The truth? You want to know what the famous fathers think about this sport their sons have chosen, this sport that now scares just about every other parent in America to death, this sport that has sucked even the President into the roiling debate about its future?
This is an article from the Feb. 4, 2013 issue
They've never met each other and they made their millions playing different sports, but David Robinson and Torii Hunter are linked together now: They are famous fathers with talented sons, both of them wide receivers out of Texas high schools and prized prospects in one of the most anticipated Notre Dame recruiting classes in a generation. The fathers, one an NBA legend, the other a major league baseball star, are soon to be Fighting Irish football dads, proud but conflicted, cheering in the stands while also whispering quiet prayers.
A few weeks ago, David Robinson was on hand when his middle son, Corey, a receiver out of San Antonio Christian Academy, banged his head hard against the turf during a practice for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl at the Alamodome. It was a routine play, really, but Corey staggered to the sidelines, where he was checked for a concussion as his father held his breath. (Corey checked out fine.) "That wasn't good," David says with a sigh. "I've always thought football was crazy, to be honest. A sport with a 100-percent injury rate for pro players? Nobody escapes their career without getting hurt. And now, I'm starting to watch college football, and you see those receivers going over the middle, getting pounded...." His voice trails off.
Football was Torii Hunter's first love—growing up in Pine Bluff, Ark., where he was a high school quarterback. But that was a different time, before concussions in football were recognized as epidemic. Now? Now he's like any other football parent, not really sure what to make of the game. When his son Torii Jr.—a wideout from Prosper (Texas) High, where he is also the star centerfielder on the baseball team—asks his father for advice on which path to take, the father tries to gently steer the son in one direction.
The father, who has earned more than $134 million in his career, will say, "Would you rather be making a lot of money for a long time, living the good life, like your old man? Or do you want to be using a walker when you're 35?" And the father and son will both laugh.
But the father is not really kidding.
The truth? David Robinson never thought any of his three sons would become football stars. For starters, the Robinsons were never a football family. David's wife, Valerie, a rabid Bears fan from Chicago, would plant herself in front of the TV on Sundays, and the men of the house "would be like, 'All right, we'll see you later then,' and go do whatever we wanted to do," says David, now 47 and devoted to charity work and Carver Academy, the charter school he helped establish in 2001 near his home in San Antonio. Then again, the Robinsons were never exactly a basketball family either, even when David, a Hall of Famer with two championship rings, was in his final years with the Spurs and his boys were young. David would come home and play video games and watch movies with his sons—the last thing he wanted to do, he says, was talk and watch basketball at home, where, other than a modest trophy case in a hallway, there is virtually no evidence that he played 14 seasons in the NBA. His oldest, David Jr., would tell him that he didn't want anything to do with the game because everyone expected him to be the best player on the court. "He complained that everyone would talk crap to him," says David Sr. "And I always told him, 'You got my name, so that means the girls will call you. You get all the good stuff that comes with the name. But you have to accept the bad too. Don't like the pressure? Don't play.' I really didn't care."
He never pushed any of his three sons to play any sport, for that matter. Corey was the least naturally athletic growing up—"a few years ago he couldn't jump over the Sunday paper," says his father. Corey seemed more likely to bloom into a doctor or a lawyer or a musician. But now when David Sr. looks at Corey, he sees a himself as a teenager: Like his father, Corey is a scholar (David was a self-proclaimed math nerd; Corey graduated early, in December, with a 4.4 GPA, in the top 10 in his class) and a musician (David grew up playing the piano and saxophone; along with those instruments, Corey can also play the flute, guitar, ukulele, bass and drums), as well as a late-blooming athlete. David did not play a competitive basketball game until his senior year of high school; Corey took up football just three years ago.
