Daniel Robledo IV was at hope’s end.
No scholarship offers out of high school. Grades were subpar. Football, it seemed, abandoned him.
In the past, young players out of Tucson in a similar situation had Pima Community College or another junior college football program in the state to jump start their academic performance and potentially their football careers to advance to a four-year school.
Pima and the other junior colleges in the state dropped their football programs, however, after the 2018 season to cut costs. That was when Robledo was a senior at Cholla High School. The undesirable move by Pima adversely affected the lives of approximately 100 players who were part of the Aztec program annually.
“When all the JC’s were down in Arizona — I was gonna head to Pima because Pima was gonna give me that spot — but when the whole thing went down, I was in the dumps,” Robledo said. “I didn’t know where to go. I had nowhere to go.
“I thought logically I was not going to play any more. I was going to pick up a job. I would do that part-time and then just do classes at Pima and then be kind of average.”
Robledo’s upsetting experiences in his last two years at Cholla took him close to those depths.
When he was a junior in 2017, he eagerly anticipated a recruiter from Arizona during the Rich Rodriguez era to visit him at school and talk to him about the possibility of playing for the Wildcats. The coach, who Robledo cannot recall, was supposed to show up during the middle of the day, and Robledo was told he would be pulled out of class.
“I’m excited. I’m happy. You know, I’m feeling like everything that I worked for is going to come to fruition now,” Robledo said about how he felt early that day. “It came to the end of the day, and we were about to go to practice. So I thought, ‘Maybe he’s going to be late.’ When we were lifting, I was called into the coach’s office.
“I’m getting excited. I thought this is my time. But I saw nobody in the office. I was like, ‘What the heck? What’s going on?’ I found out the recruiter looked at my transcript, threw it in the trash and then walked away before I could meet him. He told the coaches I wasted his time.”
Toward the end of practice that same day, one of the coaches told Robledo to step out of the huddle and stand in front of the team.
“I had to stand up in front of all my teammates and friends and he tells them, ‘This is Daniel. Daniel had the opportunity to go to a Division I program at the University of Arizona, but due to his grades being bad, Daniel lost his chance today,'” Robledo remembered.
“It was humiliating. All my teammates looked at me with a face of like, ‘Really? You had it all.’ I remembered thinking, ‘Damn, I don’t want to play football. I’m not going to play my senior year if that’s how it is going to be.’ After that, there were rumors around school that I was too dumb to go to college, and that although I was a good player, I was just a jock.”
Robledo decided to return to football for his senior year because he wanted his high school experience to “end with a bang,” he said.
“I always knew my transcripts were bad,” he added. “I hoped that at least somebody would give me a scholarship offer, but I knew my grades were so bad, I couldn’t get one. In my junior and senior years, I started getting A’s and B’s, but my freshman and sophomore years were so low to pick up my GPA, which was only at 1.8 or 1.9 when I was a senior.
“It was not good. I couldn’t meet close to qualifications. After the season was over, no one was talking to me. No one wanted to see me. At that point, after my senior season was done, I felt like it was over. At least that’s what I thought in my head.”
He mentioned he became emotionally charged to continue playing football while he improved his academics in college at the behest of his mom Erykah Ortega. Robledo’s father Daniel Robledo III and Ortega moved to Tucson after Robledo’s birth at East Los Angeles, where the family originated from.
Some relatives remain living near East Los Angeles College (ELAC), where his mom went to school.
A junior college in Kansas showed interest in him, but the cost for him to be that far away from home was not worth a move there.
“I had no interest to play JUCO ball to be honest with you,” Robledo said. “I saw the show Last Chance U. on Netflix and I saw they are all the way in Kansas. I didn’t want to go that far. My mom told me I should look at ELAC, that she went there and it is a good school. She was encouraging me to go there.”
Robledo reluctantly at first started to research ELAC online. As he clicked on articles and videos about the program, he became more and more interested.
He noticed that defensive linemen were prospering at ELAC. Benjamin Key was an emerging Division I prospect as a defensive end going into last season. Former Oregon defensive tackle standout Sione Kava, who played with the Ducks in 2018 and 2019, became a heavily-recruited player after two years at ELAC.
“When I watched their games on YouTube, I thought to myself, ‘I can play there. I can play in this league,'” Robledo said.
Robledo managed to get the phone number and e-mail address of ELAC coach Bobby Godinez, and in a rare twist in the recruiting process, he tried to sway Godinez to welcome him to the program instead of Godinez attempting to recruit him.
“I texted him. I emailed him a biography, a little description of who I am, where I’m from, and then my stats, my highlights, and how tall I am, all of that,” Robledo said. “I said, ‘Hey it would be amazing if you give me a shot or see me.’ I was not optimistic he would get back to me. I highly doubted he would text me back.
“But literally like five minutes later, he said, ‘Hell yeah, man. Come over here. We would love to have you.'”
Scholarships are not permitted for junior colleges in California, so Robledo had to seek the assistance from his parents to pay the tuition costs. He lived with relatives in East Los Angeles.
“I have, thankfully, beautiful, kind parents,” he said. “They really stepped in. My mom’s a nurse. My dad is a Pima County Animal Sheriff.
“My parents never believed I was going to be a football star. They didn’t think I would be taking football this far. They put me through sports to be a hard worker, learn to be diverse, learn what it’s like to be pushed down and get back up. My parents have always supported me, the decisions I make, and I thank them a lot for that.”
