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A Letter to NFL GMs

Apr 21 2020
Photo by
Jeff Curry/Getty Images
Photo by
Jeff Curry/Getty Images
Kenny Robinson Jr.
Carolina Panthers
Apr 21 2020

Dear NFL General Managers,

I’m sure you’ve talked to a lot of NFL draft prospects over the past few months, and even more in all the years you’ve been working the draft. I bet you’ve heard a lot of stories.

But you probably haven’t heard many like mine.

The past 18 months have been the craziest of my life. It started with a phone call in November 2018, near the end of my sophomore season at West Virginia. My brother Andre and my sister Danielle called and told me that my mom had had a stroke. I didn’t even know what a stroke was. All I knew was that in my mind, it was like a heart attack. Something people die from. They told me everything was fine and that I didn’t have to come home, but … c’mon. It was my mom. She’s everything to me. 

That’s something you definitely gotta know about me. I may have my dad’s name, Kenneth. I may have his work ethic. His pride. His definition of what it means to be a man.

But I have my mom’s heart.

So I told my coaches what was happening and went straight home to Pittsburgh. I just had to see her.

Andre and Danielle were right. Mom was O.K. She was smiling, happy. A little scared, of course. We all were. But she was feeling good, and that’s really all we could hope for.

I kissed her goodbye, told her to call me if she got any updates from the doctors, and went back to school so I didn’t have to miss any meetings or practices. 

A few months later — in February 2019, just before the start of spring ball — I was back home, driving to my mom’s house. I pulled into her street and I saw flashing lights down the road. There was an ambulance parked in front of her house. As I got closer I saw my brother’s car in the driveway. I pulled in behind it, ran inside and saw my mom propped up on a stretcher, paramedics all around her. I asked my brother what had happened and he said that when he’d gotten there like five minutes earlier, Mom couldn’t speak. She couldn’t move her arms. She was frozen. So he called 911.

She was having another stroke.

Courtesy of Kenny Robinson Jr.

We followed the ambulance to the hospital, and by the time we were allowed to go in and see my mom, she was stable. Honestly, it felt a lot like after her first stroke. She was her normal self again, just tired and scared, like the rest of us. The doctors were keeping her overnight to run a bunch of tests, but she kept assuring everybody that she was going to be O.K.

I had to get back to school for spring practice, so I told my mom the same thing I told her the first time.

“Call me if you get any updates.”

About a week later, she called. She said she was feeling good, but then she said that the doctors had found something while they were running all those tests.

I was like, “What do you mean something?”

She was silent for a second. 

Then, she said it.

“I have colon cancer.”

A few years earlier, when I was in high school, there’d been this one play where I was on offense and I was running up the sideline. I lunged forward and reached the ball out to get a first down, and then this DB came out of nowhere and just smashed me. It was probably the hardest I’ve ever been hit. I was lying on the sideline, kind of in a daze. I didn’t know which way was up. For that split second, the whole world just stopped.

That’s the best way I can explain what it felt like when I heard my mom say those words.

Colon cancer.

I was blindsided. But I tried to be strong — for my mom. I wasn’t gonna cry with her on the line. So I held it all in. When she was about to hang up, she told me she loved me and that she was proud of me … and I almost lost it. I choked it down long enough to tell her I loved her, too. 

Then I hung up the phone and broke down.

I went to my coaches, told them the news and went home to see my mom and be with my family. My mom hadn’t been working since her first stroke, and now she definitely wasn’t going back to work. So the biggest question — besides her health — was how we were going to replace her income and help support the family, especially with all the medical bills piling up.

I told myself that I would put it on my shoulders. The rest of my family was already doing so much. I felt that I had to work harder than ever to achieve my dream of making it to the NFL so that they could lean on me and I could take care of my mom. 

I said as much to my dad. I told him, “Put this on me. I’mma take care of Mom. I’mma take care of everybody.”

Then I went back to school and made one big mistake that changed everything.


Twenty nineteen was gonna be my year.

Back in high school, I played quarterback, wide receiver, safety, and sometimes linebacker. I basically played whatever my team needed me to play. It was the same at West Virginia. I came in as a freshman in 2017 and they wanted me to play corner, so that’s what I did. I played corner for the first time in my life. Then they moved me to safety, where I finished the season strong. I had a couple of pick-sixes and got real comfortable with the defense. In 2018, as a sophomore, my coaches said they needed more from me, and I stepped up. I made first-team All-Big 12, and became a leader on defense.

