Frank Robinson can give you the quick and breezy version of his pro football life, and how a guy from Maryland ended up in Winnipeg for keeps, even if his time there as a player was brief, but glorious.
“Long story short,” says the two-time Grey Cup champion, “is I came up to the CFL and got my permanent resident status and got married to a Winnipeg girl, and I’m here.”
Today, the former linebacker is a member of the Blue Bombers’ board of directors, as well as a member of the board of directors for the Winnipeg Blue Bomber Alumni Association. He and that Winnipeg girl, his wife Teresa, raised seven children and now have 10 grandchildren. When they’re not trying to keep track of all those kids and grandkids, Frank and Teresa own and operate a Chicken Chef restaurant franchise in the city’s St. Boniface neighbourhood.
“Winnipeg’s a big, small city, if that makes sense,” says Robinson of what he likes about his adopted home. “It’s very friendly, down-to-earth, the people here.
The 63-year-old graduate of Tulane University is happy to be contributing to the Blue Bombers, chipping in his two cents at monthly governance meetings, helping to oversee and guide the financial workings of the organization in his position as volunteer board member. It’s a good way for him to put his degree in economics to work, along with the chance to draw on his experiences from the corporate world. After his retirement as a player in 1990, Robinson held positions at both Coca-Cola and AT&T.
“We have a great organization with a great president, Wade Miller,” Robinson says. “He’s a great businessman. It’s been quite the experience. And the Blue Bombers, you know, we have a very successful organization.”
The work has gotten him back a little closer to the sport he loves, with a taste of the side of football he’d not been accustomed to. “It’s really intriguing to watch, behind the scenes, what goes on,” says Robinson. “As a player I never got to see that.”
Back in the day — which would be the 1980’s — Robinson was a superb linebacker, a key part of strong, star-laden defences on Grey Cup championship teams in both Winnipeg and Hamilton.
While he has many reasons to call Winnipeg home now — and those reasons might even have multiplied over the years — Robinson had just one reason to come to Canada at all, really, more than 40 years ago. It’s the same reason that has compelled so many other American college stars to do likewise; so he could play the kind of football he wanted. “Football was in my DNA,” he says.
At a time when CFL offences were largely leaving the two tight end set behind and utilizing smaller, faster slotbacks who could get a head start on patterns with the waggle, Robinson was valued for not only his run-stopping abilities, but also his pass defence talents. Often times, he remembers, he’d drop back into coverage at the snap. These days, we’re used to seeing big defensive backs being converted into linebackers as a matter of course in the CFL. Robinson was the other side of that coin. He was a linebacker who could be counted on to cover receivers. Few linebackers could, back then, on a regular basis.
While he could have taken a shot at an NFL career, it would have been as a safety. And Robinson wanted to play linebacker. It’s the position he played at Tulane, where he still holds team records for career solo tackles and single-season solo tackles. At six-feet and a little over 200 pounds, he was undersized for the position in NFL terms. That wasn’t the case for the CFL, where speed was valued, even in a smaller package.
He came to Canada, to Saskatchewan first, with high hopes. “I was excited with the opportunity to continue to play football,” says Robinson of joining the Roughriders in 1981.
He liked it there and was prepared to stay. It was while in Saskatchewan that he first looked into permanent resident status, something he would get at his next stop, in Manitoba. Robinson enjoyed three successful years with the ‘Riders and to his recollection, he led the team in tackles in each of those three seasons (the CFL did not keep official tackle totals until 1987).
A change in the football hierarchy, however, saw him released by the ‘Riders in 1984. That would be fortuitous, as Robinson was then signed by the Blue Bombers, winning his first Grey Cup that November, helping to form a terrifying four-man linebacking corps along with Tyrone Jones, Delbert Fowler and Aaron Brown.
“I was ecstatic,” remembers Robinson of his team’s 47-17 win over Hamilton. “I played in two bowl games in college. They didn’t compare to my Grey Cup experience. It was such a joy to be part of a championship team. I had never won a championship in football in my whole my whole life. It was my first championship.”
And, of course, it was in Winnipeg where Robinson met Teresa, his wife of 38 years. “Sooner or later you’ve got to settle down somewhere,” he chuckles. “You just can’t keep moving around. At the time, Winnipeg was where I wanted to settle.”
It’d be a while before he could do that, though. In 1985 Robinson got injured and then claimed by Toronto, on waivers, late in the year. His stay in Winnipeg was shorter than he’d have liked but some of his best football was still to come. He was an Argo to begin 1986, but was released after training camp. Toronto had brought in another undersized linebacker, some rookie named Willie Pless.
Robinson would get the last laugh, though. Hamilton signed him as a free agent and the Ticats came up with one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history when they erased a 26-point deficit against the Argos in the two-game, total-points Eastern Final that year. They then went on to claim the Grey Cup with a 39-15 win against Edmonton. Robinson would play four more seasons with the Ticats, earning two All-Star nods and being named Hamilton’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 1987.
It’s a pity that tackle totals were not kept as an official statistic for the first six seasons of Robinson’s 10-year career, so we only get a statistical snapshot of just how effective he was. In his final four seasons, he tallied 276 tackles and if we take the average of that total — 4.18 tackles per game — extrapolating that over his 151 career regular season games, the number swells to an impressive 631. With 19 career interceptions and 18 career fumble recoveries, Robinson was around the ball a lot.
He headed back to Winnipeg when his playing career was over in 1990 and he and Teresa raised their family there while Robinson pursued the corporate life. In 2011, they moved to Michigan for a few years but even then you could say they kept a piece of Winnipeg, of Canada, with them as they operated a Tim Hortons franchise in Auburn Hills.
The lure of Winnipeg remained and they would return.
“When we moved back, I told my wife that I wanted to get back involved with the CFL in some way with the Blue Bombers,” says Robinson, who’d been a guest coach for the team in the early 2000’s, when Dave Ritchie was the head coach.
He first joined the board of directors for the Alumni Association in 2020 and a year later, when he was approached to join the Blue Bombers’ board of directors, Robinson jumped at the opportunity.
Being closer to football after his playing days is something, perhaps, he’d have pursued earlier if he had it all to do over again. No regrets about that, he says, “but if there’s any way I could get back involved in sports again, at a high level, I would be open to it.”
Reflecting on where his life has taken him, and where he is today, Robinson expresses gratitude for the opportunity and the connections that the CFL has been a part of, beginning with his own decision, 40-some-odd years ago, to venture north and over the border.
“I was able to continue playing the game that I loved,” Robinson says. “I met my wife through the CFL, made a lot of friends.
“A great stepping stone,” he adds. “All part of the journey.”