Being a teacher seemed like a pretty good plan for a college-aged Marcus Robinson. After all, playing football for the University of South Carolina wasn’t much fun so far—the Gamecocks were 4-7 in 1993 and hadn’t seen a bowl game in five seasons—and growing up in rural Georgia, teachers seemed to live in nice homes. Teaching felt like a promising path to happiness.
But it wasn’t the only path. There was another one that Robinson needed some help to find. A new South Carolina wide receivers coach, John Eason, pointed the way. “After our first spring ball,” Robinson recalled, “he came over and told me, ‘Marcus, listen, you take this seriously, like you should, you can make a lot of money playing this sport. With your size and your talent, you should be taking this seriously.’”
Eason was Robinson’s muse, if only for a moment—but it was a pivotal moment, one Robinson can’t forget. Now, a leader of aspiring athletes with Big Time Sports With Marcus, Robinson always works his clients’ mind-sets, as well as their muscles.
Realists and pragmatists, and especially pessimists, are in for a dose of inspiration from Robinson. “Prime example is Sky High, the [volleyball] team my daughter played for, where they have the top team, which is the black team, then the red team, then the white team,” explains Robinson, fresh from a one-on-one footwork session with a high school basketball player. “I ask the girls, ‘Okay, who wants to be on the black team?’ Not everybody raises their hand, and I say, ‘Why not?’ I thought everybody wanted to be on the top team. So, I have conversations like that openly with them. … You should strive for it and what you can be. It’s okay if you don’t make it. It doesn’t mean you don’t strive to push yourself.”
Once the attitude is adjusted, Robinson can focus on the nuances—the strength, agility, explosiveness, etcetera—that matter to the trainee’s chosen sport. He’s been working that way for seven-and-a-half years with Big Time Sports, which just moved into a vast, pristine athletic facility in West Dundee.
The building is a converted Target Superstore off Main Street, a main drag not far off the Jane Addams Tollway. What was once a reasonable shopper’s paradise is now a teenage athlete’s sanctum: bright, full turf fields; shining, open basketball courts; a Hoverboard course; rows of arcade games; food counters; Gatorade vending machines; an athletic-gear shop. The stuff of kids’ dreams.
Follow the sideline of the far turf field, bordered on the right by a gauntlet of training equipment. When it ends a hundred yards later, turn right. There, nearly hidden between courts, the turf, and the equipment gauntlet, is a set of glass doors reading Big Time Sports.
Inside, Robinson is leading footwork drills with a rising junior basketball player from Hampshire High School. The kid started on varsity as a sophomore, and while he’s on the short side, Robinson says, “He can play.” Like most, the trainee found Big Time Sports through word of mouth, which is Robinson’s best marketing tool. Parents see results and pass a recommendation to others, whether that’s their other children, friends, or other team parents.
Like his first career, Robinson’s second started by someone noticing his talent. A young man, just thirty-one years old, but retired from the National Football League, Robinson was still an avid exerciser in 2006, working out at an athletic facility in Lake in the Hills and at Harry D. Jacobs High School in Algonquin. One day, a couple noticed his workouts and asked if they could join him. With a shrug and a “sure,” he gave them his workout dates and places. The woman dropped fifteen pounds. The happy couple pushed Robinson to pursue training as a second career. Hesitant, he gave it a shot, and it didn’t take long to hook him. “I was working … in Arlington Heights, and I remember a kid with his glasses on, he had to be ten, and we had an eighteen-inch jumping box, and he couldn’t jump on the box,” Robinson told. “I trained him. We had a class going, and he jumped on that box, and I got so excited that I ran to his dad and told him, ‘You gotta see this.’ … From that point on, it was something I wanted to do.”
Big Time Sports with Marcus was born, just a couple years after Robinson retired from the N.F.L. as a Chicago Bear in 2007. He played nine seasons for three teams after the Bears drafted him in the fourth round in 1997, but signed a one-day contract with the Bears so he could retire with the team that gave him his shot.
His journey to a second career was much more efficient than his journey to a first. In the small, humble town of Fort Valley, Georgia, Robinson was an equal-opportunity active child. He and the neighborhood boys played whatever whenever. Football was the primary activity, and the boys would forego watching N.F.L on Sundays to play the game all day, Robinson said. “I had nine boys my age in the neighborhood and that’s all we did,” he said. “I didn’t grow up watching football. I didn’t even have a favorite team. We had a field probably a football-field-and-a-half long, and Sundays we would play six or seven hours, easy.”
In high school, Robinson’s football career almost detoured, after his mom forbid him to play—literally pulling him off the high school practice field after Robinson forged her name on a permission slip. Later that evening, however, the school’s coaches visited the Robinson household and talked about Marcus’ talents and scholarship potential. “Now she’s one of the hugest football fans there is,” Robinson laughed.
An All-America wide receiver and track state champion in high school. Robinson signed to play and run with the University of South Carolina. After a tumultuous couple seasons, things turned for Robinson and the Gamecocks after the new receivers coach, Eason, was hired in 1995.
