How to handle being an icon

Denard Robinson is past the realm of star athlete, which presents challenges

Updated: March 28, 2012, 12:11 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For one of the few times in his three-plus years at Michigan, Denard Robinson was not the most recognizable person in the room.

In the middle of the morning on Jan. 27, Robinson moved from the well-known quarterback of the University of Michigan to something far greater. Those with little interest in sports and no interest in college football were tuned to CNN, where the university was featured.

[+] EnlargeBarack Obama
Bill Pugliano/Getty ImagesPresident Obama mentioned Denard Robinson twice in his speech in Ann Arbor on Jan. 27, further increasing the quarterback's celebrity profile.
President Barack Obama was giving a speech in the Al Glick Fieldhouse, the school's football complex. Robinson was in the crowd. Obama, whom Robinson also met that day, knew that.

So Obama mentioned Robinson in his speech that morning. Twice. The moment where Robinson grew from Michigan celebrity to nationwide curiosity was finalized right then.

"That's one of those days I'm going to sit down and tell my grandkids, sit down I've got a story for y'all," Robinson said. "I met the President. That's one of the things I'll always remember and always cherish.

"As soon as I got done meeting him, I called my dad, my mom, my brothers and said, 'I just met the President. I just met the President of the United States.' "

It was just the latest example of Robinson moving toward a rarefied space in the college sporting culture. Almost every school has pseudo-celebrities on campus, athletes who are well known around town or within their school.

Few transcend that. Before Robinson, Michigan had the Fab Five and Desmond Howard. Outside of Michigan, guys in this realm include Charlie Ward, Joey Harrington, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush and the most famous college athlete of them all, former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

All had elite talent, but they reached that transcendent level for different reasons. For the Fab Five, it was the way they handled themselves and the style they brought to college basketball. With Howard, it was 'The Pose.' Ward was a two-sport star. Leinart and Bush were stars on two USC teams in Los Angeles, where the Trojans often are covered and treated like an NFL squad.

Harrington had a 10-story billboard of his likeness in midtown Manhattan. Tebow was the first star of the Facebook/Twitter generation, and his outward display of his religious beliefs combined with his leadership and talent made him a polarizing figure.

All, though, were known as much by casual observers as hardcore fans.

[+] EnlargeJoey Harrington
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesA 10-story billboard of his likeness in Times Square shot Joey Harrington into the public consciousness in 2001.
The moment
Much like Robinson, Harrington had a 'moment.'

Before his senior year at Oregon, Harrington was approached by someone at the school asking his permission for the school to produce a billboard featuring him. It was something the school did all around campus, so he agreed.

The next week, the same people approached again, telling him it would be 10 stories high. Somewhat surprised, he agreed again. A week later, they informed him of something else. The billboard wouldn't be in Eugene, Ore., or Portland.

It'd be in New York City.

Instantly, Harrington became a celebrity. National media flocked to Oregon to learn about the guy on the side of a building. Once the billboard went up, everything changed in a life that already was starting to shift toward celebrity anyway.

"There were people who thought it was a great marketing piece," Harrington said. "There were people who thought it was the worst part of college football. But the reality is for a program that was trying to get into the national conversation, it was exactly what we needed.

"Whether you loved it or hated it, you were talking about it."

It caused immediate shift in the perception of Harrington, who might be more like Robinson than most. Harrington would throw on a red wig and join the Oregon student section in basketball games. Robinson was in the Michigan student section for multiple basketball games this year, and if he hadn't shown up late would have had his chest painted for the Michigan-Ohio State game in February.

Harrington went out of his way to try and take in every part of his college experience. He recognized if he embraced the interest in him, those around him would accept him. When they saw he wasn't bigger than anybody else, he was able to briefly become like everyone else.

This is the biggest correlation between him and Robinson, who often has tried to be just a regular student as his Q rating continues to rise.

"I enjoy interacting with people," Robinson said. "That's one of the things I always enjoy. I come from a big family, and meeting new people is not a problem for me. I love meeting new people.

"So if I see somebody on the street, I'm going to say hi to you. My goal is to make somebody's day every day. Hopefully, I can do that."

Robinson's personality meshes with this. His smile can put nervous people at ease. And since he came off so sincere and humble, Howard did something he rarely does: He gave Robinson his cell phone number.

