From Salpointe Catholic to the NFL: Arizona’s own Bijan Robinson returns for homecoming matchup against Cardinals

As Salpointe Catholic alum Bijan Robinson readies to face the Cardinals, his football journey comes full circle in his return to Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Atlanta Falcons)

GLENDALE – In the heart of the Arizona desert, where the sunsets paint the sky with shades of orange and red, a hometown hero is poised to make a triumphant return to the gridiron. The name Bijan Robinson had become synonymous with electrifying speed and boundless talent in Arizona, and Sunday, his story is set to come full circle as he prepares to make his grand return to the state that watched him grow from a local sensation to the No. 8 pick in April’s NFL draft.

Robinson’s journey began in the sun-soaked streets of Tucson, where he first laced up his cleats and chased his dream of making it to the NFL. Before busting into the national scene, it was clear the potential that Robinson had.

“The first time I thought we was going to be great was in middle school during eighth grade with the pee-wee all-stars team that had the top players in every state compete in Florida,” high school teammate Conner Witthoft said.”The first practice everyone was asking if I had heard of Bijan and I hadn’t yet. When practice first began I saw a kid standing in a Broncos number five jersey who was 5-10 and extremely jacked, there was no way he should’ve been that big at such a young age. During the whole practice nobody could tackle him, Bijan just weaves around everybody like he was playing against kindergartners.”

Robinson took the country by storm when he stepped foot on the field for Salpointe Catholic High School with electrifying runs that enthralled all who came to watch Robinson from across the country.

“Hard work works,” emphasized former Salpointe running back coach Zachary Neveleff to Robinson during his freshman season. The tireless commitment to perfecting his craft and willingness to go the extra mile set him on the path to greatness.

One moment stood out specifically to Neveleff during a road game in Phoenix that was postponed due to a haboob. In the locker room, Robinson took out his laptop, pulled up AIA 365, and looked up the live feed of Saguaro High School who had beaten Salpointe in the year prior. Robinson was locked in watching the game and all Neveleff could think is, this kid gets it, and he is going to be a top-level guy in the NFL one day.

“Bijan reminds me of a Muhammad Ali type that isn’t going to hide behind anyone,” Neveleff said. “He’s going to reach his hand out and shake your hand. I don’t think his fame will ever get too big for him as a person and he’ll always be able to make the time for anyone or any kid that’s out there.”

As his stardom began and national attention turned its gaze toward Robinson, he remained the same humble, charismatic young man who walked into rooms and lit them up with his presence. His former high school coach, Dennis Bene, highlighted that those aspects are what makes Robinson so great.

“He (Robinson) went from locally known to regionally known to nationally known,” Bene said. “Then you start getting offers from major schools like Notre Dame, Oklahoma, USC, Ohio State, and Texas. To be honest he had so many offers that it can become overwhelming because a lot of people don’t realize that at one time, he had 750 unread text messages on his phone because it was nonstop.”

Robinson finished his high school career as the Arizona touchdown leader (114), all-time leading rusher (7,036 yards) and the only player in Arizona history to win the Ed Doherty award twice. Tucson embraced him with open arms, and he returned the favor by carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire community on his shoulder.

Bene played a pivotal role in guiding Robinson through the overwhelming recruiting process, a journey that began with countless offers. Together, they meticulously sifted through these options, first narrowing them down to 25, and eventually arriving at the final 10 schools.

Bijan Robinson's rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons has been nothing short of impressive, with 517 rushing yards on 103 carries and one touchdown. (Photo courtesy of Atlanta Falcons)

Bijan Robinson’s rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons has been nothing short of impressive, with 517 rushing yards on 103 carries and one touchdown. (Photo courtesy of Atlanta Falcons)

Bene stressed the significance of maintaining relationships, even as they made difficult choices. He ensured that Robinson personally reached out to each coach, expressing gratitude and explaining, “Thank you for the offer, but I am no longer considering your school.” This lesson punctuated the value of relationships and the importance of not severing ties, wisdom that would prove priceless in the years ahead.

One instance of this wisdom played out when Robinson decided to join the University of Texas. He was recruited by coach Stan Drayton, who later accepted the role of head coach at Temple. Texas then hired Tashard Choice, the former running back coach from Georgia Tech, a school that had initially been on the list of offers Robinson graciously declined.

The bond that Robinson and his new coach forged bloomed, and he thrived in the iconic burnt orange and white of Texas. This unexpected journey not only illustrated the value of nurturing connections but also showcased the resilience and adaptability that characterized Robinson’s extraordinary path.

Throughout his three-year tenure as a Longhorn, Robinson achieved remarkable success. He secured the prestigious 2022 Doak Walker Award, presented to the top running back in college football. He earned unanimous All-American status in 2022 and left an indelible mark on Longhorn history by becoming the fourth all-time leading rusher with 3,410 yards and tallying 41 total touchdowns.

Robinson’s journey continued to build when he was one of 17 players invited to the green room of the 2023 NFL draft. The culmination of years of hard work and dedication was realized when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced, “With the eighth pick in the 2023 NFL draft, the Atlanta Falcons select Bijan Robinson.”

“He (Robinson) is a big believer in, ‘This is for him and this is god’s plan,’” Bene said. “For him, it was a blessing to make the kind of money to help his family out and live a good life. I told him to just enjoy the moment and process because you are in rarefied air in that environment.”

In the NFL, Robinson’s rookie season has seen him register 103 carries for 517 yards and one touchdown on the ground, as well as catching 28 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns in nine games. As the Falcons prepare to face the Arizona Cardinals Sunday at State Farm Stadium, the anticipation is building for Robinson to add another impressive performance in front of his friends and family in his home state.

The people of Tucson and the entire state will get to celebrate their hometown hero once more, and their connection with the young football star remains as strong as ever. While Robinson is now a Falcon, Arizona is still where his heart resides as the state gets to see him for the first time as a true professional athlete.

The budding backfield star approaches the game with the dedication of a true professional athlete, directing his attention solely toward the competition rather than being distracted by the presence of friends, family, past coaches, and peers in the stands.

“I feel like we sometimes get stuck in, you know, you got to make the playoffs, do all this, and win the division,” Robinson said Wednesday. “But we need to start focusing on the task at hand, which is the Cardinals, and stop overlooking what’s ahead. That’s where you can not focus on your opponent. We want to get this win, we need to get this win, but just focus on one team at a time.”

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.