Robledo immediately became a force at ELAC as a starting defensive end, tallying 35 tackles with nine for loss, including four sacks. Division I college coaches started to reach him after the season began, and he became overwhelmed by the abundance of scholarship offers.
Arizona’s defensive line coach at the time, Iona Uiagalelei, who has since been fired and replaced by Kevin Sumlin, never offered a scholarship but told Godinez said he would keep an eye on Robledo.
“After one scholarship came, it was like a chain afterward,” he said. “My ideal look at it was, when I first came to ELAC, I would put my work in, get a couple of good films, get some good highlights and get my Arizona offer and come back home. That was my perspective of how it was going to go.
“Once I started seeing more offers, I was lost for words. … It took a while for Arizona. Arizona was my last offer. After I got my first three offers, I was like, ‘Where is my Arizona offer?'”
Sumlin’s newly-hired defensive line coach Stan Eggen offered Robledo the scholarship and communicated with him as much as possible. Robledo said he gained respect for Eggen.
“I wanted another chance with them because of what happened in high school (with the recruiter trashing his transcript),” Robledo said. “I realized that sometimes you have to look at other places. When I finally got the offer, it was just kind of like, you were asking for something and hoping for something for so long, but then once you see it, you feel things came up that are better. You see that come last and you’re just like, ‘Oh, that’s really nice. It came.’ But, to me, I have other plans.”
Robledo let his plans be known yesterday when he committed to Missouri, one of the first schools to offer him a scholarship. Key, his teammate at ELAC, has signed with the Tigers.
“I feel like with the Missouri coaches, I bonded with them like they are longtime friends,” he said. “Coach Brick (Haley), the defensive line coach at Missouri, has the experience coaching a lot of dudes in the NFL who are defensive linemen. He coached some pretty top-notch players like Michael Brockers of the Rams and Danielle Hunter from the Vikings.
“We have created a good friendship with the coaches. They are really nice people. They’ve connected well with my parents and my girlfriend (Keairalyn Garcia). They call me and text me nearly every day to see how I am doing. I like their style and how they develop defensive linemen.”
The education opportunity at Missouri is not lost on Robledo, especially with his background at Cholla.
He mentioned he earned A’s and B’s in his one year at ELAC and took pride in his English and Chicano Studies classes because they required him to further develop his reading and writing. He contacted his tutor more than vice-versa. He is now prideful of his academics and plans to study sports medicine at Missouri, specifically kinesiology.
“I definitely had to turn the corner big time with my academics,” Robledo said. “I told myself before I went to ELAC that this is my last chance of going anywhere. I’ve got to fix it.
“I had a hard time in high school. I believe the reason why I had a hard time was a lack of focus and a lack of reasoning why I should do it. I just didn’t think it was important, just like any typical kid would think. I realized that way after football, I will have to rely on my degree. I want to gain as much knowledge as I can over these years.”
While he is gaining strength with his mental outlook, his physical stature is robust. Robledo stands a firm 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds, a body ready for the rigors of SEC football.
He has developed his muscle mass and agility thanks to the intense training at Resilience Fitness and JET Sports Training in Tucson. Before that, especially when he was at Cholla, he was on his own when it came to maintaining his body for football.
“I didn’t have a lot of help, nor did I have a lot of support at Cholla because we did not have trainers like other schools,” Robledo said. “I made my own workout plans. I determined I was going to work on this one day and that another another day. I made plans looking at workout ideas on my phone.”
Bobby Rodriguez, owner of JET Sports Training, mentioned that since he first met Robledo when Robledo was a sophomore at Cholla, “he’s always been a respectful young man with a great attitude, raised by great parents.”
“Now Daniel gets to play with the big boys in the SEC, get a first class education at the University of Missouri and play for the Mizzou Tigers,” Rodriguez added. “Daniel is a testament of what happens when you become obsessed with your goals in order to better yourself and your future.”
The fact that a football player from Cholla will play for an SEC school is a heck of a Cinderella story. Hollywood stuff. Cholla is nowhere close to being a football factory like other schools that budget substantially toward athletics.
Names that come to mind who played football at Cholla include Vance Johnson, Jonas Eldridge, Stan Berryhill, Mike Scurlock, Chris Corral and John Denny Jr. The most recent to play at Cholla out of those players is Denny in 1998.
“Schools like Cholla, Palo Verde, sometimes even Pueblo … those kids there at those schools, you don’t think they are Division I level and nobody thinks they’ll get recruited,” Robledo said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal that kids can come out of those schools and be a Division I prospect.
“Kids who go to those schools are not lesser than anybody else. It’s a myth. Don’t believe it. I think it’s silly to think, ‘Oh, you play for Cholla. You’re trash. You’re not good.’ That does not define you. If you put the work in and hit the weight room, and have pride in what you do in the classroom, that’s what defines you.”
Hope’s end has turned to hope springs eternal for Robledo.
He has matured through life’s hard knocks at such a young age. He is only 19 years old. He is beyond his years now.
When asked what he would tell young athletes locally who are in the same position he was in 2018 — without a local junior college to continue an academic and athletic career — Robledo said, “You can’t completely see darkness and say, ‘Nah, that’s it.’
“There’s always one small light of hope you’re going to see. You just can’t always see it right now. Don’t lose sight of it. Work for it.”
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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.