Eugene Robinson sends heartfelt thanks to coach Dan Reeves for prayer after Super Bowl transgression

ATLANTA — Twenty years ago on the Saturday before Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami, Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson was awarded the prestigious Athletes in Action/Bart Starr Award. It goes to “the NFL player who best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community,” and is presented at AIA’s annual Super Bowl Breakfast. It doesn’t often go to an athlete set to actually play in that year’s Super Bowl, but Robinson’s Falcons would face the Denver Broncos the next day.

Later that Saturday night, however, Robinson was arrested for allegedly soliciting oral sex from an undercover police officer posing as a prostitute.

News spread quickly, as speculation grew around whether Robinson would still play in the game. Falcons head coach Dan Reeves did allow his safety to play, despite heavy pressure against it.

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It was revealed Saturday at the 2019 Super Bowl Breakfast — honoring the Jaguars’ Calais Campbell — that Coach Reeves did a lot more than just let Robinson play.

Reeves was a special guest Saturday, and brought up on stage to be interviewed by Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy. At the end of their conversation, Dungy brought up the Robinson incident from 1999. A video message was then played from Robinson, who recounted what he has called “the worst night of my life,” and how Reeves prayed with him. But the coach didn’t simply pray for his struggling player, he also prayed for himself, acknowledging that we’re all sinners.

“You prayed for yourself,” Robinson said in the video. “And then you started to pray for me, then you prayed for my wife and my kids, and prayed for my family that was there being responsible while I was playing in the Super Bowl. And at that time I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t feel as if I was all by myself. At that time you didn’t become my coach, you became my friend, you became my Christian brother who was helping a brother that was in need. And that’s what you’ve become.

“Since that time, God has mended and atoned and healed a lot of things in my life. But it doesn’t go a minute when we get to the Super Bowl during this time of year that I don’t think about you, and I think about the compassion that you had, the love that you had for a guy who was your football player that you didn’t look at as a football player — that you looked at as a Christian brother that was in need. I will absolutely never, ever forget that, and that has stayed with me all these years. It’s 20 years as the anniversary of that football game comes.

“I want to thank you because God has truly used you to transform me and make me into a better person, make me into a better man. So, say hello to your wife and your family. And Coach, I love you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Those words brought tears to Reeves’ eyes, as the audience applauded his heart to bring the light of Jesus into a very dark moment for his player.

“It goes to show the devil works 24/7,” Reeves said.

Robinson later returned the Bart Starr Award after his transgression. He is now a radio analyst for the Carolina Panthers, co-hosts a TV show called “Charlotte Today’’ and coaches at Charlotte Christian School.

Unfortunately, his name gets brought up annually about what not to do the night before the Super Bowl. But Robinson is now bold enough to recount that night and be one of the voices telling current players what not to do. He spoke to the Panthers before they played in Super Bowl 50 three years ago.

“Before that night, my whole life was characterized by being the guy who delivered the Word of God,” Robinson told Decision Magazine in 2016. “Every team I was on, I had always delivered Jesus. So I cried out and said, ‘Look what I’ve done to the Kingdom of God. Lord, I’ve given Your Kingdom a black eye. I am so sorry.’”

But in “all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

“God reminds me every year about this time — and every day — that I belong to Him,” Robinson said in 2016. “It’s like He has reached down to me and said, ‘Gene, if you were the only person in the world, I would save you. I love you. I would stop a Super Bowl for you.”

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