The track oval at Pima Community College is not something a 6-year-old normally wants to run, but Bijan Robinson urged his grandfather Cleo to race him when the family visited the campus almost 10 years ago.
A kid who is 4 is usually not one who wants to play football with pads, but Bijan made it clear to Cleo at that age that he could not wait much longer. Cleo had to tell him to be patient.
A grandfather and grandson are not commonly known to stop by a field after a grueling high school football practice to work on a few more running back skills the grandfather noticed his grandson needed to perfect.
Not many are like Bijan Robinson, a junior at Salpointe Catholic. And such a strong relationship between a grandfather and grandson is rare.
Athleticism aside — and Bijan is one of the best Tucson has produced in that regard — the most impressive aspect of Cleo’s grandson is how he conducts himself.
Cleo and his wife Gerri should be thanked for that respectful personality development, one that includes Bijan saying, “Yes sir,” and, “Thank you sir,” often.
Salpointe coach Dennis Bene is appreciative of how standouts such as Bijan and safety Lathan Ransom — both of whom are garnering attention from college recruiters — are not attitude concerns because of how they were raised.
“They are very grounded in their family and their faith,” Bene said. “You can see that in Bijan. He is very, very humble and extremely hard working. It’s also a blessing to have that kind of kid in the program.
“You get that feedback when you talk to adults on campus. That’s not always been the case. We’ve had some great players and they put themselves before everybody else. I would argue that Bijan easily puts others before him. He puts his team success before his individual success.”
The names Cleo Robinson and Paul Robinson, raised in a family of 12 children, should be well known by Tucsonans who have long followed local football.
Cleo played on Marana’s first state championship football team in 1965. He also ran track, a sport in which he excelled when attending NAU. He played football his senior season with the Lumberjacks.
He became a high school referee in Southern Arizona and later worked games in the Pac-10. For 26 years, he was an official on the field. He is an instant replay official for the Pac-12 going on six years now in that capacity.
Paul, who lives in Safford, is an older brother and a former Arizona track and football standout with the Wildcats. He went on to be the AFL’s Rookie of the Year for the expansion Cincinnati Bengals when he gained 1,023 yards in 1968. He was a two-time Pro Bowl selection in his six years with the Bengals and Houston Oilers.
“They have told me all the time what they had to go through when they were younger,” Bijan said of his grandfather and granduncle. “It was a lot different those days. I live with my grandpa. I call my uncle Paul once in a while to catch up. He says to stay in my head and never do nothing bad like parties and things like that.”
Cleo has always been Bijan’s father figure. Bijan and his mother Lamore Sauls lived with Cleo and Gerri through most of his childhood.
When Lamore married and moved out, Bijan insisted on staying with his “dad,” as he calls Cleo. After some debate, Bijan’s mother granted his request to stay with his grandparents and she “still remains very involved in his life,” Cleo says.
“It’s been great to see him grow and develop,” Cleo said. “At a very young age, since he was 3 or 4, he’s wanted to play football. One section of the house is full of Bijan’s football awards.
“It was immediate that he had talent. There’s been a number of times I’ve watched him do things and I’ve been truly amazed. For example, when he was playing youth football, four players stood in his way on one play. He slowed down and ran right around them for a touchdown.”
When the family visited Pima when Bijan was 6, he saw the track oval, “and he said he wanted to go over there to run,” Cleo said. “He talked me into running with him and it was difficult to keep up with him.”
They also often went to the YMCA together to throw a football during Bijan’s younger years. They played one-on-one basketball. Cleo and Gerri are also at Salpointe’s practices often, but the workouts do not end when Bene tells his players to go home.
“Sitting up in the stands, I notice some small details he needs to work on,” Cleo said. “When we go home, we stop at Pima, and we go over some of the things I saw. He appreciates the feedback.”
The feedback has gone both ways, when Cleo was officiating on the field.
“All of his games are on the weekend, so I have usually watched him and critiqued him,” Bijan said. “I usually critique all the players and see the games closely because of him.
“I have definitely matured in my two years (at Salpointe) breaking down film. I can read offenses and defenses better, so I feel I am more ready.”
Bijan, who is a solid 6-foot and 200 pounds, will be one of Tucson’s most highly sought football recruits in history if he continues the production he showed last year as a sophomore with the Lancers. He rushed for 2,023 yards on only 189 carries (an average of 10.7 yards per carry) with 26 rushing touchdowns.
In his first two seasons at Salpointe, he has averaged 109.1 yards rushing a game. He figures to only get better as he gets stronger and more mature.
“I have said this many times, when he came to Salpointe, he was a great athlete and he was an OK football player,” Bene said. “Now, I think he is a great athlete and I think he is becoming a great football player. The knowledge of his game is expanding. His understanding of the schemes is expanding.
“He has worked hard on his craft, on the details and nuances of becoming a great running back, so I’m just really proud of him. I watch him mature and take on a real rigorous academic load. He also has the weight of our program on his shoulders for such a young guy and he handles it really well.”
Last season, Salpointe finished 12-2 and advanced to the 4A state championship game, in which it lost 28-7 to powerhouse Scottsdale Saguaro at Arizona Stadium.
The Lancers begin their 2018 season on Aug. 24 at Mesa Dobson.
Cleo, Gerri and Lamore will be there in full force with almost 30 family and friends wearing shirts that have “Salpointe” on the front and “Robinson” and his No. 5 on the back that Gerri has ordered.
Because of his travel as a Pac-12 replay official, Cleo can only watch Bijan play up to five times in a season.
“I tell people I have the option of either watching him play every game or feeding him,” Cleo said with a laugh.
Cleo says they are working on Bijan’s eating and sleeping habits. He mentioned Bijan has agreed to reduce his sugar intake and he eats in small portions, “but he’ll be back eating again only two hours later,” Cleo said laughing once more.
He cleared his throat and talked about Bijan’s late nights studying in order to meet his academic demands at Salpointe.
He paused and said, “The overall biggest compliment I like is when people say Bijan is a good kid. That means a whole lot more to me than hearing that he is a great football player.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.