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Little Admiral: Robinson growing into football star, Renaissance man

The emerging portrait of 16-year-old Corey Robinson -- athlete, musician, scholar -- combines the light and shadow of two eras. He is a mass of Renaissance brush strokes on a canvas of 21st Century color.

The middle son of Hall of Fame basketball center David Robinson, Corey excels as a wide receiver at San Antonio Christian (Texas) High, ranks among the top 10 students in his junior class and possesses an astonishing range of abilities and interests.

He taught himself to play the guitar and drums, took 10 years of piano, learned the ukulele on vacation, played the saxophone in middle school, picked up the bass from his dad, makes jaw-dropping dunks for the basketball team, is a two-time state tennis qualifier in doubles, loves to cook, is teaching himself to speak French and plans to learn Italian over the summer.

Until recently, he considered following his famous father to the U.S. Naval Academy. Four years of academic rigor, followed by a five-year enlistment seemed like a great way to serve his country and see the world. But then he blossomed into something he never expected -- a star football player attracting the attention of Division I schools.

With his sure hands, athletic genes and body type -- 6-foot-5, 190 pounds and still growing -- Corey recognizes the possibilities. He also recognizes the dicey, uncertain path to the NFL. After a recent basketball practice, Corey took a seat on the gym bleachers and mused about his future. "I'd like to become a doctor or a biologist, of some sort," he said. "Or maybe work in the film industry."

Basketball does not fit into the picture. Hoops is a diversion, something to do between the fall and spring. "Football," he says, "is my best sport."

At the same age, Corey's father did not play hoops. He played piano, taught himself the saxophone, listened to jazz, enjoyed classical music, amused himself with computers, played golf and tennis, read voraciously and fiddled with electronics. He once built a 6-foot television set from a kit, just to see if he could. "I think Corey gets a little bit of his [varied] interests from me," David says, "but he takes it to the next level."

The father once bought a drum kit for his son. David forgot about it until he walked into his brother's church and saw Corey, drumming for the praise band, not missing a beat. "When did you learn to play?" David asked after the service.

"Corey shrugged and muttered something self-deprecating. David knew better and smiled. His son is full of surprises. Once, Corey expressed an interest in becoming a veterinarian. He took an internship in an office and decided, no, that's not for him.

During one family excursion over the winter, Corey took a job in a pro shop, renting snow skis. While visiting Hawaii, he worked for two days as a prep chef at Spago Maui, a four-star Wolfgang Puck restaurant. "They taught him to make chicken and pizza for us," David recalls. "Every time we go on vacation, he wants to work."

The kid cuts a striking profile. Long, muscled arms. Strong shoulders. Inquisitive eyes. A face that could grace a magazine cover. He is quick to smile and quick to shake hands, with a grip you'd expect around a barbell.

He looks like a star athlete, but you won't find him ranked among the nation's top juniors in football. A raw, developing talent, Corey only started playing the sport a few years ago. "His freshman and sophomore year, he didn't have any football knowledge," says San Antonio Christian Schools football coach Bryan Marmion. "But he was a sponge, always asking questions, always watching the guys ahead of him, trying to learn as much as any player I've been around."

Last fall, the student became a player. He leaped over defensive backs, snatched balls out of the sky and tumbled across goal lines. At tiny San Antonio Christian -- high school enrollment: 367 -- Corey did not attract a whiff of media. The 42 passes he caught for 645 yards and 10 touchdowns went virtually unnoticed. The San Antonio Express-News ran box scores but rarely a game narrative. Corey couldn't have been more obscure if he were on a submarine in the Pacific.

Or so it seemed. As the season progressed and San Antonio Christian marched deep into the playoffs, the athletic office phone began ringing. The University of Texas wanted film. Kansas did, too. College coaches began popping up in the stands, and murmurs rose in the brisk autumn chill. Did you see who came tonight?

Not everyone came just for Corey. Running back Seth Kelley and defensive tackle Ben Adams received attention from small schools, but Corey alone received an invitation to attend the U.S. Army National Combine, a showcase for 500 of the nation's best underclassmen in San Antonio.

Modeled after the NFL combine, the high school version puts players through three days of testing and drills before college scouts. A dossier on each athlete develops, showing height, weight, reach, time in the 40-yard dash and so on. Players are rewarded with apparel, gear and a ticket to the U.S. All-American Bowl, a nationally televised high school all-star game.

The speed and athleticism on the Alamodome turf was dazzling. "I was a little intimidated," David says. "There were all these fast, really talented kids who had been playing since they were little."

Then there was Corey, a newbie. He didn't record the fastest time over 40 yards, clocking a best of 4.6 seconds, or run the best routes. But he proved his skills against the nation's best cornerbacks. Corey caught every pass thrown to him, and there weren't many who could out jump him. The combine provided perspective for a teen who plays against few Division I prospects in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools.