So, even before my mom got sick, I was looking at 2019 as the biggest year of my life. My opportunity to break out. Really put myself on the map. 

Then, right after spring ball started, I had to go back home to Pittsburgh for a funeral. One of my close neighborhood friends had passed away.

I had been so focused on football that I had gotten lazy with my schoolwork — lazy to the point where I asked a friend to help with my classes, which were all online. I had an assignment due the same week that I went home for the funeral, and I asked my friend to do it for me. She did. But she turned it in at the same time that I was scheduled to be in a team meeting. I wasn’t at the meeting because I was back home. The timing of everything raised a red flag to the university.

As soon as I got back on campus, I had a meeting with the Office of Student Conduct. 

They were going to investigate me for academic dishonesty.

While they reviewed my case, I finished spring ball. I was playing great and was as confident in my game as I had ever been. I knew I had messed up. But I also knew that I had a clean record. No trouble off the field, ever, in my whole life. So I was confident that I would be back in school and playing at West Virginia in the fall.

The university didn’t see it that way.

Right after spring ball wrapped, they kicked me out of school.

Jay Anderson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I have no problem admitting it. I cheated. I got caught. I made a stupid decision, and I don’t have any excuses. I had the opportunity to do the right thing, and I chose to do the wrong thing. That’s it. I own that. 

But when my lawyer called and broke the news that I was getting expelled, I didn’t think about any of that.

All I could think about was my mom.

When she found out, she’d be crushed. I was afraid to even tell her. I mean … two strokes, colon cancer — all out of nowhere — and now a broken heart?

I thought that’d be enough to kill her.

So I didn’t tell her right away. I just packed up my stuff, apologized to my coaches and teammates because I knew how much I had let them down, and went home to figure out what I was gonna do next. I really leaned on my dad at that time because I knew that me going to school was really important to my mom. So I didn’t want to tell her what happened until I had a plan to get back into school and back on the football field. 

But she kind of forced the issue. 

For like a week, she’d seen me at the house and was like, “Why you home all the time? Why ain’t you at school?” 

And I’d just try and put her off, like, “Uhh … the coaches are giving me a little extra time home right now.”

After a couple of weeks, I had to just man up and tell her. I sat her down in her living room and told her what I had done. Gave her the whole story. She just sat there with this blank look on her face, shaking her head in disappointment. In disbelief. When I finally got to the part where I had gotten expelled, she spoke up.

“You’re playin’, right? Stop playin’, Kenny….”

I said no, I was serious. And she told me to leave the room. She gave me the hand wave and everything.

She was like, “Just go. I can’t even talk to you right now.”

That was probably the lowest point — seeing that pain and disappointment in my mom’s eyes. 

I knew I had messed up. Believe me, I was as disappointed in myself as anybody. But seeing how much it hurt my mom hit me in a different way.

And I knew I had to do everything in my power to make it up to her.


Going back to school was the plan from the jump. I was talking to Pitt, Florida — schools like that. The problem was that if I transferred, I’d have to sit out a year. And I was trying to find the fastest way back to football — to continue my career, and to eventually take care my family.

Then one of my trainers suggested the XFL.

Honestly, I was a little scared of the XFL because I didn’t know anything about it. And this was in May 2019, not long after the Alliance of American Football had shut down. So the last thing I wanted to do was give up my college eligibility for something with so many question marks. But then I talked to a few people from the XFL, and the more I learned about what the league was trying to do, the more I believed in it.

And the more days I spent with my mom — seeing everything she was going through — the more willing I was to take a risk so that I could help support her.

I took my time, but after a few weeks I decided that instead of going back to college, I was going to enter the XFL draft.

My mom was so mad when I told her. She’s always wanted me to make decisions for me, not for her or anybody else. Then I told her that the XFL was going to pay for me to go back to school and get my degree while I was playing, and I think that’s what put her over the top and got her on board.

She was going to support me no matter what. She just wanted to make sure I was making the right decision for the right reasons.

Looking back on it, I believe I did.

Jeff Curry/Getty Images

The St. Louis BattleHawks drafted me in the fifth round of the XFL draft. And while I balled out on the field, I think the biggest moment for me was when that first game check hit. I thought about everything my mom and my family had done for me over the years — sacrifices they’d made so I could pursue my dream. I thought about everything my mom had been through recently. The ambulance rides. The hospital visits. The doctors. The tests. And any risk I was taking by playing in the XFL instantly became worth it. 

