The long road back to BMX Big Air
The theme song from "Rocky" punches through the morning buzz at a Starbucks in Tehachapi, Calif., a speck of a town located 115 miles north of Los Angeles and 4,000 feet above sea level. "Just one second," Kevin Robinson says as he pulls his iPhone from his pocket while balancing a double-shot espresso and an oversized glass canister of sugar in his left hand. It's a delicate act worthy of Cirque du Soleil. He sits the coffee on the condiment counter and pours the sugar as he talks. And pours. And pours. "Hey," he says defensively as he hangs up the call. "I eat healthy. I don't do drugs. I don't smoke. I rarely drink. But I like sugar. And coffee. I have a lot going on today."
Saying Robinson has a lot going on is like saying the New Orleans Saints had a lousy spring. It's both obvious to anyone who knows them and the utmost of understatements. Since he last competed on a BMX bike in 2010, Robinson and his wife, Robin, started a motivational speaking business, founded the K-Rob Foundation and launched an action sports padded-apparel brand called Grindz. They also saved middle school sports in their hometown of East Providence, R.I., began working with the East Providence City Council to secure permits and land on which to build the city's first skate park, and started drawing up plans to open a Camp Woodward-like training facility in Coventry, R.I., in the spring of 2013. During those two years, Robinson also underwent eight surgeries to repair multiple injuries to his right shoulder and endured a rehab routine that would buckle the knees of most Navy SEALs.
"My life is like threading a needle through chaos," Robinson says. "[BMX rider] Mat Hoffman likes to say that. I think it's appropriate for me right now."
This week, Robinson is in Tehachapi to spend a few days jumping the MegaRamp at Woodward West's training facility in preparation for his return to competition in BMX Big Air at the X Games. Already this late May morning, he's fielded several calls from a company he's working with to set up travel for kids who, through his foundation and Target, his sponsor of 10 years, won a chance to attend a weekend camp at Woodward, an action sports camp in State College, Pa. He's answered multiple texts from fellow BMXers Anthony Napolitan and Zack Warden asking him to open the gate at the MegaRamp and responded to a text from a woman who accepted the first paid job at the K-Rob Foundation. All of this in the course of giving an interview and eating breakfast.
"Most of the guys over at camp haven't even woken up yet," Robinson says. "It feels like dinnertime to me." It is 10:30 a.m.
If Robinson has been known for anything over his 20-year career, it is this seemingly limitless supply of energy as well as boundless creativity and a willingness to embrace anyone he meets -- both literally and figuratively. He is famous for his big airs, but he is admired for his even bigger heart, which he wears unabashedly on his sleeve. That has always been the dichotomy of Kevin Robinson: He is both the fiercest competitor on the deck of any halfpipe or MegaRamp, willing to sacrifice his body to throw something more innovative than the next guy, and the first guy to run to a competitor and bear hug him when he lands something even better.
At X Games Los Angeles 2012, Robinson, who turned 40 in December, will compete against athletes nearly half his age who likely can't fathom Robinson still having the drive to make the 70-foot drop into a MegaRamp after tallying 43 surgeries since his 23rd birthday. He is coming to X Games, he says, with yet another never-before-done trick in hopes of winning his fourth gold medal in Big Air, an event he helped to pioneer, and more importantly, to continue progressing the sport of BMX. But win or finish last, Robinson is just happy to have another shot at competing in the sport he loves, at deciding when his competitive career is over. Not long ago, he believed he'd never have this chance.
In late 2009, just a few months after winning his third Big Air gold medal, Robinson dislocated his right shoulder and tore his labrum and rotator cuff at a MegaRamp contest in Brazil. He underwent his first surgery in December, but jumped into rehab and riding too soon and injured it again in the spring. Not wanting to miss out on the X Games, he postponed another surgery and rode in the July event. His shoulder popped out of its socket twice in the week leading up to the X Games and three times at X. By the time he got home to Rhode Island, it was popping out in his sleep.
"I kept having to wake up Robin to help me pop it back in," Robinson says of his wife of eight years, whom he's known since he was 17. At the end of 2010, he underwent another surgery to repair the dislocation. "I kept thinking I was getting to the finish line, and then I'd have another setback," he says.