When the Robinson boys were growing up, their father would repeatedly tell them that he never really liked basketball when he was young, not in high school or even his first few years at the Naval Academy. "I wasn't stupid," he says. "I saw that basketball was going to get me a scholarship to college. But I really didn't like it. So I told myself, I'll try it and keep working on it, and see if I can grow to love it." Corey was the same way with football—the only reason he went out for the team his freshman year was because David Jr., two years older and a receiver himself at San Antonio Christian, told him it was an activity they could share. "I showed up the first day of practice, and my brother was nowhere to be seen," says Corey, who was stuck: If he quit the team, according to school rules, he wouldn't be able to play any sport for an entire year, and he also wanted to go out for basketball and tennis. "I remember being out there shagging balls, and every day I'd say, 'Lord, if it be your will, please take this cup of suffering from me,'" he says of those first years on the football field. "I prayed that every day, for two years." But Corey kept something else in mind: "I knew that my dad didn't like basketball, and that worked out pretty well for him. I thought that if he could go through four years of basketball and the first two years of the Naval Academy and not like it, then I could try a couple years of football and see what happened."
It's part of the father's legend that he grew nearly a foot during high school, and another seven inches before his sophomore year at Navy, topping out at 7' 1". The 6' 4", 195-pound Corey was just 6' 1" and about 165 as a freshman but had grown three inches by his junior year and, as one of the tallest players on the field, had begun to dominate opposing secondaries. Last season, he had 67 catches for 1,414 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was still unknown nationally to recruiters a little more than a year ago, before his breakout at the Army All-American Bowl Combine, an exhibition for high school underclassmen, where he ran a 4.6 40-yard dash and caught every ball thrown to him. His father was on the sideline, talking to other football dads who were bragging about the number of scholarship offers their sons were receiving. "I'm like, 'O.K., well that's nice,' and looking out to Corey on the field thinking, Please, son, just don't embarrass the family," he says. "But he didn't. He didn't back down when others got in his face. That's when I knew that he had it in him."
After Corey turned heads, the offers started to come—first from Notre Dame, then from Iowa, Kansas and Navy, among others. David began to see, for the first time, a killer competitive streak in Corey. Spend any time with the father and the son, and that fierce competitiveness eventually comes out. Just get them in the same room and ask them who is the better, say, piano player.
"That's a good question," David Sr. says one morning in San Antonio.
"What do you mean, good question?" retorts Corey, who took nine years of private lessons and plays everything from Chopin to Coldplay. "It's not close."
"You're a better musician, I'll give you that," says the father. "As far as the piano, you play more than I do right now. I just don't know if you play it better than me."
"Well," says the son, "we're going to have to settle this, won't we?"
The truth? Torii Hunter always thought that of all his sons—he has three of them, with three different mothers—Torii Jr. was the one destined to follow in his footsteps and become a star in baseball. "Torii Jr. was different—he changed me," says the father, who lived with Torii Jr. in Minneapolis, where he played nine seasons before signing with the Angels in 2008. "He was always watching me. I had to start carrying myself the right way, because I could always feel him watching." Sunday was Junior's favorite day growing up: It was kids' day at the Metrodome when the Twins were in town, and Torii Jr. would play T-ball on the field with the children of the other players. "He was always the fastest of all them," says Torii Sr. "I'd be hitting fly balls, and he'd be climbing the walls like his dad. He could dunk by the time he was in the eighth grade."
Torii Sr. tells Junior that he can be an All-Star in baseball. "He's ahead of where I was at his age," the father says. "I have more power than he has. He might be a little faster than me—but we've never raced, so I'm not going to give him that. I've got him on toughness. He's tough; but I was street tough, and he's suburbanite tough. But he can jump higher than me. And he's got the knowledge and the mind-set and the understanding of the game—I had none of that coming out of high school." Torii Sr. had a scholarship to play baseball at Arkansas when he was drafted 20th overall by the Twins in 1993. "When that happened, I was like, Whaaaat? I'd never heard of the Twins," he says. "My mom was a schoolteacher, and I had three brothers, and we were barely scraping by—I had to take the money to get my family out of debt."
