Viktor E. Frankl once said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” An act of fate changed Shawn Robinson’s situation. Former Pitt football head coach Walt Harris was in the process of rebuilding the program. At a lengthy 6-foot-1 inches, 190 pounds, Robinson had the size and athleticism the Panthers lacked at cornerback. With the opportunity for playing time and the short distance from his home town of Warren, OH, he committed to Pitt. He improved exponentially and quickly became one of the top cornerbacks in the Big East conference. Robinson, like most elite athletes, had high hopes of eventually playing in the National Football League.
His life changed in an instant his junior year. “It was the summer going into my junior year. I remember it was early morning and I was on the South Side of Pittsburgh. I think I might have been going to the practice on the South Side,” said Robinson. “When I got to the one-way street, I was looking for the oncoming traffic where the correct direction is supposed to be going and as I make this left turn. A car was coming from the opposite direction, going the wrong direction, ended up hitting me. It was enough that I was getting pinched nerves in my lower neck, my lower back, and I had to go right into rehab. I visited chiropractors, doctors, the whole nine yards.”
“I had high hopes of a huge junior year after my success as a sophomore. The staff had huge concerns heading because I couldn’t move and perform like I was accustomed to doing. My body wouldn’t allow me to do stuff,” he said. “I was still a little hopeful heading into my junior year but the reality hit because I lost my position. I had a talented guy behind me. I didn’t lose my position. I simply couldn’t perform to my true abilities. It was a big reality check knowing that you can’t perform at the top level.”
“I’ve been fortunate enough I’ve been healthy, healthy enough to perform at my best. So far, it was paying off well for me, but now that I can no longer do that, it was a rude awakening. I was like, “Wow, I need to make sure that I am prepared for life if I’m no longer a stand out football player.”
Robinson decided to turn a negative situation in a positive one. No longer able to excel at the game of football, he opted to use sports as a vehicle to make a positive and indelible influence on children at a very vulnerable age. He founded the Orange Arrow non-profit organization in 2013. The organization operates on a $250,000 budget, thanks to gifts from the Heinz Endowments, sponsorships from UPMC and Highmark and personal donations from former Woodland Hills, Pitt and NFL fullback Lousaka Polite. Its goal is to lead young student-athletes towards off-the-field success.
“What led me was that the dreams of so many kids and adults … that so many people have this dream of being a professional athlete. When a gentleman, a kid is 10 or 11 years old, plays basketball, football, he’s going to the NFL or NBA,” he said. “If he’s 12 and plays hockey, he’s going to the National Hockey League and he’s the next Sidney Crosby. Not only does he believe that, oftentimes his family and friends around him are pushing this same message. While there’s nothing wrong with having those dreams and goals, and having those dreams and those possibilities, we all know the statistics show that less than 2% play at a professional level. Far too often, that goal drives pretty much every single decision that a kid makes when he’s young, from middle school to high school. It only grows if they get an opportunity to play in college.”
“We wanted to bring more of a balance to that. Go for your dreams, but making sure you develop these other skills so you become an acceptable citizen no matter what your career path may be.”
There’s great significance to the name Orange Arrow. Robinson explained, “We look at the color orange. It represents enthusiasm, fascination, determination, and success. That color also is a pillar to young people. When we look at the color orange, it gives a source of oxygen supply to the brain, and our vision is to be a source of light to our young student athletes. Then, arrow, similar to a bow and arrow, is to point direction. We’re looking to point our young student athletes, our youth, in the right direction. That’s how I came up with Orange Arrow.”
Orange Arrow’s first endeavor, an overtime / afterschool program, has flourished. “We engage young, male student athletes between the ages of 10 and 13 in short by developing life and social skills.” he said. “The first one we begin with is leadership. All effective leaders are good communicators and work on their public speaking skills. They have confidence when speaking. Secondly, we focus on decorum. We teach the children how to conduct yourself in society, how to dress, how to tie a tie, how to treat a lady- pretty much bringing a gentleman back. You’re hearing some of these national stories, some of these professional athletes who are getting in trouble for how they conduct themselves off the field. We’re trying to start to correct these issues at an earlier stage.”