The next injury came in May 2011. Robinson was pulling out of a four-way stop near his home when a driver sped through the intersection and knifed into his passenger-side door. The impact knocked him unconscious and dislodged the piece of bone that had been taken from his shoulder and screwed into his shoulder joint to keep it from dislocating, which caused yet another dislocation. The accident sent him back under the knife for surgery number 43. This time, his surgeon removed a larger piece of bone from Robinson's hip to resecure his shoulder and then anchored his torn ligaments. The surgeries were painful and the rehab was arduous, but they weren't the toughest part of Robinson's healing process. He became depressed. He thought his career was over.
"People were asking if I was going to retire," Robinson says. "But I knew I couldn't just unzip myself, step out of Kevin and go and do something else. It was scary. I thought, 'What if I don't find something else I love this much?'"
When Robinson was feeling his lowest, he called his best friends. He confided in Robin, who patiently encouraged him to pursue new passions. He stopped by his parents' house for lunch and advice. Because he and Robin had returned to their hometown of East Providence with their three kids in early 2010, Mom and Dad were only five minutes away.
"It was very hard to watch him like that," says his mom, Carole Robinson. "He doesn't get depressed easily, and we were concerned, knowing he's happiest on his bike. But then he started motivational speaking and he started his foundation, and that energized him. Kevin never stays down for long. He's like a boomerang. He just keeps coming back."
While he was injured, Robinson began motivational speaking with his good friend Chris Poulos, a local flatland BMX rider, and realized he was passionate about talking to kids about setting goals, pursuing their dreams, taking risks and embracing kids who are different. Robinson had been bullied as a kid for riding BMX, and he felt energized while delivering his messages of positivity and anti-bullying to the youth of East Providence.
"I talk to them about looking people in the eye, taking off their hats and standing up straight when they meet someone," says Robinson, who also speaks to military groups and business leaders.
During the previous five years, Robinson had worked closely with two San Diego charities run by his best friends, and he was inspired to make a difference in the community that had raised him. He looked around at the town he and Robin had chosen to return to after 10 years of living in State College, Pa., and saw his neighbors struggling to pay their bills, working two jobs to keep their children in sports.
"I have a good life, an amazing family and friends, and I realized if I sat around feeling sorry for myself, I'd be a jerk," Robinson says.
So he called his friends Dr. David Chao, team doctor for the San Diego Chargers and chief medical officer for the X Games, and Junior Seau, a New England Patriots linebacker at the time, and told them he wanted to follow their lead and start his own foundation."Kevin's been on our board of directors for five years, and everyone in the Junior Seau Foundation loves him and Robin, so we wanted to help in any way we could," says Jason Gurka, the foundation's director of operations. "He's so much like Junior. Helping people is in his DNA."
Through the K-Rob Foundation, the Robinsons and their board of directors, which is composed mostly of family members and friends, have helped more than 50 East Providence families pay league dues, buy uniforms and equipment and send their children to competitions. Their first major fundraiser, the 2011 K-Rob Family Fun Festival, drew more than 4,000 people and raised $9,000. This year's event promised to be even bigger, and for it, Robinson had two goals: to raise even more money to help the children of East Providence get involved in sports and to raise awareness for the lack of funding in the local schools.
In February, the East Providence Budget Commission announced it was cutting middle school sports, and true to form, Robinson sprang into action. He went straight to city hall and met with the budget committee. He called local and national media outlets and gave dozens of interviews. He reached out to his friends in the NFL and action sports communities and asked them for their support.
"Kevin was implemental in saving spring sports in our middle schools," says Bill Hurley, a friend and member of the K-Rob Foundation's board of directors. "The kids here didn't have a voice. Now, Kevin is the voice for the youth of East Providence."
In the month leading up to the second annual Family Fun Festival, riders from Woodward called to say they were coming to show their support. A few local NFL friends, including former New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, texted to say they'd be there. In late April, four weeks before the festival's May 20 date, Robinson received a text he still looks at on his phone. "Buddeee, I booked my ticket. So excited. See you soon." Seau, the busiest man on his invite list, was coming, too.
