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.
Faith to breathe
LaMore Sauls didn't know she was pregnant. Doctors thought she was having issues with her thyroid gland but, to make a long story short, it wasn't a thyroid issue at all. She was in her third trimester no less.
That baby was to be a boy, a boy she would name Bijan.
The name Bijan in itself has its own story worthy of a small digression. LaMore and her mother, Geraldine, were working as fragrance models at a Dillard's in the months after LaMore - now Sauls, then Robinson - found out she was pregnant.
The world around her was chaotic, as people were adjusting to the new reality of a post-9/11 world. LaMore was still young herself, adjusting not just to the chaos of the world around her but the life-changing love that grew within her. Just a college student at the time, LaMore finished that fall semester before returning to her parents' home so they could help her raise her little boy, a boy who got his name from a perfume.
As LaMore and her own mother worked the fragrance counter, one day a Bijan cologne sample was placed before her.
"Bijan -- I like that," she thought to herself.
LaMore ruminated on the name before ultimately deciding that, yes, that would be her firstborn son's name. Funny enough, it was actually after she decided on the name of her baby that she found out what Bijan meant. A colleague of hers was Persian and one day the colleague told her what Bijan stood for in her native language: "Hero."
If the name didn't fit before, LaMore said, it did now. And what's a hero without a miraculous origin story?
A month and a half after LaMore moved back home, Bijan was ready to make his grand entrance into the world. The excitement within the Robinson family was palpable. Geraldine and Cleo were preparing the house for his arrival. LaMore's little sister Cleyrissa, who was nine at the time, was over the moon to meet her nephew. She'd always wanted a little brother and this was the next best thing. And LaMore, though still trying to actively wrap her head around the idea of being a mother, was just so ready to meet this baby who she knew, even then, would change her life.
"Here's going to come my first true love, something that's going to love me unconditionally," LaMore said. "It doesn't matter what I do, this baby loves me, and I need to love it back."
LaMore labored with her bundle of love for 13 hours. At the end of those 13 hours, Bijan had arrived. Doctors and nurses laid Bijan on his mother's chest, but instead of relief quickly came anxiety. Bijan wasn't breathing. The nurses snatched Bijan away and began their work.
Time, LaMore said, slowed down.
"I remember thinking, 'Why is he not crying?'" she said. "I watched too many mommy movies within a three-month time period, so why is he not crying? I know he's supposed to cry."
Crying he wasn't. It was too quiet, even as doctor after doctor started rushing into the delivery room. LaMore remembers the last doctor who came in with the most clarity. She believes this doctor was the one who was designated to give her the news no mother ever wants to hear or could even fathom: You had a stillborn baby.
"Instead of celebrating life, we're getting ready to celebrate a homegoing," LaMore said through misty eyes.
Then, she said, time stopped all together.
"They say time doesn't stop, but that's what it felt like," LaMore said. "I remember the doctors just parting like the Red Sea, and I could see my mom walking over to Bijan, but not knowing why."
To hear LaMore's side of it, Geraldine walked over to her grandson, who had yet to draw his first breath of life, and placed two fingers on his chest.
"I could see him," LaMore said, recalling her position on the delivery table, "and it was like God was breathing life into him."
And then Bijan Robinson cried.
"The doctors were like, 'That's what we were looking for,'" LaMore said. "'We were looking for a miracle.'"
A breathing, crying, healthy Bijan was finally handed to his mother. The anxiety of the last few minutes gave way to profound relief. Like her little boy, LaMore cried, too.
"When they finally handed him to me, that's when I really cried," LaMore said. "It was like, 'OK. Here he is. He's OK.'"
Her little Bijan, her little hero, experienced his first miracle.
It should be noted that the Robinson family's faith is integral to their story and to Bijan's story.
"God gave him breath to breathe," Geraldine said. "We're talking about a baby who was born not breathing. To look at him now, every touchdown he scores I am screaming, 'That's my grandson!'"
Once Bijan was here, his family says he never stopped moving. To make up for those moments of terrifying silence, Bijan came with extra energy, LaMore said through a smile.
It was this energy, positive in nature and wrapped in faith, that has propelled Bijan through life.
Family to love
LaMore doesn't know where she and Bijan would be without their family. She doesn't know because she never had to wonder. For every step of Bijan's journey, his family has been walking beside them.
Cleo fostered Bijan's curiosity for the game, even when he didn't realize he was doing so.
"I was an outlet for him to ask questions," Cleo said.
After Cleo worked a football game, he liked to go back and watch film. But he was never alone when he turned the tape on.
"Bijan would watch it, also," Cleo recalled. "I was watching my part in it, but he's watching everything else, what's going on out there on the field and the plays."
LaMore said her father's relationship with her son is one of the most beautiful connections she's ever witnessed. It was and still is beautiful, even as she laughs that the two of them together can be a lot to handle, like when they would insist upon throwing a football up and down the aisles of grocery stores and Walmarts. As Bijan grew, the connection with Cleo meant more and more.
"In the adolescent years, as Bijan [was] getting older, it was great to have my father there," LaMore said. "There was never anything lacking for Bijan. You would have never known that there wasn't a biological father there because we were such a close family. I think he thought this is all how it's supposed to go down. It was good times. It really was, and it still is."
But it wasn't just Cleo. Oh, no. With Cleo came Geraldine. She fostered Bijan's imagination to dream and his basis of faith. It was her pots and pans that Bijan would bring out to use as stand-in drums, his foundational learning before he became their church's drummer. Geraldine could also be considered the spiritual head of the family, having been Bijan's Sunday school teacher growing up.
Then there's Bijan's auntie, Cleyrissa Robinson, who has fostered Bijan's off-field career.
Cleyrissa is Bijan's manager and certified best friend. They grew up together -- he'd steal her shoes; she now steals his t-shirts – with Cleyrissa less than a decade older than Bijan. They go to concerts together and, with NIL deals and promotions knocking on Bijan's door in college at Texas, it was Cleyrissa who helped market Bijan in the right way.