When Fred Robbins reflects on helping forge a foundation for Wake Forest football, we’re talking the purest form.
Twenty years ago, Robbins was a two-sport athlete at Tate High when he signed at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons were coming off a 1-10 season. They had played in only one bowl game in 15 years.
“I kind of liked the underdog mentality,” Robbins said. “I wanted to be part of something new, something fresh, something out of the norm.. That’s part of my personality”
This weekend, he returned to Wake Forest to experience the extraordinary.
Robbins, 38, a Pensacola native, whose decorated football career as a defensive lineman is headlined by 12 NFL seasons and a Super Bowl championship, was honored with induction Friday night into the Wake Forest Sports Hall of Fame. He was honored with five other HOF members at halftime of Saturday’s Wake Forest game against N.C. State.
The stadium itself, now called BB&T Field, evokes all sorts of memories. As a freshman starter at defensive tackle in 1996, Robbins helped the Deacons upset No. 13 Northwestern 28-27 in the season opener, which remains one of the school’s biggest wins. Back then Groves Stadium resembled a large high school stadium and was in the initial stage of remodeling.
“They were starting the construction on our new field house. We had to change in tents outside,” Robbins said, laughing. “It was like these big circus tents. So here we were, changing in a circus tent to go back out on the field. But we wound up beating those guys (Northwestern) in back to back years when they were ranked.
“When you look back now, it’s like, hey, we helped start and build a new foundation. And just to say hey, we kinda helped pave the way to where the program is now.”
From a circus tent, Robbins played in football’s greatest Big Top when the New York Giants reached Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3, 2008, beating the New England Patriots 17-14 in what remains one of the NFL’s biggest upsets of any championship game. The next season, Robbins was named All-Pro.
Robbins came back to finish his college degree in 2009 and went through graduation at Wake Forest. It led to his nomination and confirmation in March into the school’s hall of fame.
“To get recognized for not only sports, but also the person you are is a very special moment,” said Robbins, who only missed one game as a starter in four years at Wake Forest and became a second-round draft selection by the Minnesota Vikings in 2000.
The Robbins’ group traveled from Pensacola to Winston-Salem, N.C., in two cars. His parents, Blanche and Fred Robbins Sr., both retired school teachers in Escambia County, were in one car, along with his niece, Nesha, a University of Florida graduate, who remembers being 4-years-old when Robbins played college football.
Fred and his wife, Tia, and their two children were in another car. There were eight family members who helped celebrate his induction.
“This kinda brings back memories of when I used to go back and forth from Pensacola when I played (at Wake Forest),” said Robbins, as he drove earlier this week.
Robbins is now active with his new role in Pensacola. He and his wife established “Mr. Robbins Neighborhood” to mentor and help youths in our community. Fred has stressed education and a Plan B for young football players who don’t understand the odds are astronomical to reach pro football. Most kids don’t get the chance for a college scholarship, much less have even a remote chance at the NFL.
One of Robbins’ teammates at Wake Forest was receiver Jammie Deese, now the offensive coordinator at the University of West Florida. Robbins has helped with a UWF football camp and in helping Deese learn Pensacola.
“Here’s the thing about Fred. He played 12 years in the league ... extremely productive and an amazingly good guy,” UWF coach Pete Shinnick said. “Some of those guys ... they are not the way Fred is ... in giving back to the community, thinking of how he can impact and influence people. Fred has been fantastic.”
Robbins is proud of Tate, proud of Pensacola, proud of having a degree at Wake Forest. He is part of an athletic legacy at Wake Forest that includes golf’s greatest legend, Arnold Palmer, and NBA superstar Tim Duncan.
“This means a lot,” he said. “I was just telling my wife.. There are so many different criteria that goes into being inducted into (Wake Forest) sports hall of fame. It is not just your athletic performance, it also represents the type of person you are. I think that sums it up for me. Just to be recognized off the field, for strong personal character is a tremendous honor.”
Joining Robbins in this year’s Wake Forest Hall of Fame class was the Deacons’ former long time baseball coach George Greer, who remains the school’s all time wins leader. Robbins was a standout outfielder at Tate and thought about trying to play two sports before realizing his size (he played in the NFL at 6-4, 325) was best suited to being a defensive tackle.
The Deacons football coach back then was Jim Caldwell, now the Detroit Lions head coach. Caldwell reached the Super Bowl while an assistant coach with the Indianapolis Colts.
“I am a big family person. The way Wake Forest ran their football program made me feel welcome,” said Robbins, who is now serving on the Deacon Club Board of Directors. “I wanted to get away a little bit from Pensacola. I like the small school environment there with our 4,500 students strong.”
His leap of faith led to grand achievements.
FRED ROBBINS BIO
BORN: March 25, 1977
HIGH SCHOOL: Tate
COLLEGE: Wake Forest.
NFL: Played 12 seasons for three teams (Minnesota, New York Giants, St. Louis Rams). He was a starter in 148 of his 180 total NFL career games.
FUN FACT: Robbins was deemed too big to play youth football in Pensacola. He exceeded weight limits throughout his age divisions, so he never played competitive football until his ninth grade year at Tate High.