It was December 2011, eight months after he went undrafted, and his hopeful NFL career began to look like a pipe dream. Despite having three straight seasons with 90-plus tackles at North Texas, Robertson didn’t have any invitations to try out for a team for most of his rookie year.
“The only team that called me was Jacksonville,” he said. “They called me to make sure they had the right number. That’s funny. I still laugh at that.”
Without a chance to play pro football, Robertson continued pursuing a graduate degree he started while playing at North Texas. He also worked as a health and wellness coach at a Verizon headquarters in Irving, Texas.
And he started playing Australian rules football and joined the Dallas Magpies, a Division 2 team in the United States Australian Football League. A star in football, baseball and basketball growing up, Robertson picked up the game quickly and contributed to the Magpies’ national championship in 2011.
Robertson’s athleticism was so obvious in the sport that a friend told him he could go to Australia and make $400,000 if he made a team. He even found an agent for his potential new career, but before he booked his flight across the world, his NFL agent called him.
The Cleveland Browns wanted to try him out.
“They called me, and I was like, I’ll just go just to say I went,” Robertson said. “In my mind, I was already going to Australia.”
On December 19, 2011, the Browns signed Robertson to the practice squad. He was so shocked that he didn’t immediately shake the hand of the scout who made him the offer.
“When we went through that process that you go through at the end of the season, our scouting department thought that he might have a future,” former Browns head coach Pat Shurmur said. “So, we brought him in, worked him out, and I guess the rest is somewhat history.”
Now in his first year with the New Orleans Saints, Robertson has a career-high 108 tackles with one game remaining, and he’ll finish the season as the team’s leading tackler, just another example of how much teams missed on him in the draft process.
Opportunity to win
Coming out of Stafford High, about 20 miles from Houston, Robertson played several positions — quarterback, wide receiver, running back, tight end, linebacker, safety, punter and kicker. For recruiting, he drew the title of athlete, but he knew linebacker would be his best chance to make it to the NFL, something only one person from his high school had ever done, former New York Giants defensive end Adrian Awasom.
Robertson chose North Texas because the Mean Green had a recent string of success, winning the Sun Belt Conference title every season from 2001-04. By the time Robertson arrived in 2006, though, things had changed.
As a redshirt freshman, he watched the team go 3-9, and a second consecutive losing season led to the firing of coach Darrell Dickey.
Robertson started the next four years, but the team didn’t fare any better and coach Todd Dodge was fired before the end of Robertson’s senior season. In five years, Robertson’s teams compiled a record of 11-49.
Then, after waiting for his opportunity, Robertson found himself with one of the most moribund franchises in the NFL. The Browns team he joined late in 2011 finished 4-12. Once he started playing from 2012-15, Cleveland went 5-11, 4-12, 7-9 and 3-13, respectively.
“I haven’t won in 10 years,” he said. “That’s how I think of it.”
The last time Robertson played in an American football playoff game was as a junior in high school. Losing in college helped prepare him for what happened in Cleveland, but he was ready for a fresh start.
As a free agent this offseason, Robertson received offers from several teams, but he spurned all the teams interested in a one-year deal. A few teams offered him longer contracts, and he chose the Saints because he wanted the best chance to win.
“I wanted to go to a place with a quarterback,” he said, alluding to Drew Brees. “When you have a quarterback, you got an opportunity to win. So, that was probably one of the main reasons for me coming here. Plus, it was close to home, so it was an easy decision.”
Another factor in Robertson’s decision was something his former teammate D’Qwell Jackson mentioned to him back in 2014. When Jackson signed with the Indianapolis Colts, he told Robertson how different it is to play for a team with banners in the practice facility, and that was one of the first things Robertson noticed in New Orleans.
The Saints (7-8) won’t be in the playoffs this year, but a win Sunday over the Atlanta Falcons would secure Robertson’s first non-losing season in a long time. And his presence has been a key reason the unit improved from 31st last season.
“He’s got all the makeup, all the intangibles that you look for and I’m glad we have him,” said coach Sean Payton, who was on the same flight from Dallas to New Orleans when Robertson came for his visit in March.
Former Browns linebacker coach Bill Davis, who recently became a defensive coach at Ohio State, said Jon Sandusky deserves all the credit for giving Robertson a chance. Now an area scout with the Saints, Sandusky kept suggesting Cleveland give him a chance, and Robertson later proved the scout’s instinct to be correct.
“I didn’t know anything about him until he was dropped in my lap as a practice squad player,” Davis said.
During Robertson’s few weeks on the practice squad, Davis said his speed was apparent even if he was just running with the scout team. The Browns signed him to a reserve/future contract in January 2012, and he went on to make the 53-man roster because of his quick-twitch ability as well as versatility to play special teams and all of the linebacker spots in Cleveland’s 3-4 scheme.
