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Commanders' Ron Rivera on Brian Robinson: 'You've seen his spirit just come back to life'

In the moments before the Commanders' Week 5 matchup with the Titans, Randy Jordan saw rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. kneeling and praying to himself.

The date was Oct. 9 -- exactly six weeks since Robinson was shot twice in the knee in Washington, D.C.

"When it really kind of registered to me was right before the game," said Jordan, the team's running backs coach, in a phone interview on Tuesday. "We had a moment, and I went over to him and said, 'Hey, man, this is another opportunity. Let's take advantage of it; good luck.' "

Robinson logged 18 offensive snaps in his long-delayed professional debut. His comeback journey will continue this week against the Chicago Bears on Thursday Night Football, with Robinson set to make his first NFL start and be the team's lead back, per NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Mike Garafolo. But there was a point six weeks ago when it was not clear what Robinson's future would hold.

On the day after Washington completed its slate of preseason games, Jordan was in his office with head coach Ron Rivera, watching tape of Robinson, a third-round pick out of Alabama who had been making a name for himself while vying for a starting role.

The two were discussing Robinson's running style and the things he could bring to Washington as a player when Rivera's phone rang.

"It was one of our senior vice presidents of football, and he says to me, 'Coach, I've got some bad news: Brian Robinson was just shot,' " Rivera recalled in a separate one-on-one phone conversation last Friday. "It kind of hung just that. I waited for something even more ominous, and he said he called (Commanders head of security) Mike Jacob, something happened. Somebody tried to carjack him. I said, 'Is he alright?' He said, 'Well, he is on his way to the hospital. I'm not quite sure, but it sounds like he's going to probably be OK.' "

Jordan remembers feeling dumbfounded.

"He hangs up the phone, he looks at me and says, 'Brian's been shot,' matter-of-factly," Jordan said. "I'm like, 'What?' He could tell I was not registering what he was saying. I probably gave him a look like, this is a terrible joke. He says to me, 'No, I'm not kidding.' That's when I kind of panicked and was like, 'Is he OK? Is he alright? How could this happen?' "

Rivera decided to send Robinson a text asking him how he was doing, to which Robinson replied, "I'm OK." In disbelief, Rivera decided to call Robinson.

"I asked him, 'How are you doing?' He said, 'I'm OK, it's just, I can't believe this, Coach,' " said Rivera. "He was hurt. He was hurt physically and I believe he was hurt emotionally."

Rivera asked if Robinson had talked to his mother yet, and when Robinson said no, Rivera offered to call her. That next phone conversation began with Rivera introducing himself to her -- it was their first time talking -- before he delivered the difficult news that her 23-year-old son had been shot.

"I said, 'He's going to be fine, but Brian was involved in an incident,' " Rivera said. " 'He was shot and it's not seriously life-threatening, is all I can tell you. He's going to be fine.' It was hard for me."

Anthony Casolaro, the Commanders' team physician, told Rivera they didn't need to rush to the hospital and that it would be a while before they had more information about the situation. In shock, Rivera and Jordan both went home to wait for the next phone call.

"After about an hour, I called Coach Jordan up, and I said,' Randy, are you ready to go? Let's go,' " Rivera said. "He and I headed down to the hospital in DC. We get there, and I see everybody in the waiting room, and I'm talking to them, and just as that happens, one of the doctors walks in and looks at me and says, 'Coach, would you like to come back?' I said, 'OK, sure.' "

Rivera walked back into the trauma unit where he found Robinson, whom he had just been watching run routes on tape, laying in a hospital bed.

"The hard part for him I think was his spirit," said Rivera. "I said, 'How are you doing, how are you feeling?' He goes, 'My feelings are hurt.' He's always tried to do the right thing, is what I've learned. Here he was, first time going downtown, going to dinner, and had to have somebody wanting to carjack him. That was a tough thing for him to accept."

As Jordan explained, "There's no pamphlet, in the coaching handbook, or section of the handbook, that tells you how to handle situations like these. I just loved on him as much as I possibly could. Just like if it was my own son."