"Junior didn't like to travel, but he was going to Kevin's event because it was something Kevin was proud of," Chao says. "Kevin had the same effect on Junior that Junior had on him. He was proud of Kevin."
Sadly, 18 days before the event, Seau, a future NFL Hall of Famer who spent 11 seasons with the San Diego Chargers, three with the Miami Dolphins and four in New England, committed suicide, leaving behind unanswered questions and a community of friends in mourning.
"I was just with him two months before he died, laughing and having a good time at his golf tournament, happy as always," Robinson says. "It's a mystery. We'll never know why." He continues, then stops, unable to speak for a few moments. "Junior could walk into a room filled with negative people, and by the time he left, make them feel like they could conquer the world. He was one of my best friends. I miss him. I want to embrace all the positive he brought to the world and celebrate the way he lived."
Robinson dedicated his festival, which drew 6,000 people and raised nearly $20,000, to Seau's memory and encouraged everyone who attended to wear No. 55 in his honor. Robinson and his family wore Seau jerseys, riders scribbled "55" on their bike frames, and Robinson awarded the first Junior Seau Award of Excellence to Donnie Senna, a lifetime friend who volunteers as a youth wrestling coach and dedicated much of his spring to saving middle school sports in East Providence.
"It was very emotional," Chao says. "That award was about Kevin's friendship with Junior, and it was so heartfelt. It was an emotional day."
When you have a sole purpose for so long and suddenly that's gone and you're expected to find a new purpose, that's not easy.
Like his friend, Robinson knows his sport has taken its toll, and the possible aftereffects are something he's thought a lot about in the past month and a half.
"We've both been injured a lot, had a lot of concussions," Robinson says. "In action sports, concussions get swept under the rug. We haven't had the repercussions yet. I'll be that guy. But more than that, it's about the abrupt change in life. When you have a sole purpose for so long and suddenly that's gone and you're expected to find a new purpose, that's not easy. A couple years back, I was lost, trying to find my new identity. If I didn't have my wife and hadn't gone home and had my family and my foundation, it would have been so hard. I'm better prepared for that day now. And I can always stay involved. In football, when they're done, they're done. I've made a pact with my other NFL friends to always be open with each other about how we're feeling. We've all taken a lot of hits to the head. Let's always talk and deal with what we're feeling."
True to form, Robinson wants to take care of those around him. But it is a heavy load to carry everyone else's pain and problems, to always wear a smile in hopes it will be transferred onto the faces of those who can't seem to find their own.
"Sometimes I worry that he never thinks he's done enough," Carole Robinson says. "He feels everything. I have to tell him, you can't fix everybody. You have to let them go through their own hard times to come out on the other side."
That, Robinson understands. He has learned that bearing the responsibility for an entire community is too heavy a burden for one man to carry alone, and he realizes he doesn't have to. On May 20, 6,000 people showed him that.
"I let it get into me, the kid who can't afford soccer cleats. I take on the problems of the families we help," Robinson says. "Junior was like that, too. And he was larger than life. That's an even heavier load to carry. He always asked, 'Am I doing enough?' I hope he knows he did more than that. He made a great impact on this planet, and he will always be a part of me."
In the past two years, Robinson has learned he doesn't have to unzip from himself to evolve into the next phase of his life. He found public speaking and philanthropy through BMX, new passions that light him up in the same way riding his bike always has. He knows his body won't allow him to ride the MegaRamp forever, but he also knows he will be involved in the sport for as long as there is breath in his lungs. And for the next couple of years, he plans to give his young competitors a run for their MegaRamp money. Starting July 1 at X Games, where he will ride in a jersey with the words "No. 55 Buddeee" silk-screened onto its back.
"Action sports teaches you to pick yourself up from a fall and to tap into that spark and fire we all have inside of us," Robinson says. "I realized that didn't only apply to BMX. Life handed me lemons, so I chose to make most amazing, sweetest tasting lemonade I possibly could."
No doubt, he used a lot of sugar.