The Disappearing Man: The Raider who went missing before Super Bowl
As part of our countdown to Super Bowl 50, SI.com is rolling out a series focusing on the overlooked, forgotten or just plain strange history of football’s biggest game. From commercials to Super Bowl parties, we'll cover it all, with new stories published every Wednesday here.
He showed up out of the blue, a massive, friendly man volunteering to help out at a Special Olympics event at Dublin (Calif.) High last October. Hardly anyone knew who he was, just that he was being helpful and encouraging to the competitors. But Michelle McDonald, the mother of one of the Dublin students recognized him, and she called her husband Jerry, the Oakland Raiders beat writer for the Oakland Tribune. She knew he would be interested in this. Barret Robbins, the ex-Raider once famous for his sudden Super Bowl disappearance, had appeared out of nowhere.
Robbins had not spoken publicly since he angrily cut off a TV interview in 2012. A camera crew had approached him moments after his release from a Florida prison, where he had spent the last 18 months, and asked if he was apologetic for the run-in with police officers that had led to his sentence. He responded with an obscenity, then said, “Cancel this, erase this,” as he walked away. “I don’t want any part of this.”
But McDonald, who had interviewed Robbins many times during his nine-year career as the Raiders’ center, was a familiar face, and when he arrived at the high school he was somewhat surprised to find that Robbins seemed glad to see him. They talked for nearly 30 minutes, and Robbins steered the interview away from the unpleasant areas—that Super Bowl nearly 13 years ago, when he went missing on the eve of the game, and the problems, both legal and emotional, that have plagued him ever since. Life was better, he said. Not perfect yet, but better.
“I’m doing real well. I’m happy to be where I’m at,” Robbins said. “Being comfortable in my own skin is very underrated when it comes to dealing with substance abuse and being bipolar. I’ve come a long way in the last year. It’s good to have a fresh start. I got to get some emotions out and put some things in the past, so I’m very grateful.”
“A lot of guys thought what Barret did was unforgivable at the time, but as the years pass you come to realize that he had serious issues, that not everything was under his control. Everyone knew Barret was unstable even then, but I think now everybody has a much better understanding of the things he was dealing with.” —TIM BROWN
He was in the Bay Area, crashing on a friend’s couch, when someone told him about the Special Olympics event, and he decided he wanted to be a part of it. That wasn’t surprising because even at his lowest points, friends have always said Robbins has a kindness about him. “He truly cares about other people,” says Drew Pittman, his former agent. “He would give anyone the shirt off his back. He’s unselfish to a fault, with himself, with his finances, with everything.”
At the end of the conversation, McDonald gave Robbins his phone number, but the former Pro Bowl center didn’t offer one in return. Then he was gone again, with no easy way to be found. When McDonald’s story about his encounter with Robbins was published, ex-Raider quarterback Rich Gannon called the reporter, asking where he could reach his old teammate. But there was nothing McDonald could tell him. Robbins does not leave bread crumbs.
“His name comes up from time to time, when people ask me about that Super Bowl,” says former Raiders wide receiver Tim Brown. “A lot of guys thought what Barret did was unforgivable at the time, but as the years pass you come to realize that he had serious issues, that not everything was under his control. Everyone knew Barret was unstable even then, but I think now everybody has a much better understanding of the things he was dealing with.”
But Brown hasn’t had a chance to talk about those things with Robbins in years. For a 6’5”, 300-pound man, Robbins is elusive. He disappears and reappears, often with little warning. Even the Raiders could offer no help in tracking him down for this story. “I wish him the best,” Brown says. “Haven’t talked to him in a long time. He’s kind of been a ghost.”
“I get depressed on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s hard for me to watch. I think about it all the time. I hit myself in the head and say ‘Damn, if I just could have done this or would have done that.’” —BARRET ROBBINS
Sometime after 10 p.m. on Jan. 24, 2003, two days before Robbins was scheduled to be the Raiders’ starting center in Super Bowl XXXVII, the driver he had hired for the evening dropped him off at the team hotel in plenty of time for him to make the team’s 11 p.m. curfew. Robbins said goodnight to his wife Marisa, who stayed in the car and returned to the hotel where the players’ families were staying.
The next morning, Saturday, Marisa Robbins got a call from a Raiders staffer. “Where’s our guy?” he asked. Robbins had been in his room at bed check, but he had not shown up for a morning team meeting, and now he was nowhere to be found. Neither she nor the Raiders’ coaches could have been completely surprised by his disappearance. He had been diagnosed with depression in college at TCU, and in 1996, his second season with the Raiders, Robbins had been found disoriented and wandering around the team hotel in Denver. He didn’t play the next day against the Broncos and was hospitalized. During training camp the next season, Robbins publicly acknowledged that he suffered from depression.
In January 2001, he went AWOL from the team during the week leading up to the AFC championship game against the Ravens, an incident that went unreported at the time. He turned up after about 24 hours, and started against the Ravens in Oakland’s 16–3 loss. Now, a little more than the day before the biggest game of his life, Robbins was gone again.
