From Italy to B.C.: Jevoni Robinson has taken an unusual route to the CFL

New CFL balls are photographed at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers stadium in Winnipeg Thursday, May 24, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

It was an assistant basketball coach who first spotted Jevoni Robinson and started his unlikely path to the CFL.

Robinson was enrolled at North Carolina State and playing a pick-up game of basketball when assistant coach Bobby Lutz walked by.

“He discovered me and he’s the one who actually, you know, pioneered my basketball career. He’s the one that brought me on,” Robinson said in an interview at the B.C. Lions’ training camp in Kamloops. “That’s how it all started on a scholarship there. And the rest was history.”

Lutz encouraged Robinson to try out as a walk-on for the NCAA team. Robinson played two seasons for the Wolfpack, scoring seven points and recording three blocks over 17 games.

Robinson was born in Jamaica before emigrating to the U.S. as a child and played cricket there before competing in track and field in hurdles, long jump and high jump in the U.S.

His sporting career since has taken him from Raleigh, N.C. to Florida then Salerno, Italy and now to the Lions. Robinson was a seventh-overall global draft pick for the Lions this season and has spent time on the Houston Texans’ practice squad as well as AAF and XFL teams.

“My path has been unconventional, but I’m embracing it,” he said.

The path included a switch from N.C. State to Division II school Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., as a graduate transfer. His coach there said Robinson needed some work, but he quickly bonded with and inspired teammates.

“He didn’t have much of a touch. But God, he was just first off a great person to be part of our program, number two: a great person to work with, and three: even though he was limited, he still contributed to our success,” said Butch Estes, the head coach of Barry University’s basketball team.

Robinson recorded 42 blocks in one season, ranking him sixth in school single-season history.

His road to Italy came about after a strength and conditioning coach had NBA players use the university’s gym for a pick-up game. They were looking for another player; Robinson was still on campus and Estes recommended him.

“I called (Robinson) and I said ‘Look, they’re looking for a sixth guy to play three on three half court, are you available?’ He said yeah, so he came over and he played. And the agent came up to my office as soon as they got done and said tell me more about this kid. He said I really am going to refer him to my agent who I work for because I think he’s got a pro career.”

He spent a season as a forward with Angri Pallacanestro in Italy’s C2 league, the country’s fourth division of professional basketball.

Estes was an assistant coach at the University of Miami from 2006 to 2007 and was quick to compare Robinson to another player he knew and coached: former NFL star tight end Jimmy Graham.

Having not played football since high school, Robinson said he made what he called “a spiritual decision” to make the move back to the sport with a mentor encouraging him to commit.

The six-foot-seven Robinson has suited up as a wide receiver for the Lions in training camp, and head coach and co-general manager Rick Campbell said he’s excited to see what the basketball-turned-football player can do.

“He’s been working with the receivers for now so that’s where we view him. And sometimes he can do some of what we would call hybrid stuff, with being able to do some blocking just because he’s a bigger type of receiver,” he said. “He’s kind of along the lines of Jevon Cottoy which is another receiver that’s played for us the last couple of years.”

Robinson said he and Cottoy have been working closely together during training camp and that fellow players jokingly refer to him as “Big Cottoy” due to his size.

Robinson suited up for the Texans in a pre-season game as a tight-end before bouncing around other football leagues until landing with the Lions.

Getting adjusted to the CFL and its rules can be hard for players used to American football, but Campbell said Robinson has worked hard to learn the team’s playbook.

“We’re kind of taking a chance on a guy that has all this size and speed … these are intriguing things for a football player,” said Campbell. “It’s a steep learning curve, but he’s one of the guys I’m looking forward to seeing play on Saturday.”

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