When he was in the eighth grade, Torii Jr. thought about quitting football so that he could concentrate on baseball, "but somebody told me that you could get a scholarship in football, and that would pay for college," he says. "And at that time I really wanted to make my own name for myself, to make my own path, so I wanted to see if I could do that. It just happened that I turned out to be good at football."
As Torii Jr. bloomed into one of the top receivers in Texas—he had 1,235 receiving yards last year at Prosper to go with 14 touchdowns—the offers came from all around the country, from Notre Dame to Alabama to Oklahoma. At the same time, he was living up to his name on the baseball field as a five-tool centerfielder who reminded scouts of his father. The 6-foot, 172-pound senior was already starting to prepare for baseball season at Prosper when he participated in the Army All-American Bowl workout in San Antonio on New Year's Day. During one-on-one drills he was breaking to the outside early in a routine pass route when he abruptly fell to the ground, writhing in pain; he had broken his left femur. Baseball scouts had been talking about Hunter as a potential first-round pick, but any chance of that happening this summer was suddenly gone—he would have to sit out his final baseball season this spring, and he won't play football until June at the earliest. The father would never say, I told you so, but....
"We've had the conversation, 1,000 times, since he was a kid, about the risks, the wear and tear of football, and how for longevity, baseball is the better option," says Hunter, who at age 37 signed a two-year, $26 million free-agent deal with the Tigers in November for what will be his 15th and 16th big league seasons. "To me it's a no-brainer: Baseball is the way to go. Torii Jr. understands all of this, he really does. But he wanted football because he wanted the scholarship—he's never wanted anyone to give him anything. And how can you argue with a boy just wanting to make his own way?"
They aren't brothers, but they are friends. (Corey made the trip to visit Torii Jr. in the hospital last month, and they talk regularly on the phone.) Once they sign, they'll be teammates, lining up together in coach Brian Kelly's spread offense. They are exceptional talents with different strengths: Torii Jr. is a blue-chip prospect who has been on the national radar for years, a flier whose breakaway speed makes him a weapon out of the slot. Corey is the late riser in the recruiting ranks, a physical receiver who wrestles balls out of crowds and who, because of his size, projects as more of a possession receiver. David Robinson believes that with a college weight program, Corey will eventually fill out to something close to 6' 8" and 240 pounds. "People in my family, for whatever reason, just develop later," says the father. "I tell my youngest [Justin, a sophomore at San Antonio Christian], who's skinny as a rail, with no strength at all, that he's going to be 6' 8" and really athletic. He just needs to be patient, like Corey was."
Corey and Torii Jr. share dreams that have nothing to do with football: Corey—who until he chose Notre Dame, weighed pursuing premed at an Ivy League school, or following in his father's footsteps at Navy—still wants to pursue a career in medicine; Torii Jr. has baseball, which he'll play at Notre Dame. "Eventually, he'll have a choice to make," says Torii Sr. "He went to Notre Dame to play football. But if he's a first-round pick in baseball? Who knows?"
The NFL is also on both sons' minds. Their fathers may have complicated feelings about their sons and football, but they also see how hard their boys have worked and how badly they want to establish their own identities. "Corey's like me, incapable of doing anything just halfway, and that's why he's had success at football," says David Sr. "I didn't like basketball, but I also couldn't do it halfway, and eventually I fell in love with the game because of the competition—you walk out onto the court, and there's Shaquille O'Neal and Patrick Ewing, the best of the best, and it's you against him, and you know he wants to destroy you."
He adds, "I see that love of competition in Corey. And I tell him that there's nobody in the country that has his combination of smarts, athletic ability and size. I believe that. Just do what you do, be fearless and see how far that takes you. You won't make it to the pro level unless you have that fearlessness."
Torii Sr. is starting the next, and perhaps final, chapter of his long baseball career in Detroit, just a short flight to South Bend. He'll be in the stands for as many games as he can make, cheering and saying his quiet prayers, but he understands his role now, and he accepts it. "I look at it like this," he says. "You raise your child the right way, you make a path for them, you give them everything they need. Father knows best. But I know in the end, the father has to step aside and let the son find his own way."
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