Because I had done what I had set out to do.

And I can remember the exact thought I had the first time I went into my phone and hit SEND to transfer money to my parents. It was nothing crazy. Just four words that I had been waiting to say for so long.

I got you, Mom.


I’ve been telling you this story because … this is my story. And I think it’s important that you get to know me — my successes and my mistakes. Who I am. What motivates me. The kind of person you’ll be getting if you decide to draft me.

But I also want to tell you about the kind of player you’ll be getting.

I consider myself a ball hawk. Somebody who knows how to find the football, whether it’s in the air or on the ground. A guy who relies on his preparation — his understanding of defenses and what offenses are trying to do — so he can play fast and free without thinking. Someone who’s not afraid to put a lick on somebody, or get down in the box and make plays at the line of scrimmage.

In five games in the XFL, I had 21 tackles, two picks and a sack.

You can learn a lot about how I play the game by watching the tape. But one thing you won’t see on film is what I believe to be my biggest advantage.

I’m the most NFL-ready prospect in this draft.

You can’t even debate it.

I didn’t go to the combine. I didn’t have a pro day. I didn’t have none of that.

Because I was playing professional football at the time.

And I know the XFL is not the NFL. I know that. But I could tell the difference in the speed of the game the second I stepped on the field in a BattleHawks uniform. There was definitely an adjustment, but I believe I made it pretty easily. And I know the NFL game is even faster than the XFL. And I believe I can make that transition just as easily.

The mistake I made at West Virginia that changed my entire life was a learning experience. A growing experience. I had to take ownership of my mistake and deal with the consequences by taking my future into my own hands and carving my own path. So just like I have no doubt that I’m ready physically to compete at the highest level, I also believe I’m prepared mentally.

When the BattleHawks drafted me, I went to California to continue training, then home for a minute, then off to St. Louis to start camp. I spent my 21st birthday alone in my apartment in St. Louis, studying my playbook and learning the ins and outs of the NFL defenses I was being asked to play. Defenses that were more complex than the basic Cover 3 we played at West Virginia. I was studying the 3–4, Cover 4, Cover 6 — a variety of coverages I had no experience with.

But I picked them up quickly because I put the time in studying. Because I pride myself on my preparation.

Because I love football.

My learning curve won’t be like those of other DBs in this draft. You need somebody who can come in and start Day One?

I can be that guy.

Jeff Curry/Getty Images

I also learned a lot during my time in the XFL off the field.

I learned how to work. Guys like Will Hill, a four-year NFL vet who played with me in St. Louis, schooled me on how to prepare like a pro. How to study, how to take care of my body. I was 21 years old and on my own for the first time while helping support my family back home financially, so I learned how to manage my money and develop good habits.

And I learned that there is always somebody else out there working harder than you.

Everybody’s heard that one, right? It seems like a given. And I guess somewhere in the back of my mind, I always knew that, too. 

But in the XFL, I saw it. Every day. There were guys out there who had never been in the NFL, and they were working their butts off to get a team’s attention and go steal somebody’s job. I saw NFL vets who were trying to get back in the league, and they were gunning for guys’ jobs, too.

I’m not the only one with an NFL dream. There are a lot of other guys out there who have them, too.

And they’re all working to come take my job.

That’s even more motivation for me to put in the work it takes to be great.

Like I said: The last 18 months have been the craziest of my life. But I’m here, ready to have my name called in the draft and start the next chapter of my life. My mom is still fighting. She’s doing well. I never did get to start school again because West Virginia hasn’t released my transcripts. And I don’t know if the XFL will be able to honor its promise to pay for my school now because they just shut the league down for good. But you know what? It is what it is. The XFL was a great experience. I really loved it, and I think the fans did, too. We were on to something. But then COVID-19 happened and, like the rest of the world, the league got shut down. And as mad as I am that it’s gone, I understand that there are lot of people out there who have lost so much more because of this pandemic, so I’m not complaining. 

I’m counting my blessings.

And somehow, I’m still gonna go back to school and get my degree. Because I’ve grown to understand the importance of an education.

And because I promised my mom.

So I hope this letter has given you an idea of who I am and what I’m about. It’s been a crazy 18 months, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that when you’re chasing something that matters, the road is never easy.

And it’s the ones who come out on the other side you can count on the most.

Kenny Robinson Jr.
Carolina Panthers