Before he heads back to Buffalo for training camp, Nickell Robey will first visit his best friend.
Down in Frostproof, Fla., he’ll weave through the graveyard and find the tombstone that is surrounded by a cross, flowers and angel sculptures, the one that reads “Maxine E. Coleman.” His mother. The two will reminisce, with Robey telling Mom all about his NFL career, how he’s making it as a 5-foot-7 cornerback.
And the visit will surely end with a tearful “I miss you.”
“It’s always emotional,” Robey said. “It’s very touching all the time when I visit her.”
“I just wish that she was here taking in this experience in the flesh. It’s tough.”
That’s because he’ll stare at that date – Feb. 18, 2010 – and relive the darkest turn of events in his life. The announcement that he’d attend the University of Southern California. Witnessing his mother’s massive heart attack 15 days later. The hospital visit. The funeral.
It all happened so fast, without warning.
Yet Robey knows it all made him who he is. This undrafted, undersized defensive back is fighting to be the Buffalo Bills’ nickel cornerback for a third season. His position is suddenly crowded, with the team drafting Florida State’s Ronald Darby in the second round and everyone returning. So five years later, Maxine still lives through Robey.
“I bring a lot of heart to the game,” Robey said. “I bring an impact to the game. I’m fearless. We all have athletic ability, but a lot of players don’t have the intangibles to withstand what comes with the NFL. I’m fearless.
“The fearless part. I know I get that from my mom.”
Whenever Robey is wheezing in fatigue during practice, whenever he stares at a receiver across the line who’s six, seven inches taller, he thinks of his mother.
“It gives me more of a push,” Robey said. “That makes me go. Because I know if she was living, she’d be appreciating everything that I’m doing and pushing me through it.
“This is all for her. My whole game, the way I play is all for her. I know she’s watching.”
Maybe from up above. Mom never had the chance to see Robey play a snap beyond high school in the stands.
Before heading to class one February morning his senior year – still riding high from choosing USC on Signing Day – Robey needed to check on his mother. She was dealing with high blood pressure and had just visited the hospital. So Robey’s uncle, who had stayed the night, asked if Nickell could pop in to her bedroom before taking off.
He did. He was horrified.
His mom was passed out on the floor.
Robey shifted into “emergency mode,” calling 911 and administering CPR. He tried speaking to his mother. And while her lips moved, she couldn’t speak.
“She was trying to say something,” Robey said, “but I didn’t know what it was. She couldn’t get those last words.”
The ambulance arrived, Maxine was rushed to the hospital and family urged Robey to go to school. He tried and didn’t last long. Soon, Robey was rushing to the hospital himself. When he stepped into the room and saw all the mournful faces, he knew. His mother, his “everything,” was gone.
“Everybody was just in disbelief,” he said. “Still today, it’s like it was yesterday. … It was tough for everybody.”
Robey asked to be with Maxine alone and knelt at her bedside. Leaning in, he promised her he’d finish school, he’d play in the NFL, he’d live in her honor.
To this day, that moment runs on repeat in his mind.
This was the woman who was toughest on him.
Oh, Maxine Coleman would cook for Robey’s football team. She was beloved in the community, a gregarious presence in church who despite a heart condition worked at two nursing homes nearby and a third home 15 minutes away to support the family. Robey’s father, Earl, got him into football at 6 years old and hung around until Nickell was 14. Then, the cornerback said, Dad “started falling off. He just started fading away.”
So Mom provided both compassion and discipline. Love and lessons. She grilled Robey nightly to do his homework, to make National Honor Society.
Robey declared for the NFL a year early, yet plans on finishing his degree.
And his style of play – fearless – reflects Mom’s personality.
At Frostproof, Robey started all four years. The head coach, Brad Metheny, left Robey alone in one-on-one coverage each week, be it against future pro Janoris Jenkins or a 6-foot-6 tight end from Clearwater Central Catholic who challenged Robey deep four times. Twice, Robey picked off the pass. Twice, he batted the ball away.
“His fearlessness was ‘Give me the ball. I’ll make something happen,’ ” Metheny said. “Whether it’s running a bubble screen at receiver or running a deep post route. Defensively, he took on the assignment of taking on a receiver man-to-man and locking down a side.”
On the basketball court, Metheny remembers Robey throwing down one-handed dunks from the baseline. In track, there was a 100-meter sprinter from a nearby high school who always beat Robey during the season. He’d repeat, “I’m going to get him, I’m going to get him,” down the Frostproof hallways all spring … and then toast the kid in regionals. And when USC’s Monte Kiffin recruited Robey, the longtime coach told Metheny that Robey had better ball skills in high school than most of the defensive backs he coached at Tennessee the year prior.