The changes
As the star rises, though, not everything is perfect. Demand for time skyrockets. Attention increases, whether you embrace it like Robinson has or whether you don't. Robinson posing for pictures walking between classes has become commonplace.

With the celebrity comes pratfalls. One wrong move -- like someone hacking into your Twitter account, which happened to Robinson in October -- can cause hysteria. Everything becomes magnified and can severely disrupt the college experience.

It isn't necessarily a case of whether or not an athlete wants to take the picture at the time -- it's more of a worry about where that picture will end up and who will be profiting from it. It was something Howard didn't have to deal with in college. Neither did Harrington or the Fab Five.

[+] EnlargeDesmond Howard
Getty ImagesDesmond Howard's "Heisman Pose", and the attention that it brought, made going to class a circus for the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner.
"The best thing that ever happened to me, personally, in my career and my time at Michigan is that it didn't happen now," said Jalen Rose, one of the members of the Fab Five. "I can only imagine being a college kid and enjoying the college experience, doing some of the things we did, saying some of the things we said on a nationwide profile every time we lifted a finger, it would not have been the best remedy.

"I'm pretty sure we had a little bit more fun in Ann Arbor than Denard could ever have."

It also leaves an ongoing battle between holding on to the last vestiges of childhood that college offers and being thrust into the world of the massive business that is college athletics.

Howard didn't try to hide, either. Even when eating at restaurants became difficult and he started doing his food shopping at the local grocery store at 2 a.m. -- when it would be him and employees stocking shelves in the supermarket -- he didn't hide.

Instead, he showed up on campus at class in a shirt, tie and with an attache case. Professors, he said, respected that, as well as how seriously he took the education component of his college experience. Others, though, figured out his class schedule. They'd show up with multiple issues of Sports Illustrated to sign or jerseys or mini-footballs or helmets. He would do his best to oblige.

"That could become a bit much," Howard said. "I don't mind signing one thing for one person, but people coming in with five Sports Illustrateds, four footballs, things of that nature, that's just really ... that's when you have to gain some sort of control of the situation because you just can't have that. You can't.

"At the end of the day, this is an environment where people are trying to learn, too, and people are taking advantage of the situation, and of course word gets out, people find out your class schedule. That's when the professors, the TAs, have to take control of the situation."

Thus far, Robinson has appeared to handle it well, but he still has another semester-and-a-half, at least, on Michigan's campus.

This is the same thing Harrington did. He embraced everything -- in part because Oregon was where he always wanted to go to college, not because it was a potential path to the NFL.

Enjoying everything and striving to fit in became paramount. People who knew nothing about Harrington made judgments about him because of the billboard, the celebrity and the position he was in. He never could have a bad moment or an angry outburst because of this.

"You had to accept and embrace that people wanted to know about you, learn about you, be part of your success," Harrington said. "So if you handle it in a way that is inviting and welcoming, people treat you with respect. If you handle it in a way where you put yourself above everybody, you're going to get treated differently.

"I think more than anything, you have to realize that people just want to be part of it, that they are connected to what is going on at their school and share in part of the good things that are going on. If you can realize that and embrace it, then it doesn't become intrusive."

Is he there yet?
Those who have reached the level of transcendent star all had one thing in common. They won, often times big. Rose and the Fab Five made back-to-back national championship games. Howard, Ward and Tebow won Heisman trophies and, in the case of the latter two, national championships.

Harrington finished fourth in the 2001 Heisman Trophy voting, led Oregon to a 11-1 record and a No. 2 ranking a senior and was a first-team All-American.

Both Rose and Howard see the potential in Robinson. They think he can reach that level. Winning will help. So will continuing to put up the eye-popping numbers, as he is within reaching distance of the all-time quarterback rushing record of 4,480 yards currently held by former West Virginia quarterback Pat White.

"Not yet," Rose said. "It comes with playing games on a high level and being bigger than the score of the game. While we love him, and I love him, and what he's doing in school is tremendous, I don't think it's stopping people from the SEC or ACC or Pac-12.

"That's what I mean by being a Heisman candidate and playing top-ranked teams, and it starts versus Alabama."

So this might just be the start for Robinson. When Obama name-dropped him during his speech, Robinson said, 'Oh my gosh, this is crazy.' If things go as he would like this season, it might just be the beginning.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter