Only a week from his freshman season playing football at Adams State in 2014, a break in Robby Wilson’s life occurred.
A tear is more like it, a hamstring tear. But as fate would have it, the injury was the break the former Salpointe Catholic standout needed to realize his destiny.
“It’s a story that needs to be told,” Robby’s father, Rob, said to me recently. “Young kids who are now in his position could learn a lot from how Robby worked his way up from rock bottom.”
Robby looked off into the distance, in a deep stare, when he said, “It’s hard to explain, to put into words, how far I’ve come as a person in the things I’ve overcome and the obstacles I’ve came across.”
Robby was only a few months removed from celebrating a state football title at Salpointe in 2013 — with the likes of Cam Denson and Kaelin Deboskie — when he started to attend Adams State, a Division II school in Alamosa, Colo.
Tucson is only about 650 miles away from Alamosa. Robby felt it was more like 6,500 when he reported for fall camp and was injured with the Grizzlies’ season approaching.
WHAT: Pima Aztecs men’s and women’s basketball in NJCAA Division II tournaments
WHERE: The No. 3 seeded men’s team plays No. 14 Cecil (Md.) Community College in the first round at Danville, Ill. The women’s team goes up against No. 11 Lake Michigan College at Harrison, Ark.
WHEN: Both Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. Tucson time.
LIVE STREAM: For men’s game click here (fee of $4.99). Streaming info on women’s game to be determined.
He already believed playing at Adams State was beneath his talent level as a physical 6-foot-6, 220-pound receiver/tight end. The hamstring injury, effectively ending his season, only made him more convinced that football was not for him. Also a standout with the basketball team during his time at Salpointe, he missed playing on the court as much as he missed Tucson and his family.
“I came out of high school thinking I was going to be an All-American football player. I had these high hopes,” Robby said. “I just came off a state championship at Salpointe. It was Salpointe’s first ever in football. I then had a great basketball season just coming up short, losing to Shadow Mountain in the semis. And then I signed a scholarship to play football at Adams State. …
“I tore my hamstring and I got the game taken away from me. I mean, I already went in thinking I was too big-time. I was at a Division II college. I felt like I was better than that. I felt I got overlooked in high school. I felt that way just because I played with some greats like Cam Denson, Kaelin Deboskie, Andy Cota, Jay Williams … I can go on and on about the people I’ve played with. At the end of the football season, at winter break, I came back and I was telling my parents, ‘I don’t know if I’m feeling this any more.'”
That was a trying time for Robby, not only because of his lack of desire to play football, but because “I was going through some struggles with my family,” he said. His parents Rob Sr. and Sandi were having marital problems. They told him to stay at Adams State through at least the school year and Robby was back in Alamosa for the spring semester of his freshman year in 2015.
Recovered from the hamstring injury, Robby was ready for spring practice. That’s when his back gave out. Again, another break, or “blessing in disguise,” as he calls it.
“I hurt my back pretty bad and I just got back from tearing my hamstring, so I was like, ‘You know what? This isn’t for me any more,'” Robby said. “My heart wasn’t in football. It was hard to get in the weight room. It was hard to get out on the field and do extra work when the basketball court was right there. I was getting up shots instead of lifting. Practice was at 5 and I was in there (the gym) at 3:30 just to shoot. My heart was always in basketball.”
Robby returned to Tucson, his academic career suspended and his idea about playing basketball a seemingly unrealistic dream since he was thought of as more of a football prospect coming out of Salpointe.
Uncertain about his future, and working as a bellboy at La Encantada, Robby eventually had a talk with Pima football coach Jim Monaco, who welcomed him to the Aztecs’ football team in 2016. After only two weeks of practice, Robby walked away, knowing “This isn’t me again,” he said.
Basketball is him.
His academics were a concern for him getting back on the court. He went part-time to Pima to improve his grades, worked his 9-to-5 job at La Encantada, and played basketball for a college prep team at Pima in the 2016-17 school year.
“I was just grinding really, 40 hours a week, 9 to 5, with my job at La Encantada,” Robby said. “My parents wanted me to realize what real life was because I was slacking off so much and so much money had been put into (his college career). I had gotten so many opportunities, it was time for me to hit rock bottom. It was time for me to figure out what life was.
“I knew working that job was not for me. I needed to get in school again and go do something I love.”
While playing for the prep team at Pima two years ago, he caught the eye of assistant Dylan Hildago, who is now a graduate assistant at Grand Canyon.
Hildago insisted to Pima coach Brian Peabody to watch Robby’s relentless style around the basketball and his sound fundamentals of rebounding, shooting and passing for a power forward that grew to 6-9 and 220 pounds.
“Peabody brought me and my family up to his office right after the first game he saw me and said, ‘Hey, we want you. I’m offering you a scholarship.’ He was like, ‘I want you to commit now.’ I was like, ‘Whoa,'” Robby said. “Life kind of hit me. I was thinking I would be able to turn this thing upside down. I kind of told him this is where I want to go but I wanted to play out the season and see what I wanted to do.
“I ended up committing before they went off to nationals (in 2017) so I was able to do some offseason stuff with them.”
Last season, Robby finally returned to college athletics as a 22-year-old freshman at Pima, four years removed from his stellar football and basketball career at Salpointe.
Arizona Western, Cochise College and South Mountain also caught wind of Robby’s emerging talent and offered a scholarship after watching him play for the prep team.
“I knew Peabody is who I wanted to play for,” Robby said. “The way he works and the way I work just goes hand in hand. He’s turned my life around in so many ways. It’s not just being able to be in Tucson and being close to my family, but also him being on me like, ‘No, man, this is what you’re doing. You’re not going to skip class. You’re not going to do this. You’re far enough away from family that you have to be a grown man and handle your grown-man business.'”
Robby admitted that while in Alamosa as an 18-year old he missed the daily comfort blanket provided by his mother.
“That first year when you’re away from home is tough,” he said. “I grew up around my parents. Especially my mom, I had grown up around her my whole life. I was like, ‘She’s gone.’ It’s just devastating for some kids that have never had that happen to them before.
“You have to kind of like just deal with life on your own. I was in Colorado where it was cold as all can be and stuff like that. It was just different, a reality check for me.”
A reserve for last year’s Pima team that reached the national title game, Robby is one of the Aztecs’ top players as they begin another NJCAA Division II national tournament appearance Tuesday morning against Cecil (Md.) Community College at Danville, Ill.
An All-Region selection who was a co-MVP with Abram Carrasco in the regional tournament last week, Robby is now 23 but still only halfway through his college basketball playing career. He has more than 20 scholarship offers from NCAA Division II and NAIA programs. Division I schools aren’t calling because his age allows him to be eligible for only one season at that level.
He said he has visits set up next month for Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., Vanguard in Costa Mesa, Calif., and Concordia in Irvine, Calif. Carrasco is slated to visit Concordia with him. Arizona Christian, an NAIA school in Phoenix, is also a possibility.
More than five years after falling short of his expectations during his football recruitment at Salpointe, Robby says he is “on top of the hill right now” with the amount of attention he is getting from college basketball recruiters.
Adams State and playing football seems like a lifetime ago.
“It was an awful part of me life but it changed my life, so it is a blessing in disguise for sure,” Robby said. “The worst part of my life is what brought me here. I have a future in basketball. We just cut down the net. I’m a conference champion two years in a row. I have a chance to go for a national title again.
“If I had gone back four years and guess what I’d be doing now, I would never guess this. It’s been a blessing in disguise for sure, the whole experience going out there (to Adams State) and even me being out for two years before getting a scholarship here at Pima.”
Robby, who shows his confidence wearing No. 1, averages nearly a double-double with 14.4 points and 9.9 rebounds a game. He has 15 double-doubles this season.
His value to Peabody’s 26-6 team, seeded third in the national tournament, goes beyond those gaudy statistics.
“Having him on this team is huge in numerous ways,” Peabody said. “To me, he’s an extension of me on the court. He’s an extension of the coach. He’s the one guy who comes in early and leaves late, watches film, and watches more film so he can call plays out on the opponent before they even happen.
“To have that guy, people don’t know how valuable that is. That’s why he’s getting recruited so hard. It’s not because of the stuff he does basketball-wise but how he prepares and helps his team with him communicating.”
Robby’s career goal is to get into coaching after hopefully playing professionally overseas.
“Peabody and I talked to each other about me becoming a graduate assistant when I come back,” he said. “I want to give back to the kids, help the kids that have been through what I’ve been through to not give up. It’s important to get back here and give to the program that’s given me a second or third chance.
“You hear so many times that kids have bad experiences in college, especially freshmen. I want kids to know that the junior college level is a great level of basketball. People don’t understand. They hear JUCO and they are like, ‘Man, I don’t want to go to junior college.’ There’s so much maturing in these two years.”
No better model of perseverance exists than Robby Wilson at the junior college level or in life, period.
Nobody plays with more purpose than Robby, who has a non-stop motor on the court.
Football injuries and being in Alamosa, away from home and competitive basketball, ironically made him what he is today.
“People tell me all the time that I play so hard. Yeah, I play so hard, but you don’t know what I’ve been through,” he said. “This is why I play hard because at one point and time I was working, doing something 9 to 5 that I hated.
“This was a blessing for me to come out here to Pima. How could I not come out here and play hard? You know what I mean?”
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
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.