Mom’s death took this competitiveness to another level.
Through the heartbreak, Metheny told Robey his door was always open. To cry, to vent, to mourn, to even “punch a wall,” if he needed to.
Yet Robey hardly flinched. He had a promise to fulfill.
“It was a tragic time. Maxine was his rock,” Metheny said. “Nickell stayed strong through the whole thing. He went through some personal trying moments, but I give him a lot of credit. He went out to USC, even with that happening, and never missed a beat.
“You saw the intestinal fortitude of Nickell. It was a motivating factor for him because he meant so much to her. He wasn’t about to let her down.”
Meeting a challenge
On the Monday of USC/Notre Dame Week, Robey approached coaches with a fact. Not a suggestion. A fact. He would cover wide receiver Michael Floyd. The 5-foot-7 sophomore wanted this 6-foot-3, 220-pound eventual 13th overall pick to himself.
Alone. No help. One-on-one.
Which is something like dropping your point guard down to the block to body up Shaquille O’Neal.
“The crazy thing is the coaches didn’t think twice,” said USC safety T.J. McDonald, now with the St. Louis Rams. “They didn’t think twice. Nickell has that type of presence. If he says he’s going to do it, he does it.”
And Floyd, McDonald adds, “was eliminated.”
The wideout caught four passes for 28 yards. On one slant pass, Robey ripped the ball away from him for an interception.
McDonald was there in Los Angeles when Robey first arrived. MacDonald’s new teammate never spoke about the tragedy, never seemed depressed at all. McDonald only knew about Maxine’s heart attack when a coach explained it to him.
“Every day he showed up to work,” McDonald said, “every day he showed up going 100 percent.”
Teammates did see the tribute in Robey’s locker, the picture of Mom with the words “RIP.” To this day, Robey says a prayer to his mother before every game. And he always sports a specific accessory – an arm band, eye black, something – to serve as a tangible, mid-game jolt of adrenaline.
He needs to hear that voice telling him to study for a final.
“To let me know,” Robey said, “fourth quarter, I’m tired, I look at my wrist and think about my momma. All of that helps when you’re in the heat of the battle. It takes your mind to another place to get yourself level.”
Now, McDonald’s father is Robey’s defensive backs coach in Buffalo. Tim and T.J. McDonald recently watched one of Robey’s Bills games together.
The uninhibited energy stood out, the passion.
As far as T.J. McDonald is concerned, Darby could play outside and Robey inside. McDonald says Robey makes up for his short stature with quickness, footwork, studying releases and – above all – “fearlessness.”
From Day One, he was all business at USC.
“Smallest guy, biggest heart,” McDonald said. “He came in as a freshman with people not knowing how he’d do and battled. … I saw that right away. Everybody saw it right away. At the nickel position he’s playing right now, I don’t know if you’re going to find any better.
“He’s not going to back down from anybody.”
Forgive and move on
Now, at 23 years old, Nickell Robey has a relationship with Dad. Once he left college for the pros in 2013, communication between the two picked up.
“I just wanted to let the past be the past,” Robey said, “and forgive him and let him know that we’re all grown men. Everybody makes mistakes and we’re going to keep making mistakes. We’re not perfect. When I have kids, I want my kids to know their grandfather.”
Robey bonded with his father over Earl’s old business – trucking. After three years of learning the trade and saving money, Robey now has his own trucking business on the side.
He lost one parent but, in a way, gained another.
Yes, life has cleared up for Robey.
On the field, he’s the Bills’ starting nickel back with 85 tackles, 18 pass break-ups and four sacks in two seasons. In Rex Ryan’s defense, Robey expects to blitz more, saying to expect “a lot of twists” on Sundays. He’ll be the No. 37 blue blur, pinballing around the corner.
In a cornerback room that includes Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, Darby and Ron Brooks, Robey is positive his style differs from everybody else’s.
“I’m real aggressive,” Robey said. “And I will hit you. So I feel like I bring a whole other speed to the game because I’m quick and fast. And try to get my hands on the ball, try to get interceptions, always go for the ball.
“So if you can find a corner like that – I know there’s a lot of corners out here – but a lot of them aren’t willing to hit, a lot of them aren’t willing to cover, either. So I feel like I have those intangibles.”
On Mother’s Day this past May, Robey visited Maxine Coleman and posted a photo on social media with the message, “Love Yo Momma. No Matter What!”
He sure does. Robey told her everything. He repeats that he thinks of her every single day.
Now, she’s gone.
“But,” Robey said, “she will never be forgotten.”