As in Eugene Robinson, starting free safety, Pro Bowl selection and acknowledged team leader.
The AJC jets were thereby scrambled. Four of us – Matt, NFL writer Len Pasquarelli, on-site editor Tim Ellerbee and yours truly — convened downstairs in the media workroom, otherwise deserted on a Saturday night. As the main print outlet for one of the participating teams, we had a canvased-off section to ourselves. We started calling people. Lenny, who knows everybody, did the bulk of the dialing.
The race was to get the story in the final edition of the Sunday AJC. On Jan. 30, 1999, the internet wasn’t yet a huge thing. We wanted it in print — assuming it was true, which had yet to be confirmed. We had, Ellerbee informed us, until around 1:15 a.m.
Between 11:20 and 11:30, someone — either Matt or Lenny — reached Falcons general manager Harold Richardson. “I can’t comment on something I know nothing about,” he said. (File the time of that quote for future reference.)
It was after 1 a.m. when Lenny/Matt got confirmation from the police. Their double-bylined story ran across the top of A-1. It began: “Atlanta Falcons free safety Eugene Robinson was arrested here Saturday evening and charged with soliciting an undercover policewoman for oral sex.”
From Sgt. Angel Calzadilla, public information officer for Miami-Dade police: “At about 9 p.m., Falcons player Eugene Robinson, in his car at the time, offered one of our undercover (officers) $40 to perform a sex act. The man was properly identified as Robinson. He was released at about 11 p.m. to Falcons general manager Harold Richardson on condition that he report for a court appearance, likely within three to four weeks.”
(That’s correct: Released to Richardson, who said he knew nothing.)
Coach Dan Reeves offered this to Lenny: “We’re aware of all the rumors, and it is something we’re going to have to handle internally.”
Robinson was alone in a rented 1999 Ford Taurus. His arrest was made the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and 22nd Street, an area that Sgt. Calzadilla described as “known for prostitution.”
If your AJC was home-delivered that Super Sunday, you didn’t see that story. If you bought the paper at a convenience store you did. It made, barely, what was known as the replate. Lenny and Matt delivered.
A brief history lesson: The Falcons, in existence since 1966, entered the 1998 season coming off their 15th losing season in 17. They had never managed consecutive winning seasons. (And wouldn’t for another decade.) They’d won two postseason games in their history. Under Dan Reeves, in Year 2 as Falcons coach, they coalesced into something heretofore unseen. They were flat-out great. They went 14-2 in the regular season, beat San Francisco in the playoffs and stunned 15-1 Minnesota in overtime in a silenced Metrodome. The Dirty Birds, as that crew became known, was Super-bound to face Denver.
A season’s worth of good feeling took a heavy hit that Saturday in Miami. On the morning of his arrest, Robinson received the NFL’s Bart Starr Award, given for good citizenship. The Atlanta Associated Press photographer John Bazemore took photos of him with his wife by the hotel pool. Nine hours later, he was behind bars.
Team AJC held its pregame meeting at 2 p.m. Sunday in the same workroom. There I received my game orders – write about Robinson. This would, I concede, have been a less compelling read had the Falcons won 35-10 with Chris Chandler throwing four touchdown passes. Journalistically speaking, I got lucky that day.
Robinson started the game. (We weren’t sure he’d play until late in the day.) He lost an early duel with tight end Shannon Sharpe, whom Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan had called “ugly” during the week, near the goal line. The Broncos scored the go-ahead touchdown on the next snap. Morten Andersen, whose foot had undone mighty Minnesota, missed a 26-yard try with 5:07 left in the second quarter. One play later, the Falcons trailed 17-6.
NFL Films has footage of Denver coach Mike Shanahan — yep, father of Kyle — all but chortling on the sideline. “It’s going to be wide open,” he said of the play on first-and-10 from the 20. John Elway rolled right and found Rod Smith running free behind, of all people, Eugene Robinson.
From Section 246 — just right of my perch in the auxiliary press box — came a loud cry: “Hey, EUGENE! Did you have a NICE NIGHT?”
The 80-yard touchdown effectively ended the game. The Broncos would lead 31-6 early in the fourth quarter, would win 34-19. Afterward the only Falcons story was the one I’d been assigned.
To his credit, Robinson faced the media. The crowd around him dwarfed those for all other Falcons. “I strongly believe I will be found innocent,” he said. “But not righteous.”
Then: “The (arrest) didn’t affect my play. I had extra focus on the game.” He also allowed: “I got no sleep.” (He’d also broken his left pinkie trying to tackle Terrell Davis.)
On the Smith touchdown: “That play will really haunt me. I called for us to get a jam on Rod Smith. I don’t know if (cornerback) Ronnie Bradford heard me. He didn’t get a jam. … I tried to play the ball, but John Elway made a great throw.”
Robinson was 35. He’d won a Super Bowl with Green Bay. In his first year as a Falcon, he’d become an inspiration. His teammates dubbed him the Prophet. Earlier in the week, linebacker Cornelius Bennett – a four-time Super loser with Buffalo – said: “I can tell them how to lose the game; Eugene can tell them how to win.”
Somehow the Prophet wound up in a rental car at Biscayne and 22nd on the eve of the biggest game in Falcons history. “We all make mistakes,” Bennett said, but this one left its mark. From the moment they took the field, the lately unflappable Falcons appeared addled and sluggish. They looked beaten from the start; they were by halftime.
Robinson would play two more seasons with the Falcons. He returned the Bart Starr Award. His charges were dropped after he completed a court-ordered rehab program. He would become the radio analyst for the Carolina Panthers. He addressed the team before they played the Broncos – yep, them again – in the Super Bowl in February 2016, his message being: Don’t do as I did. Carolina lost anyway.
Twenty-one years later, we still wonder: Did Robinson’s affect the game? Asked in the immediate aftermath, receiver Terance Mathis said: “I don’t know. Next question.”
Translation: Sure it did. Now stop asking.