Robey takes pride in leadership

Elite cornerbacks are often praised for their ability to forget.

Nickell Robey possesses that -- the mindset to shake off any mistake and immediately bounce back -- but it's the things he won't forget -- things he can't forget -- that make him one of the most important members of the USC Trojans.

Growing up, Robey's life was about family and football. And more times than not, those two couldn't help but overlap.

Included in Robey's long list of cousins are former NFL wide receiver Alvin Harper, current University of Georgia running back Carlton Thomas, and Cedrick Cox, a receiver at Southeast Missouri State whom Robey credits with first inspiring him to play the game. Robey's father, whom he referred to as "a football guru," also was constantly involved in the sport.

Playing alongside his cousins and giving up three years in age constantly made Robey the youngest and smallest of the group, but he did everything he could to spend as much time as possible learning from Cox.

"I always wanted to be around him, so I followed him everywhere," Robey said. "I really thank God for him because he inspired me to play football hard."

Robey grew up in the church, and doesn't hesitate to thank or praise God in any situation. It's a byproduct of another person whom he isn't shy about giving credit to either.

"My mama was a church leader for 10 or 11 years," Robey said. "She taught me to keep faith."

It was a lesson Robey remembered. And that memory keeps him strong to this day. Robey lost his mother, Maxine Robey, to a massive heart attack just days after signing his letter of intent to USC. In the aftermath, Robey and his younger sister, Maranda, lost contact with their father, whom Robey hasn't spoken with or been able to contact in nearly two years. What was a strong, unbreakable family unit had been momentarily shattered.

The two siblings moved in with an aunt, and, with the help of a family that included nearly a dozen cousins and several aunts, fell back into a well-rooted support system.

But Robey still had his mother's words, as well as her faith.

"She told me, 'Nickell, always go for what you want,'" Robey said.

While there were whispers about Robey possibly looking to back out of his commitment to attend USC and instead stay closer to home, the truth couldn't have been further away.

"When my mom first passed, I called [USC coach] Lane [Kiffin] and I said, 'When I get there, I'm going to work my tail off and I'm going to start,'" Robey said. "I said, 'This is going to be the biggest impact of my whole life. This determines everything for me and I look at this as a do-or-die situation.'"

Several months after that phone call, Robey traveled the nearly 2,600 miles across the country to begin a new chapter in his life. But before he spent the summer digesting the playbook, logging extra hours in the film room and opening the eyes of his teammates, Robey made a memorable first impression.

"I addressed the team when I first came in and said that I was going to be doing things the Trojan Way," Robey said. "I set a big goal for myself. I spoke it to my teammates and now I had to live it."

Robey said he took some good-natured ribbing from some of his teammates after that episode, but it quickly disappeared as he lived up to every word of it. Starting safety and defensive leader T.J. McDonald said the team could tell right away there was no reason to doubt Robey. He endeared himself to his teammates, earning their respect even before the start of his first fall camp.

But perhaps more importantly, he grabbed the attention of virtually every USC coach. During that camp, Lane Kiffin said multiple times that he had position coaches fighting for time with Robey, as he had the potential to play on every special teams unit.

"I don't think I've ever seen a day where he didn't show up," assistant head coach Monte Kiffin said. "He's a special guy -- not just as a football player -- he is a special person. Believe me."

It paid off for Robey last season, as he grabbed a starting cornerback position and never let go, finishing the season with 48 tackles and a team-high four interceptions. After a shaky outing to open the season in a shootout win over Hawaii, Robey eventually settled into his role, improving mightily as the year progressed. Now, he stands as perhaps the best overall defender on the USC roster.

Willie Mack Garza, USC's defensive backs coach, echoed Kiffin's sentiments, raving about his determination to continue to improve even after locking up a starting spot so early in his career. A defensive and team leader, Robey will look to lead the turnaround as the USC secondary tries to rebound from a poor performance in 2010. Just a sophomore, Robey is more than comfortable taking charge of his group.

"I take a lot of pride in my leadership," Robey said. "It's very important to keep your image on and off the field, because it's something that you worked for. It isn't something that was given to you. Every day I had to work up to having this leadership. Every single day, every film session, every meeting, all of that counted. It all came together and made a big impact. I was working my tail off."

It's not often that a 19-year-old sophomore has had to work through the difficulty of two coaching changes hijacking his recruiting process as well as the catastrophic situation of losing both parents. But true to form, Robey is able to process it all.

"Now that I look back, it seems like it was already planned out for this to happen," he said. "A lot of things happened in my life for a reason. When my mom first passed, there was a lot going through my mind. So I had to keep myself grounded, keep myself within my faith and not let my focus get out. I was going by what my mama always taught me."

He can't help but let that work its way to other parts of his life, outside football, as well. At 16, Maranda Robey still lives with their aunt in Florida, but she is in almost constant communication with her older brother. She plans to fly to Los Angeles with her aunt and grandmother for a November homecoming game against the University of Washington.

"He inspires me and sometimes he helps me through life," Maranda Robey said. "When I'm sad, he picks me back up. He's just that type of person."

Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at erik@wearesc.com.