Mike Dawson, John Fina and now Bijan Robinson share a common bond that will go beyond their first-round-pick status come Thursday night when Robinson is taken in the NFL draft.
All three exuded characteristics at a young age that represented Southern Arizona well.
Regis McAuley of the Tucson Citizen, May 17, 1976, after Dawson, a defensive tackle from Tucson High and Arizona, was the No. 22 selection overall in the NFL draft, taken by the St. Louis Cardinals:
A respect and devotion for his football coaches has been the outstanding characteristic of this young giant from the time he played junior high flag football until he finished his brilliant college career at the University of Arizona.
Anthony Gimino of The Arizona Daily Star on April 26, 1992, before Fina, an offensive tackle from Salpointe and Arizona, was the 27th pick overall by the Buffalo Bills:
He shows effort, he listens, he’s coachable, he’s a good student, he’s active in the community, he works hard. ‘He doesn’t really have any negatives,’ Arizona coach Dick Tomey said.
AllSportsTucson.com about Robinson, a record-breaking running back at Salpointe, in a 2018 article about his grandfather Cleo Robinson when Bijan was a junior:
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.
Yes, Tucson, be proud.
Bijan, who went on to be a Heisman Trophy candidate at Texas, will potentially become Southern Arizona’s highest draft pick historically in the draft at Kansas City on Thursday (ESPN, 5 p.m., Tucson time).
Many draft analysts, including ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., have Bijan going as the No. 18 pick to the Detroit Lions. He is projected to go anywhere from No. 10 to the Philadelphia Eagles to No. 27 to the Buffalo Bills.
While those who don’t know Bijan think of him mostly as a football prospect, people like Del Arvayo know he’s much more than his time in the 40 and his ability to elude tacklers.
Bijan’s high level of responsibility comes from his grandparents, both of them endearing yet firm.
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 football referee in Southern Arizona and later worked games in the Pac-10. For 26 years, he was an official on the field. He became an instant replay official for the Pac-12.
Gerri, his grandmother, was constantly by Bijan’s side when he grew up because of Cleo’s travels as a referee.
Arvayo, Salpointe’s academic coach when Bijan played, likes to tell the story of when he and assistant coach Ali Farhang asked Gerri if they can keep him at least two hours after a practice to guide him a long an essay assignment when he was a sophomore. Arvayo mentioned Bijan was struggling in English and needed at least a B to elevate his grade from low C or a D.
“Bijan’s one of the kids I’m so proud of, because he literally came in not knowing how to study or be a great student from elementary school or middle school,” said Arvayo, who is now the chief operations officer of the Arizona Bowl. “I don’t think he realized how smart he is, because he was never challenged.
“The program there at Salpointe is college prep. It’s designed for every student to go to college, so the curriculum is going to be challenging, and it was.”
Instead of watching game film in Bene’s office after two to three hours of practice, Arvayo and Farhang (prominent Tucson lawyer and co-host of Spears & Ali on ESPN Tucson radio) sat with Bijan and coached him through his essay until 9:30 p.m.
“Gerri agreed to pick him up that late because she was supportive, which was very important,” Arvayo said. “We told Bijan we were going to guide him through the essay, not write it for him but coach him on it.
“He had trouble typing. We had to do a rewrite and another rewrite – ‘what are you trying to say here? What does this mean?’ We told him to forget about paragraphs and write a string of sentences – ‘why does this one fall under this one?’ and then put it together.”
This was the mental equivalent of going through an arduous running drill or a diligent workout with Salpointe strength and conditioning coach Carla Garrett, a demanding yet supportive key figure in Bijan’s development.
“He’s such a great kid, he was working so hard, trying to get it, do his best and he never got tired,” Arvayo said. “He never rolled his eyes, just the best attitude in the world. He ended up finishing the essay. We didn’t write it for him. He turned it in and got a high B.”
That night left a indelible impression on Bijan about what it means to be a high-level student-athlete.
“He learned that he is capable of setting high standards, not just athletically or with his character, but academically as a lifelong learner,” Arvayo said. “I’m so proud of that kid because from that moment on, through his high school years, he had good grades.
“His freshman year at Texas, I talked with his academic advisor over there, he had a great attitude and worked very hard. He was an A & B student, just a great testament to his character.”
The athleticism in the Robinson family runs deep and so do the values of not taking anything for granted, a life lesson Paul and Cleo learned as high school students in the Civil Rights era.
Paul Robinson, Bijan’s uncle who lives in Safford, is an older brother of Cleo’s 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 told me of his grandfather and granduncle in an interview when he was at Salpointe. “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.”
If Bijan Robinson could play with any QB of his choice:
“Jalen Hurts.” 👀 pic.twitter.com/GpUabNPQDE
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) April 25, 2023
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.”
Cleo tells the story of Bijan at 6 years old wanting to stop at Pima College, which is near his grandparents’ home, to run on the track
“He saw the track oval and 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 also attended Salpointe’s practices regularly.
“Sitting up in the stands, I notice some small details he needed to work on,” Cleo said. “When we went home, we stopped at Pima, and went over some of the things I saw. He appreciated the feedback.”
The feedback went both ways, when Cleo was officiating.
“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.”
Bene said while coaching Bijan at Salpointe that his star running evolved from being a “great athlete and OK football player” to being at the highest level in all aspects by the time he graduated in 2020.
“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,” Bene said.
“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.”
Cleo became emotional 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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.