2019 Hall of Fame: Switch to safety led to change of fortune for Johnny Robinson

Shalise Manza Young
Yahoo Sports Columnist

The Pro Football Hall of Fame will formally welcome its Class of 2019 on Saturday. This week, Yahoo Sports is highlighting memorable moments for each member of the eight-man class, leading up to the big ceremony.

Johnny Robinson, 1960-1971

On first thought, tennis and football seem like disparate sports: tennis has long been considered a more graceful sport primarily for individuals, while football is all about teamwork and brute strength.

But you do need power in tennis, and angles are key - a great cross-court forehand or slice can be an instant winning point. And in football, especially as a defensive back, the angle taken toward a ballcarrier can lead to a touchdown-saving tackle and the right one-on-one matchup can be key to a successful game plan.

So maybe the two aren’t so different after all.

Safety Johnny Robinson celebrates with the ball during Super Bowl IV. (Getty Images)

And can explain how Johnny Robinson had so much success so quickly when his Dallas Texans coaches moved him from flanker to safety in 1962.

The senior nominee for this year’s Hall of Fame class, Robinson grew up playing tennis, basketball and football; his father, W.T. Robinson, was the tennis coach at Louisiana State, and he won an SEC singles title in 1958, as well as a doubles title with his older brother Tom in 1959.

Believing he wasn’t a top-caliber tennis player, Johnny Robinson chose football for his post-LSU career, though he returned to the courts in the AFL/NFL offseasons to stay in shape.

With the Tigers, he split time in the backfield with 1959 Heisman winner Billy Cannon, but in 1960 Robinson was drafted in the first round of both the AFL and NFL drafts, by the Texans (who would become the Kansas City Chiefs) and Detroit Tigers, respectively.

Robinson told Arrowhead Pride earlier this year that choosing which team to play for was easy: Dallas was warmer and closer to home in Baton Rouge.

Initially with Dallas, Robinson continued playing offense, totaling 1,870 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns his first two seasons. But before the 1962 season, with two rookie running backs added to the mix, coach Hank Stram decided to move Robinson to safety.

A star was born.

Big-time plays

Robinson’s impact on the Texans’ defense was immediate. He had four interceptions in the regular season, helping key a five-win improvement for Dallas. The Texans were 11-3 in ‘62, and went to the AFL championship against the Houston Oilers.

Robinson had two interceptions in the Texans’ double-overtime win.

But the game his teammates may have remembered best was Super Bowl IV, to close out the 1969 season. By then, the Texans had moved to Kansas City and re-christened as the Chiefs.

Playing with three cracked ribs, Robinson not only started at free safety, he had a fumble recovery and interception.

The Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7, and it remains the franchise’s only championship of the Super Bowl era.

Over his 10 seasons at safety, Robinson pulled in 57 regular-season interceptions, including 10 each in 1966 and 1970. Named to the AFL All-Star game or Pro Bowl every year from 1963-70, he was a first-team All-Pro in five of those seasons.

‘He understood the game so well’

Fellow AFL star Lance Alworth, a receiver who spent the majority of his career with the San Diego Chargers and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978, was a major supporter of Robinson’s selection into the Hall.

“I used to laugh and say Johnny’s the only guy that was in the right place at the wrong time - for us,” Alworth joked to the Talk of Fame podcast last year. “There’s so many things you can use to describe it. He knew the game so well and he understood the game so well that when you were running patterns against him, he saw the whole pattern.

“He didn’t just see people coming into the zone or coming into his area, he immediately knew what was happening with the flare action that the backs were using and the routes that the outside receiver and tight end were putting together. It was a lot of fun, but it was always a big hassle because he was always right there all the time….he was very, very smart and he was quick, he was fast and just a great football player.”

Alworth also wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame selection committee on Robinson’s behalf.

Now 80-years-old, Robinson lives in Monroe, La.