And Robertson’s non-athletic features made him an instant favorite in the locker room with the Browns.
“He’s actually honestly one of my favorite rookies of all time that I was ever around,” said former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who was with Cleveland from 2010-12.
Davis, a coach for more than 25 years, called Robertson one of his favorite players, too, because he was intelligent, prepared, grateful for his opportunity and had a chip on his shoulder.
“When a rookie — especially an undrafted one — comes in humble, hard working and focused, it’s a breath of fresh air and you just gravitate toward him,” Davis said.
After the winding road to the NFL, it didn’t take Robertson long to become a fixture on the defense. He only started three games in 2012 — what people from the Browns consider his rookie year — but he finished with 93 tackles. Then, he started 14 games in 2013, 11 in 2014 and nine in 2015.
When Robertson signed with the Saints in March, he was still an unknown to many people in New Orleans — including some players and coaches. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen doesn’t recall studying him in 2011 when Allen was coaching the Denver Broncos’ defense. Robertson wasn’t really on Allen’s radar until the personnel department suggested the player to coaches during free agency.
Luckily, Saints secondary coach Aaron Glenn was on the Browns’ staff from 2014-15, so Robertson had a couple people in New Orleans pushing for him, along with Sandusky.
“Obviously having A.G. here in the building that was with him in Cleveland gave us a little bit of inside information,” Allen said, “just not about the player you’re looking at on tape, but more about the individual and really his makeup and his love for the game of football. And those are the things in my mind that really make a difference in the player is really, how much does this guy really love football? Is he a football junkie? Because those guys can usually succeed in whatever role it is that you give them.”
The Saints gave Robertson a three-year, $5 million, and the initial vision was for him to be a core special teams contributor and a backup on defense. But, when Robertson seemingly batted a pass in every training camp practice and consistently covered tight end Coby Fleener like a glove, it was clear the linebacker could handle a bigger role.
All he needed was an opportunity, and it came when weak-side linebacker Dannell Ellerbe suffered a quad injury before the final preseason game.
“He did a magnificent job filling in my spot,” Ellerbe said. “He did such a great job that we had to keep him on the field.”
Robertson opened the season on the weak side, but since Week 4, he’s played middle linebacker, replacing veteran James Laurinaitis initially due to injury and then because of performance.
“I think he’s performed really well,” Allen said. “I think he’s grown as the season has gone on, and we’ve put more responsibility on his plate as far as being the signal caller for our defense. I think you really see him grow in that regard, and, again, a lot of that’s based on the fact that, look, he’s a football junkie. He loves the game, so the more information he just eats that up. That’s been really good for us.”
Obviously, it’s easier for NFL teams to find someone playing at a bigger school than North Texas, but there were other factors that delayed his opportunity.
First, the Mean Green’s pro day in 2011 was the same day as Texas A&M’s as well as some other big programs around the country, and Robertson said the only NFL person at the North Texas workout was a representative from the Dallas Cowboys.
“They ran the pro day like they had to hurry up and get somewhere,” he said.
A few days after Robertson’s pro day, the 2011 NFL lockout began, so even if teams wanted to sign him as an undrafted free agent, they would’ve had to wait until late July.
So, Robertson carried on with his life. He worked. He studied. He played a different kind of football.
And eventually, he came to New Orleans where he feels like a rookie all over again because he’s refreshed in the new environment.
“I’m thrilled for him,” said Saints defensive end Paul Kruger, Robertson’s teammate in Cleveland from 2013-15. “And it’s not a surprise. I think there’s been a long time where he’s kind of been anxious to show what he can do, and now that he’s in a position where he can (do) that, I just couldn’t be more excited for him.”
For the Saints, Robertson has shown off the all-around skill set he displayed in college. As a freshman, he had five interceptions playing in space before moving to the middle to become a tackling machine, leading the team as a junior and senior.
In addition to his 108 tackles this season, Robertson has contributed six tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, one sack, one interception, four passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.
Robertson’s dream of a winning season is out of reach for this year, but he’s found a way to win off the field thanks to his 2-year-old daughter, Lexi.
“For me, mostly it’s being a dad really,” he said. “When you look at sports and all that stuff, yeah, trophies and stuff live forever. But my greatest trophy right now is my daughter and my soon-to-be son. That’s what I look forward to. When I leave here, I can (use) as much energy as possible, but when I go home, it’s like I’m refreshed and everything starts over.
“My daughter doesn’t care what I did earlier today. She wants to play with me now, and I’m like, phew, ready to play. Let’s go.”
Robertson watches Australian football on TV sometimes, watching for any players he met while he played. And even though he’s in the NFL now, he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of going to Australia at some point.
“We’ll see how we feel when I’m done,” he said. “I don’t plan on being done anytime soon, so who knows?”