“Thirdly, expose them to the arts and culture like jazz or ballet, things of that nature. Over the last 2 years, we introduced financial management, career shadowing, entrepreneurship and peer coaching.”
Although Robinson is the founder and president of Orange Arrow, he’s quick to give credit to his Pitt football family, both former and current players that help develop and maintain the organization’s mission and activities.
“Early on, one of the supporters that I will always mention is Lousaka Polite, my former teammate and standout Pitt and NFL player. He was one of the first individuals to contribute financially to make this happen. There’ve been a number of teammates along the way who’ve been supporting the movement, from Penny Semaia to Shawntae Spencer to Kevan Barlow, there are a number of individuals,” he said.
“I’m really excited about how the current student athletes have taken hold of it, largely, members of the current Pitt football team. Mike Caprara, Matt Galambos, Kellen McAlone, Ryan Lewis, Darryl Render, Avonte Maddox, Jordan Whitehead, Dontez Ford and many more have really embraced this idea of giving back to young student athletes to help bring a balance to the conversation. I really appreciate Coach (Pat) Narduzzi. He has been to a couple of our sites. Coach has brought out all of the wide receivers and defensive backs to our locations the last couple of years.”
Robinson’s first major fundraiser will take place on September 9th, the night before the Pitt/Penn State game. “This is our inaugural fundraiser event called ‘Ball for Orange Arrow.’ Everybody is excited about the renewal of this rivalry. I was fortunate enough to play in the last game in 2000. It’s kind of funny. Someone recently told me the stats in the game. I had 1 interception, 2 pass break-ups, and 5 tackles. As a sophomore corner, that wasn’t bad at all! That was a victory in a victory!” he said.
“We officially chose that date because we’re in a unique situation; we have enough supporters for both Pitt and Penn State who support what we’re doing. It just made a lot of sense to have the event beforehand, because we have former players from both sides supporting our organization. Some of the guys from Pitt that either attended an event or given their time to do interviews include Chris Doleman, Ruben Brown, Jimbo Covert and Bill Fralic. Our Penn State supporters include Bobby Engram, O.J. McDuffie, Franco Harris, Anthony Adams and Ki Jana Carter. There are a number of people from both universities who support what we’re doing. We’re going to bring everybody together the night before the big game at the Auto Palace Porsche dealership.”
Robinson has relied on the efforts of current and former athletes to develop his organization but you don’t have to be an athlete to support the efforts of Orange Arrow. He’s hoping that more people get involved after learning about their mission.
“People can go to our website, orangearrow.org. We take donations and they could purchase tickets to the ‘Ball for Orange Arrow’ event. If they are interested in volunteering, there are a number of opportunities, whether it’s a trip to the Pittsburgh ballet or going on a trip to ‘A Christmas Carol’, we need chaperones. People can sign up for our newsletter as well.”
Robinson believes in the unifying power of sports. and it’s an underlying theme in everything he does with Orange Arrow. “One of the things that are really important to us is building those cross-cultural relationships. I believe we’re divided by so many different things including race, politics, religion, sex; the list goes on and on.”
“Whether you’re black, white, boy, or girl, if you’re a Steelers fan and Ben Roethlisberger throws a touchdown to Antonio Brown, everybody celebrates. It’s all about the black and yellow. Unfortunately some people may not stay connected outside (of the game). Sport is a unifying factor. The same can be said for the University of Pittsburgh campus or the Penn State campus or the Ohio State campus. We’re bringing these kids from all different areas of Pittsburgh, from the Fox Chapels, from Wilkinsburg, to Shadyside, to Regent Square, to McKees Rocks and teaching these young student athletes the same important life skills. They are brought together and they build those cross-cultural relationships.”
“They come together to win a game. At Orange Arrow, we come together to win the game of life.”
Harry G. Psaros can be found on twitter at @PittGuru