"I've never seen so many good wide receivers," he says. "I wasn't the best one there but at least I could play with them. It was a learning experience."

Corey blended with hundreds of others, but his 7-1 father stood out. Reporters swooped in for interviews and the retired San Antonio Spur known as The Admiral obliged, beaming like a proud father in the Alamodome. The following morning, Corey's combine appearance drew a brief mention in the Express-News, which dubbed him, "Little Admiral."

The Little Admiral impressed Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Rice. Air Force and the U.S. Naval Academy also expressed interest. Stanford will send a coach to scout Corey during spring football. The University of Texas at San Antonio watches closely. A strong senior season may yield offers from larger schools.

What a turn of events. Less than a year ago, Corey was focused on Annapolis. On every visit with his father, Corey enjoyed the campus, the culture, the atmosphere of Navy football games. He even enjoyed meeting his father's friends at a 25-year reunion. "They're all really successful," Corey says.

The future plebe, however, became a prospect. On Nov. 10 against Fort Bend Christian, Corey sprinted down the right sideline toward the end zone. The spiral from sophomore quarterback Turner Goudge soared high and a bit left. Corey rose over his defender, as if reaching for an alley-oop, made a fingertip catch and fell in for the score.

The spectacular became routine. The calls from Texas and Kansas, the overtures from Stanford and Northwestern, were impossible to ignore. "Dad, what should I do?"

The Admiral smiled. Corey has options at 16 David never had at 18. Dad played one year of high school basketball in Virginia, made all-district and graduated virtually unnoticed, a 6-7 math geek who scored 1320 on his SAT.

It's a long way from 16 and high school to 22 and the NFL. But Corey wants to take a chance.

The five-year service commitment the Naval Academy requires would make him 27 before he could play pro ball. The Navy made an exception for David, allowing him to serve only two years as a submarine base engineer before releasing him to the NBA. But exceptions are rarely granted. "My dad was fortunate," Corey says. "I don't know if that could happen to me."

The best and the worst happened to Napoleon McCallum, a contemporary of Corey's father. An All-America running back at Navy in 1984 and 1985, McCallum played six years in the NFL. As a rookie, he split time between the Los Angeles Raiders and Naval duty in Long Beach. Then he spent five years out of football, serving his country, before returning to the NFL. A gruesome knee injury in 1994 ended his career and nearly cost him his leg.

Anchors aweigh? Like a ship disappearing on the horizon, the Navy vision has vanished. A new dream has emerged, glimmering in the distance. Corey wants to play pro ball, yes, but he also wants to pursue music, film and medicine. He wants to learn new languages, play new instruments, visit new places. "And I do want to serve my country," he says.

The Admiral says his son is growing into a Renaissance man, a wonder of eclectic interests and exquisite skills. How does a high school junior manage so many activities, maintain his grades and stand out on the field?

"Laser focus," the father says. "He's probably the most focused 16-year-old I've ever seen. He'll come home, do his homework, his laundry, the dishes and go to bed at 9. I'll say, 'Let's go play, relax a little.' He'll say, 'Come on, dad. I've got this paper due.' He's very disciplined. He doesn't like things out of order. He has a strong personality, strong character. I could send him to college right now and he'd be fine."

The son only looks small when he stands next to his father. No one knows how much more Corey will grow -- one, two, three inches? -- but the genes suggest he might keep stretching in college. David grew six inches after high school.

Corey is growing in his second sport. An injured hamstring from football cost him the first two months of the basketball season. He worked his way into the lineup slowly, didn't start until Saturday, the 37th game of the season, and makes no pretenses: "I'm not that good."

He's better than he admits, better than the 7.5 points he averages as a forward. Corey can rebound, block shots, score inside, get up and down the court. His dunks electrify. The injury, though, set him back, and the Lions found their way without him, becoming one of San Antonio's surprise teams. Under new coach John Valenzuela, the Lions installed a new offense and began beating some of the biggest schools in town with pressure defense and deadly three-point shooting.

No, Corey didn't sit on the bench. He stood in front of it, pumping his fist, leading the cheers.

After one victory -- a game in which Corey did not play one minute in the second half -- Valenzuela recognized him at practice. No one pulled harder for the Lions, the coach said, than the guy who refused to stop yelling and sit down.

Valenzuela hasn't coached Mr. Inspiration long. But he loves the kid, and for reasons that transcend basketball. "Corey has solid Christian values," Valenzuela says. "He comes from great parents. He's the type of kid I'd want my daughter to marry."

When the day comes, Corey could compose and arrange the music for his own wedding. He loves jazz, listens to oldies, enjoys Beethoven and Bach. His appreciation of classical music has inspired him to take up a new instrument. The violin.

The young man does not paint or sculpt. But he remains an artist, always exploring and always creating, a symphony of sound.

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