Nickell Robey nodded his head and smiled in the Bills locker room midway through a question Sunday, as if he had been waiting with the answer all year. The subject had turned to his tiny hometown in Florida and the high school he shared with a local legend who became a cautionary tale in the NFL.
Sure, he knew Travis Henry.
“He was a god,” Robey said.
Henry was the pride of Frostproof, Fla., an inspiration for Robey and most boys his age who grew up in the aptly named town about 40 miles from Tampa. Henry was evidence that a kid from their area could play big-time college football, become a second-round pick in the NFL and make millions of dollars.
They became friends, as much as an NFL star and a Pop Warner star could. Robey was 11 years old and already following in Henry’s footsteps when they first met. Henry loaded up a bag of goodies he accumulated from the Bills during the season and gave it to the boy after returning home from Buffalo.
“He was in the NFL, and I will never forget it,” Robey said. “He gave me a crazy load of gear. It was like workout sweats, cleats, shirts – you name it – the Nike wristbands, brand-new Reebok gloves, everything. I was in love with him from Day One. If anybody talked about him, I took off on them for what he did for me. I was in awe.”
Henry was a terrific player in his prime, but these days he’s remembered for the wrong reasons. By last count, he fathered 11 children from 10 women. He was charged with a sex-related crime involving a 15-year-old Hamburg girl before the Bills shipped him to Tennessee. Two years later, after he was released by Denver, a once-promising career ended with a yawn.
In a flash, it was over.
Henry landed in prison and was slapped with a $4 million fine after striking a plea agreement with authorities who claimed he was a drug dealer. Henry was a friendly guy, he really was, but he was grossly irresponsible and took football for granted. He didn’t understand how quickly it could be taken away until it was too late.
And that’s one reason Robey treats every play like his last. He continued Sunday in the 19-0 washout of the Dolphins. The 21-year-old rookie cornerback was everywhere, as he has been all season. He had two sacks. He could have had four and a safety if Ryan Tannehill didn’t manage to escape two other times.
“That makes me play so hard, knowing that somebody had an opportunity, messed it up and can’t come back from it,” Robey said. “I’m in that same position that he was in. I’m in it right now, and I’m not going to mess it up for nobody. It’s all in front of me.”
Yes, it’s all right there, waiting for him.
Robey has been a bright spot in another dark season for the Bills, who have missed the playoffs 14 straight years. At 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds – in cleats and soaking wet – he’s a little man who has played twice his size and evolved into one of the most consistent players on the Bills’ attacking defense.
Miami should be convinced. Robey picked off Tannehill on the opening possession of the first meeting, taking the interception 19 yards to the house in a Bills’ victory Oct. 20. He twice had perfectly timed blitzes Sunday that allowed him to come off the edge and drop Tannehill. The Bills are watching him come of age.
“It’s been a blast,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “He’s a guy that has everything but height. We were shocked that he went undrafted. It was one of those things. He’s very football smart. There are some guys that just make plays. There are some guys that have everything, but they can’t finish whereas Robey, the ball finds him.”
To think he could have slipped through the cracks. He started at USC as a true freshman but left after three years convinced he was ready for the NFL. In fact, he was right. The problem was convincing NFL scouts who paid so much attention to his size that they ignored the size of his heart.
Bills General Manager Doug Whaley signed him shortly after the draft knowing he was getting a terrific athlete, but Robey needed to prove as much on the field. The same kid who was dismissed in the draft played so well in training camp that the coaching staff couldn’t take their eyes off of him.
“It’s a big-man’s game, there’s no doubt about it, but there are exceptions to every rule,” Whaley said. “What you have to say is, ‘What’s in this guy’s heart?’ You can’t put a quantitative measurement on heart and desire and will and passion. It’s something you notice in a guy when you see him play. This guy has it.”
Robey after the season will return to his high school, where his jersey hangs alongside one Henry wore during his glory days in Frostproof. Robey has become the player kids want to emulate these days. Henry is no longer in prison, but the money is gone, outstanding debts remain, and job opportunities are scarce.
Henry was among the first people who called Robey when he signed his contract with the Bills last spring. Ten years after their first meeting, with his own pockets empty, Henry gave Robey the only thing he had left to offer: A lesson in life.
“The first thing he said was, “Don’t make the same mistakes I did,’ ” Robey said. “He kept it real with me. He told me about his kids, making bad decisions, going to prison, and he’s broke. He told me everything, that if you don’t control your lifestyle, your lifestyle will control you.”