Football always kept Cleo Robinson on the go. As an on-field official for the Pac-10 and Big Sky conferences and later a replay official for the Pac-12, he traveled often and worked too many games to count over the course of three decades in the profession. His favorite part of those travels, though, oftentimes involved the moments when he wasn't on the go, but returning home to Tucson, Ariz., and his grandson, Bijan Robinson.
A young Bijan, no older than seven or eight years old, would run up to his grandfather with arms outstretched when he returned from a work trip. Cleo, who Bijan actually called, "Dad," would reach into his bag and pull out a program from the game he'd just officiated. After handing the program to his grandson, Bijan would scurry away to Cleo's home office, which acted as Bijan's personal football sanctuary.
It was there, in that room, where Bijan Robinson began dedicating his life to the game of football.
Once the program was in his possession, young Bijan would begin cutting out pictures of the players. He'd memorize their names and their positions. Once the players were all cut out, he meticulously began placing each player in their designated spot. He'd create the line of scrimmage on the table by putting offensive linemen against defensive lineman. Then, he'd add the running backs and linebackers, the defensive backs and receivers.
When every cutout was in the place he wanted them to be, Bijan began moving them, shifting them up, down and around the table, over and over again.
"He would play these little games with them," Cleo said.
Bijan did this so often and his intrigue in the game expanded so rapidly that Cleo and the rest of the Robinson family felt compelled to help him with his studies. They bought him little helmets to stand in for the players' pictures he'd cut out of programs. They also gave him a little blue card table to work from, which that Bijan eventually put lines on to mimic the football fields he saw on TV.
"Then he would put those helmets out there. He would put the offensive line and defense line out there, here are the runners," Cleo said, his hands moving side to side in front of him. "Then, snap!"
Blockers would move forward, defenders would adjust, receivers would release into their designated routes, all according to Bijan's master plan.
By the time Bijan really got into playing the game himself, he was always one step ahead of everyone else. It wasn't simply because he was the fastest on the field. It was because the football instincts, those learned and those already within him, were there.
"That's the interest he had in it," Cleo said. "Because, when he actually started playing, his skill level was always a little bit higher than everybody else on the field. But I stayed in the moment. I didn't have any big dreams down the road. I just helped him at this level, but he would do some things that showed me that he knew a lot about the game."
Two decades later, Bijan Robinson's dreams were realized when he was taken as the No. 8 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons. Though that dream may not have been on Cleo's radar as he watched his grandson cut out the pictures of the players in the programs he brought home for him, it's a dream that materialized along the way.
Bijan's life revolves around faith, family and football. Oftentimes these three words are reduced to a cliche. They're printed on the backs of t-shirts or hung on the wall. With Bijan, though, these three words are his purpose, one he has lived within since the moment he was born.