for the rest of my life.”

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

‘Somebody who’s genuine. Somebody who’s real’

The slogan #Biablessing started in Austin. Texas Director of Player Development Kevin Washington combined Robinson’s mission of blessing everyone with the first two letters of his first name, and Robinson was all for it.

The slogan wasn’t merely catchy — it was Robinson’s life, even before the hashtag. Robinson became a fixture in the Austin community, donating backpacks, giving money in efforts to end homelessness and teaching swim lessons.

That community service wasn’t just PR. For Robinson, it’s his purpose.

“When you feel the need and the ‘have to’ to leave an impression, to enhance a situation, to make somebody happy in a moment, to just make somebody better, he’s gonna take full advantage of that,” Drayton said. “He feels that that’s his calling.”

Robinson won the 2022 Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back. He was a unanimous All-American. Texas generally preferred to give him the ball in the backfield, but he was a receiving threat, too. He led the Longhorns in all-purpose yards as a freshman, and in his final season he finished in the top 10 for the Heisman Trophy.

Even with the success, there was no ego. Robinson consistently deflected praise, making sure his backup, Roschon Johnson, the other running backs and their linemen were recognized. Johnson, drafted in the fourth round by the Bears, said the humility was genuine.

“That just kind of exemplifies the type of guy that he is,” Johnson said. “From a character aspect, he’s not really the type of guy to take all the spotlight and take credit for everything. … Really just kind of tries to serve others in that way.”

As Robinson became a household name, his NIL opportunities grew. He took advantage, signing deals with Beats by Dre, Raising Cane’s and others, and even shared his likeness with a dijon mustard sauce, Bijan Mustardson. His best known deal was with Lamborghini Austin, which gifted the college kid a Lamborghini of his own.

Robinson’s faith kept him grounded. Washington, a former chaplain, was an important figure. So were Drayton and Choice, who took over as running backs coach at Texas when Drayton left for Temple in 2022. Johnson said Robinson regularly led the running backs in prayer after practices, leading the whole team when able.

What stood out most to his Texas coaches was Robinson’s servant nature and his faith. Off the field, all Robinson wanted to do was serve, and on the field, all he wanted to do was get better. Choice told Robinson and Johnson that only 96 running backs get to play in the NFL. They took it to heart.

Choice tried to get under Robinson’s skin. He thought Robinson didn’t practice hard enough, and after a key fumble cost the Longhorns a game against Texas Tech, he made Robinson carry a football around campus. Robinson never complained, even when walking into lecture halls with a visible reminder of his mistake. He took the coaching and got better.

Choice and Bene were with Robinson on draft night. Bene was awed, honored that Robinson would share his crowning moment with his high school coach. Choice, a Jonesboro native, was praying that Robinson’s phone would light up with an Atlanta area code. When it did, he was thrilled. He’d be able to see Robinson whenever he returned home.

Choice, who played three seasons at Georgia Tech and six in the NFL, then coached running backs at Tech from 2019-21, believes Atlanta will love Robinson.

“They’re getting somebody who they’re going to love through and through,” Choice said. “Somebody who’s genuine. Somebody who’s real. That’s the type of people Atlanta people like anyway.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

‘I don’t pay attention to expectations’

The Falcons have liked what they’ve seen from Robinson (“We do not have buyer’s remorse,” coach Arthur Smith said). Running backs coach Michael Pitre lauded Robinson’s football IQ and coachability. Teammates have been impressed, regardless of whether they’re blocking for him or trying to track him down.

Questions about drafting a running back at No. 8 remain. A team hasn’t won the Super Bowl with a running back it drafted in the first round since 2000. The Falcons haven’t treated Robinson as a running back, having assigned him to live with the quarterbacks during training camp and often lining him up as a receiver, but there’s still an “RB” next to his name on the roster.

Bene, Choice and Drayton each talked about Robinson’s versatility. They think he’s good enough to be more than just a running back, even in the modern game. There are no outward signs that the Falcons regret using such draft capital on Robinson, but the pick will be debated for years.

There are no doubters off the field. As in Austin, Robinson jumped into the Atlanta community immediately, appearing at a YMCA event in June and teaching kids to swim. There, “blessing” came up again. Robinson said it was special to be able to give back.

“It’s just such a blessing to know that God is able to let me do this for kids,” Robinson said.

Choice has seen that before.

“When you’re a blessing, you’re really a blessing to others,” Choice said. “He understands that his life, everything he’s doing, is really not about him.”

Those around him expect big things. Bene talked of Super Bowls, and Choice said Robinson has traits to be one of the greats, to be a Hall of Fame running back. Robinson acknowledged the pressure, both as the eighth pick and from the expectations placed on him. But as for him and his expectations, he has none.

“For me, I don’t pay attention to expectations,” Robinson said. “I know a few … expect a lot out of me. That just comes with the game, but for me, my only expectation is to please God. That’s that with me.”

It may take years to determine whether Robinson was the right choice at No. 8. Even if Robinson goes to the Pro Bowl, naysayers will claim the pick would have been better used at a more valuable position. He can’t make his case on the football field yet, but at a minimum, the Falcons already have learned the person they drafted was worth it.

Regardless of the debate, Robinson wants to be a blessing. On the field, off the field, in the community, in the locker room, wherever he is, he sees it as his mission. He knows his football ability is a blessing and acknowledges it, but his goals are greater than the gridiron.

Those around him believe Robinson is a blessing, and they believe Atlanta will see that soon.