With boosted confidence and focus, it was a whole new ballgame for Robinson. Preparation took on real meaning, and he had a new goal, one that was realized just two years later when he was drafted in the fourth round by the Chicago Bears. That day, Robinson was expecting to get drafted by the New York Jets, with whom he had multiple meetings and who had two picks in that round. But it was the Bears’ receivers coach, Ivan Fears, who called and asked Robinson if he was ready to be a Chicago Bear.
Chicago was a brave new world for Robinson, who had never seen a building taller than a college dorm, let alone a skyscraper. In fact, on his first night in Chicagoland, where he stayed in a Northbrook hotel, Robinson ate at a restaurant for the first time. Robinson, whose hometown of Fort Valley is three-quarters black, was smacked with culture shock immediately. “I remember walking into the Applebees and I had never been around that many white people in one spot,” he said. “I mean, there were like no black people.”
The inauspicious Chicago beginnings continued as Robinson was forced to sit out his first professional season with a thumb injury. In those years, however, the league still had active training grounds with N.F.L. Europe. Robinson jetted overseas that summer to work on his game. With the Rhein Fire, he was a star, collecting over nine hundred yards receiving en route to the league’s offensive most valuable player award. He was coming back to the states with hardware and confidence.
Robinson’s first caught pass in his first season, 1998, was a twenty-yard touchdown from Erik Kramer. It was a sign of things to come. The Bears, long known for painfully grinding football, were in the midst of change in 1999 under new head coach Dick Jauron and offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. It didn’t take long for Bears quarterbacks (Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, and Jim Miller all took significant snaps) to realize they had a serious weapon in Marcus Robinson, whose awe-inspiring athleticism confounded defensive backs.
The Bears weren’t good, posting a 6-10 mark, but they were damn exciting, setting a franchise record for most passing yards in a season. The main beneficiary of those yards was Robinson, whose fourteen hundred yards (eighty-four catches; nine scores) were also a franchise record. In a 28-10 win over Detroit in week fifteen, Robinson had eleven catches for one hundred seventy yards and three touchdowns. Chicago had never seen such proliferation from a wide receiver. “Those were exciting times,” Robinson said. “They believed in letting you make plays. The quarterback didn’t have to be as accurate. We were big guys. … [The quarterback] can miss a target, and we can make a play.”
The following season, despite being the focus of opposing defenses, Robinson was having another stellar campaign through eleven games. Then, near the end of the season, Robinson lowered himself to catch a pass in practice and he felt a “burning pain” in his back. It was a bulging disk, pressing against a nerve, causing pain and numbness down his body. With the Bears out of the playoff race, Robinson was shut down and saved for the following season. Nearly the same thing happened in camp before the 2001 season, but Robinson returned after surgery in time for week two of one of the most memorable seasons in Bears history.
Robinson was back to form with twenty-three catches through three-and-a-half games. Then, his resurgent season ended on a turn of the turf. Playing in Cincinnati, Robinson caught his fifth ball of the day, turned to engage a safety, and his knee collapsed. He tore two ligaments and was done for the season. “It was rough. It was rough,” Robinson lamented. “I came back and was playing really well. … We went 13-3 that year, man. If I would have been able to play, we could have—ugh. It was definitely frustrating.”
Coming back was tough. In 2002, Robinson was active, but not a starter, as the Bears tripped through a 4-12 season, after which the wide receiver was asked to leave. He played a year in Baltimore, most of which was under-whelming. But in one game he caught seven balls, four of them for touchdowns. After that, he had three relatively successful years with the Minnesota Vikings. Injuries changed the course of Robinson’s career, but they didn’t define it. “I played five years after [those injuries],” he said. “And whatever team I was on I led in some category—touchdowns, yards per catch. I was productive. And that’s part of a mindset. If you sit there and think because you have an injury, you’re different—no. … As long as you go out and still work your craft, you’ll be fine. You can’t give in.”
It’s that constructive attitude that led to Robinson’s current career and possibly was even inherited by his son, Marcus, Jr., who at twelve years old is a cancer survivor.
Robinson met his wife, Keyomi, just a few weeks after coming to Chicago in 1997. They married, set up shop in the suburbs, and had two children: Mikayla and Marcus, Jr. When Junior was ten, he complained of a sore leg after a vacation. The parents, seeing a possibly infected sore on his leg, took him to the hospital. A blood test revealed Marcus had leukemia.
But thanks to the sore on the leg, which neither doctors nor the Robinsons ever figured out, the disease was caught so early that it had a ninety-two percent survival rate, Robinson said. And sure enough, two years later, Marcus, Jr., is cancer-free. “He’s a normal kid. He’s awesome, man,” Robinson said.
Just a couple weekends ago, Robinson drove Mikayla to college at his alma mater, South Carolina, where she will play volleyball for the Gamecocks. Robinson will happily visit to catch a couple games, while he keeps training the future of volleyball, basketball, baseball, football, lacrosse, and more. And he’ll also enjoy Sundays on a couch, unlike he did as a kid, and see what the Bears and the N.F.L. have to offer this year.
He remembers Bears fans as passionate, hungry, blue-collared people who say it like it is. He’s one of them now. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Robinson said of this year’s Bears. “I didn’t understand [the off-season moves], don’t understand it.”