A one-of-a-kind path to the NFL draft: How the XFL's BattleHawks prepped ball hawk Kenny Robinson

play
Kenny Robinson steps away from college to go Pro with XFL (0:47)

Former West Virginia safety Kenny Robinson left NCAA eligibility on the table, now he's stepping on the field for the St. Louis BattleHawks of the XFL for his family and for his love of the game. (0:47)

(Editor's note: Robinson was drafted in the fifth round of the 2002 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers. This story was originally published April 18, 2020.)

For a moment, Kenny Robinson was a trailblazer. He was the first to follow a new path to the NFL draft, one that put money in his pocket and bypassed the restrictive structure of college football. If all went well in the coming years, dozens of players would leave school early and follow his route through the XFL.

But the XFL's unexpected demise closed that door for the foreseeable future, making Robinson one of the most unique draft prospects in history. He is a former All-Big 12 safety at West Virginia who, at age 21, has a half-season of professional football on his résumé.

During five games with the XFL's St. Louis BattleHawks, Robinson intercepted two of the eight passes thrown into his coverage, according to Pro Football Focus charting. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projects him as a Day 3 prospect in next week's draft, meaning he could be selected in the late rounds or targeted as a priority undrafted free agent. But if nothing else, Robinson emerged from the experience convinced he had accelerated his professional timeline by two seasons.

"Even though it was only five games, I've played on a high level that the other college guys haven't," he said by phone this week. "I played with people who were in the NFL. I was coached by [former] NFL coaches. There's nothing you can replace that with. A lot of guys can't get that. And I've been around veterans and learned from those people.

"The big thing is that I was a professional football player. I was being paid to do a job. That was my job. I feel like, being around pros, learning how to be a pro, that just gives me a leg up."

Robinson was dismissed last summer from the West Virginia program because of an academic violation. At the time, he assumed he had two choices. One was to transfer to another Division I school, sit out the 2019 season and then likely walk on in 2020. The earliest he would enter the NFL draft was 2021. The other option was to play right away at a lower-level school.

The transfer process grew complicated, however. Robinson's mother was diagnosed with cancer, creating an urgent financial need. And West Virginia couldn't release his transcript because he owed $1,500 on his school bill. So Robinson's trainer connected him with the agents at Beyond Athlete Management, who explained the existence of a new alternative. A high-level professional league had formed, with all of its games slated for national television, and was accepting college players who weren't yet eligible for the NFL draft. (Robinson was only two years removed from high school, and the NFL requires three for draft eligibility.)

Robinson participated in a group workout in Washington, D.C., where he spoke with commissioner Oliver Luck and others. The XFL reportedly offered to cover fees for any online college classes he wanted to take, in addition to a salary of about $55,000 for the three-month regular season.

The XFL had developed robust plans to pursue young college players who would elevate its talent pool and intensify fan interest, but Luck and owner Vince McMahon decided not to disrupt the landscape in its first year. Robinson was the test case -- the league's youngest player and the only one who had never been eligible for the NFL draft.

"When you think about it, our season is his combine," Luck said at the time. "Essentially, he's trading that in for a chance to get professional game tape."

In St. Louis, Robinson showed the movement skills and instincts to cover the deepest parts of the field, even at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. And his pair of interceptions boosted the playmaking reputation he earned at West Virginia, where he picked off seven passes in 23 games, returning them for a total of 228 yards and two touchdowns.

Kiper said Robinson was "on the radar" for a high traditional evaluation in the 2021 draft. Robinson's 2020 assessment is a bit more complicated, in part because he could not attend the combine. He also couldn't make any in-person visits with team officials after the NFL shut down the process as part of its pandemic response. Kiper believes most teams will rank Robinson below the top 10-12 safeties in this draft.

"There's going to be a lot of taking a chance on Day 3," Kiper said. "You talk about teams that have extra picks, you look at all those extra sixth- and seventh-round picks that New England has. A lot of teams are well-fortified on Day 3. That's what you would do with [Robinson]. You use one of those extra picks in Rounds 5, 6 or 7 on a player like that."

What path would you choose? Two more years in college football, an option that could lead to a higher draft position and a better-paying NFL rookie contract? Or getting paid for one season of professional play, with quicker access to the NFL? That quick access, of course, includes an earlier start on the clock toward a second contract, which is almost always the most lucrative for an NFL player.

For Robinson, the choice was easy. He didn't want to play at a lower-level college. His XFL salary helped pay for some of his mother's medical expenses last winter, and he said that she is on her way to recovery. But it was also difficult to justify pushing back his NFL clock when a shorter path existed.

"A lot of people, they need another option," Robinson said. "Sometimes people's situations aren't the best. Sometimes a different way might be a better way than the traditional way, the way everything has worked forever."

Bypassing the college sports structure is not a new idea. NFL player agent Don Yee, whose clients include Tom Brady, has advocated for a pro football league that would sign players out of high school and prepare them for the NFL. Just this week, the country's top high school basketball recruit, Jalen Green, committed to the G League, where he will spend the 2020-21 season earning more than $500,000 and getting ready for the NBA, rather than playing an unpaid one-and-done college season.

The NFL viewed that portion of the XFL's presence with unease, considering the potential disruption to its draft ecosystem. In February, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said: "If they start taking players who are freshmen, sophomores and juniors, that's going to become an issue with the college coaches."

The XFL is for sale as part of bankruptcy proceedings announced this week, but national expectations of an extended economic downturn have lowered the chances of seeing another viable professional football league in the coming years. That makes Kenny Robinson the one and only beneficiary of what once seemed to be a promising alternative. The payoff arrives next week.