"The relief and the joy that you saw between him and his teammates was an amazing thing." -- Ron Rivera

The wounds Robinson suffered in his right knee and leg during what police have said was an attempted robbery or carjacking were as fortunate as possible. The two bullets entered and exited without hitting arteries or ligaments or bone. Though Robinson underwent surgery and was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list, it became clear to Rivera that Robinson's return to the field was a matter of when, not if.

The first thing Rivera wanted to arrange following Robinson being discharged from the hospital was the opportunity for Robinson to see his teammates. The day after Robinson was released, he visited the team facility and watched practice.

"The relief and the joy that you saw between him and his teammates was an amazing thing," Rivera remembered. "It was one of those moments where you go, 'Thank God.' You could see the relief of his teammates. It was just one of those things that I think sometimes you get so used to the negative, so to have anything positive come about was really a cool thing."

Robinson was determined to get back on the field. He worked tirelessly at his rehab; in fact, Rivera said, they had to slow him down once he began working out regularly again.

On the rehab field, members of the team's strength and conditioning staff would mimic the role of the quarterback, calling plays for Robinson, who would shadow the play as he worked to build up his stamina.

Last week, Robinson was designated to return to practice, then was activated for game action a few days later.

"If he comes back and he's the guy that we believe he's going to be, he'll come in and he'll be our primary running back," Rivera said of Robinson prior to Sunday's game. Robinson proceeded to record nine attempts for 22 rushing yards. Robinson told ESPN he "felt so blessed to be back out there," and Rivera said after the game that Robinson is "ready to roll."

The fact that Robinson led the team in carries in the loss to Tennessee is in line with Rivera's characterization of him as the No. 1 RB. But on Friday, Rivera also spoke optimistically of how Robinson would mesh with the backs who took up much of the rushing load in Robinson's absence: veterans Antonio Gibson (56 carries, 179 rushing yards, two rushing TDs this season) and J.D. McKissic (17 carries, 65 rushing yards).

"With [Robinson], you've got a power guy," Rivera said. "You've got a guy that can run between the tackles. With Antonio, you have a guy that runs off the edges pretty doggone well, and he's a load, with his size. If he gets into space with the ball, he's very great. Then, you've got J.D., who's your change-of-pace guy who comes in on third down. You have a good trio of backs. That's a very positive thing, we believe, for what we want to do offensively."

On Tuesday, Jordan praised Robinson's "body type," explaining that "he's long, he's linear, but he's heavy."

"He runs with an attitude," Jordan said. "He's got good contact, balance, good vision. He's a heck of a competitor, like they all are. He loves to compete, and he's got a great sense of who he is ... he's got a really bright future."

A future that was jeopardized on Aug. 28, a day Rivera still thinks about.

"It really was one of those things that you sit there and think, 'What else?' " Rivera said. "It's crazy, because every time my phone rings and I'm at home and I look at it, and I see it's from one of our people here ... I sit there and go, 'Oh boy, let's find out.' It was kind of that feeling. That helpless feeling."

Jordan said he tells Robinson "all the time it's by the grace of God."

"There is no explanation but God saying, 'This ain't your time. This is not supposed to be,' " Jordan said. "There was something, I told him this in the hospital. I said, 'There's a bigger purpose for you somewhere. God has given you this experience for a reason. You just have to make sure that when the time is right, when he shows you his plan, you're ready to act and be a disciple of that plan.' That's how I've explained it to people."

The incident left many players on the team concerned, not just for Robinson but for their own safety. Rivera spoke in front of the whole team and reminded his players of who they were and why they needed to always be on high alert.

"I've never seen anything like this," Rivera said. "When I first heard about it, and I did think about it for a moment, it was sickening to me. First of all, it was in broad daylight, in our nation's capital. A few blocks away from the U.S. Capitol. You sit there and you go, 'Really? This is going to happen at 5 in the afternoon. Are you kidding me?' That just worries you. It speaks to gun violence in our society. The thing you worry about is that there is not enough gun safety and education. If this is how our society is going to be, we've got to do something about gun safety and gun education."

Rivera said he "learned about the human spirit and how resilient it is."

"This is a young man that when I was talking to him in the trauma room, he was really despondent, but as he's gotten out, you've seen his spirit just come back to life every day, every day, every day. ... That's a really cool thing, it really is," Rivera said. "To me, it's all based on his spirit, who he is as a young man."

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