Michael Robinson, Leading With the Future In Mind

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More than a decade after graduating, Michael Robinson’s impact at Penn State is still being felt. Given his words and actions, it probably always will be.

The latest example can be seen this Friday night, when Robinson ’04, ’06 returns to campus to host the inaugural Blue-White Benefit at Pegula Ice Arena, which he hopes turns into an annual event. All proceeds will benefit Robinson’s foundation, Excel to Excellence, which focuses on education, character development, and fitness for young people.

The event starts at 5:00 p.m. with a VIP dinner, followed by a cocktail social at 6:30 p.m. You can go online for ticket and sponsorship information, or to make a general donation to the foundation.

As with much of Robinson’s life, Penn State plays a pivotal role in his foundation, which he founded in 2010 and has since grown to include Team Excel.

Robinson, a Virginia native who launched the program in his home state, says he wanted to create something “with teeth,” and early signs are that’s exactly what he’s done. The program incorporates a competitive fantasy sports-style element, with students competing against one another in categories such as GPA, weekly attendance, and community service. Robinson says parents and teachers have seen a shift in attitude and rhetoric: Instead of students gossiping about who’s got the sleekest phone or the nicest pair of kicks, they’re talking about the next community service project and encouraging one another to get to class on time.

Eventually, the hope is that students in State College can compete against kids in California, says Robinson, a self-described “big-idea man” who’s driven to turn Excel to Excellence into a national program. Currently, students in grades 7-11 are eligible, with grade 12 on the horizon. The goal is to add more categories, such as financial literacy and SAT skills, with Robinson’s days of playing for Joe Paterno serving as motivation to give back to his local communities. “I wanted something that was going to be around for a long time, and I wanted something that would affect our youth,” Robinson says. “I felt like I owed it to my area in Richmond, and owed it to a lot of the young people in the country who look up to me.”

“My experience at Penn State helped,” he adds. “Joe always said, ‘Your impact on this world is going to be bigger than football. I think you’re going to be a name that’s called around here for a long time.’”

The massive Penn State alumni network is right there, too, as Robinson is happy to discuss. In describing what it’s like to connect with alumni across the country, Robinson hesitates, seemingly smiling and thinking of all the experiences he’s shared. “I’m so glad you asked about that,” he says.

Robinson lives in Los Angeles, serving as an analyst for NFL Network while overseeing his foundation. He said he runs into Penn Staters all the time, even at red lights. It’s not uncommon for him to see a Penn State bumper sticker, and before he can roar, “We Are,” alumni and fans recognize him first and shout their adoration for him. This means something, this Penn State connection, the one that never stops.

“The fact that we have so many alumni out in the world doing great things—that’s a big reason why I went to Penn State,” Robinson says. “Forget football, I knew that graduating from Penn State would automatically connect me to a network that’s second to none. Everywhere I go, I see Penn State alumni, and the love is second to none.”

He continues: “When I was done playing football, I made a couple calls to the Alumni Association and they gave me some phone numbers to people in the business. Before you knew it, I had interviews and had a foot in the door. If I went to another school, I wouldn’t have had that.”

Robinson earned two degrees from the College of Communications while leading Penn State’s resurgence onto the national scene during the 2005 season, when the Lions finished 11-1 and bested Florida State in triple overtime in the Orange Bowl. Robinson finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting that year and earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors.

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He then played eight seasons in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks, earning a Super Bowl ring with the latter. The Seahawks also provided the inspiration for three of the five core tenets of the foundation: Be Early (a Paterno favorite, of course), No Excuses, and Protect the Team, the only three team rules the Seahawks employed. Robinson once asked Seattle coach Pete Carroll why only three, and Carroll responded that it was important to keep the rules short and simple. The other two are: Be Confident, and Have Fun Serving Others.

Robinson included “confidence” because of his broadcasting role, saying, “first impressions are everything to me,” while the last component dovetails with his foundation’s mission. “I want to build servant leaders,” he says. “I truly believe that if we educate our young people the right way, they’ll take this world to places we can’t see. We have to invest in young people, and that’s a huge reason why I started the program.”

With his polished persona, professional accomplishments, and commitment to community service, Robinson doesn’t lack for credibility when he returns to Penn State. When he talks, people notice. Robinson knows this. He plans to make the most of the opportunity Friday night, when James Franklin will give a State of the Union-type speech, speaking to letterman, and Robinson will share his mantra of “be part of something bigger than yourself.”

That goes back to his playing days, and transfers to Excel to Excellence. Just like Paterno used to tell him that his impact on this world will be bigger than football, Robinson relays the same message to the students he mentors. “I tell the kids in the program: ‘Be intentional about your success and take the blinders off. Don’t just think about your sport, think about your decisions in life and how you can be successful.’ That’s what I learned from Joe.”

“I’ve always wanted to come back to Penn State, and we’re at a point in the foundation where we have potential to grow. I thought it was a natural place to go to Penn State and affect some of the young people in State College, and show a lot of the young athletes coming out of State College that they can affect young people in a positive way with this program.”

For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

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