It wasn’t until Saturday night, at nearly 8 p.m., that Robbins re-appeared, just as suddenly as he had vanished. He showed up at the team hotel, so incoherent that coach Bill Callahan took him off the roster and banished him to the hotel where the players’ families were staying. He joined Marisa and their two young daughters, Marley and Madison, and though he was no longer missing, he was still clearly disoriented and confused. The next day, the morning of the Super Bowl, he was sitting in the room watching television when Marisa told him it was Sunday and asked him if he knew where he was supposed to be. “Church?” he asked.
“If Barret Robbins comes back [next season], I won’t,” offensive lineman Frank Middleton said. “I want to play with people I can rely on. I don’t want to go into next year worrying about some cat making it to the game. We’re a family. When crunch time comes and one of your family members doesn’t come through, it hurts.”
The Super Bowl was disastrous for the Raiders, who lost 48–21 to Tampa Bay, which was particularly embarrassing because ex-Raider coach Jon Gruden, who had left for the Buccaneers after a dispute with Al Davis, completely out-coached the Oakland staff. Brown has made no secret that he believes Callahan’s 11th-hour decision to completely change the game plan from a run-oriented attack to a pass-heavy one on the Friday before the game not only “sabotaged” Oakland’s chances, in his words, but put an undue burden on Robbins, who, as the center, had to change his line calls and blocking schemes on short notice. But Robbins doesn’t believe Callahan’s moves triggered his disappearance. “I was going through a manic episode that lasted more than two weeks,” he said in an interview on a Dallas radio station. “When we went to the Super Bowl I was having to shoot my foot up, going through acupuncture, going through a lot of pain. Pain is a big trigger when it comes to bipolar. That was something I was going through, as well as self-medicating.”
After the loss, the devastated Raiders lashed out in every direction, including at Robbins for abandoning the team. “If Barret Robbins comes back [next season], I won’t,” offensive lineman Frank Middleton said. “I want to play with people I can rely on. I don’t want to go into next year worrying about some cat making it to the game. We’re a family. When crunch time comes and one of your family members doesn’t come through, it hurts.”
Robbins knows now that he was having a manic episode that weekend, and he lives with the regret of missing his only chance to play in the Super Bowl, of letting his teammates down. In a 2012 interview on HBO’s Real Sports, he said that he makes a point to try to sleep through the Super Bowl every year. “I get depressed on Super Bowl Sunday,” he said. “It’s hard for me to watch. I think about it all the time. I hit myself in the head and say ‘Damn, if I just could have done this or would have done that.’”
“Some football guys get together and drink, some guys get together and smoke, some guys get together and do drugs. I did all of them.” —BARRET ROBBINS
But of course it wasn’t that simple. Robbins didn’t know at the time that he was manic/depressive. Hours before the start of the Super Bowl, he was admitted to a San Diego hospital, where he stayed for several days before going into rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic. Through his agent, Pittman, he released a statement in which Robbins apologized for his actions and the Super Bowl and said he had been diagnosed as bipolar. He later told his wife that he had spent most of the day before the game across the border in Tijuana, so disoriented that he thought the Raiders had already won the game and he was celebrating the victory.
The explanation and the treatment were enough to convince the Raiders not to release Robbins, and he regained his starting job for the 2003 season. But then his name was one of many found among the list of clients of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), that had given performance-enhancing drugs to several high-profile athletes. The Raiders released him in the summer of 2004 after he tested positive for “the clear,” one of the steroids known to have come from the BALCO lab. “Some football guys get together and drink, some guys get together and smoke, some guys get together and do drugs” Robbins told Real Sports. “I did all of them.”
Robbins would never play another down in the NFL. His career over and his marriage crumbling, his life became a series of increasingly dangerous incidents. According to police, on Christmas Eve 2004 he punched a security guard who was trying to keep him from entering the bar at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco after hours. He was arrested on misdemeanor charges of battery, trespassing and being drunk in public.
Fewer than three weeks later, Robbins was shot three times in the lung and chest by police during a brawl in Miami Beach and was charged with attempted murder. He was in a coma for nearly two months, after which he pled guilty to five charges, including the attempted murder charge. Robbins was sentenced to five years probation, ordered to receive treatment for his bipolar disorder and to avoid alcohol.
Much of the next several years were spent in jail or rehab facilities related to problems with substance abuse. In 2010 Robbins was pulled over outside Dallas by a police officer who found crack cocaine in his car. He was sentenced to five years in prison for the drug-related probation violation and released in September 2012.
Since then, the details of Robbins’s whereabouts have been sketchy, a series of abrupt appearances and disappearances. “It hasn’t been a straight line,” says Pittman, his former agent, “but he’s doing well.” He returned to his hometown of Houston for a time, where he volunteered at the Children’s Medical Center. According to Pittman, Robbins now works at I Am Somebody, a substance abuse rehabilitation center. The facility does not release the names of its employees.
With the exception of the impromptu interview he gave McDonald, Robbins has avoided media attention. Pittman contacted him to try to arrange an interview with SI, but said that Robbins didn’t return his text messages. He is divorced from Marisa, who did not return messages seeking comment for this story, but according to Pittman he still has a relationship with his two daughters. “Right now, he’s doing well,” Pittman said. “He’s making a life.” But apparently Robbins wants to keep that life out of the public eye, and maybe the anonymity suits him. It has, after all, been three years since his last public mistake. Sometimes disappearing is the wisest thing to do.