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Through a grueling spring, USC’s Duce Robinson is still pushing for a two-sport dream

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LOS ANGELES – One day in class this winter, with no assignment to occupy his mind, Duce Robinson turned to his computer and began to pen a letter to the NCAA.

In a long-established bylaw, the organization allows student-athletes just 20 hours per week of “countable athletically related activities.” And Robinson had come to USC with grand dreams, a blue-chip prospect in both football and baseball, hell-bent on chasing both.

Trying to squeeze every minute he could out of his eligibility come spring football and baseball in March, Robinson poured forth his soul in that classroom into one request: give him an hour or two more.

He had a support system at home, he wrote. His mother Mary Beth had been a talented swimmer at Florida, and his father Dominic was the impetus for all this, a longtime trainer and former two-sport athlete in baseball and football at Florida State. He had a support system at USC, he wrote, working with football coach Lincoln Riley and baseball coach Andy Stankiewicz to toe this tightrope.

“I was just kinda trying to tell them, ‘I know this isn’t very typical,’” Robinson reflected. “But what I’m trying to do isn’t very typical, either.”

The NCAA denied it.

Robinson’s father still hasn’t heard an explanation. When asked for a reason, the NCAA referred the Southern California News Group back to USC, who asserted that all information around waivers was confidential.

In the spring that’s followed, the 19-year-old wide receiver-plus-outfielder has lived in a race against time. Time, often, has won.

The raw pop drew MLB draft buzz coming out of high school in Arizona, but Robinson had never played a full season of organized baseball, and he’d earned just a handful of at-bats in this USC (22-24) season. He’s not ready to play full-time at the moment, Stankiewicz said. And Dominic can’t help but think, ‘What if Robinson just needed 20 more minutes, at times, to hit?’

What if he had an extra hour?

“You’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” Dominic said.

So he fights. A direct path to the NFL awaits, a 6-foot-6 gazelle set to be a primary receiver for USC in the fall after racking up 351 receiving yards as a freshman. He has a murkier route to the MLB, with raw tools that nonetheless make him a unique prospect. For much of his life, in the era of youth sports specialization, Robinson has been told to pick, a fate that only inches closer with every baseball gameday spent languishing in a clean uniform.

He refuses, not just dismissive but defiant. The days are long, and the process is slow. But Robinson is in this for the longest haul, and so he’s taken batting-cage reps and dangled lanky arms over dugout fences with nothing but a marble-white smile.

“It’s kinda surreal, man,” the freshman said on a call in April. “It’s a dream come true.”

‘My favorite sport is the one I’m playing right now’

He was an oversized ball of energy from his youngest years, a kid with a million words and thoughts and sentiments building up in a vast heart, and Dominic quickly figured out Robinson needed a release valve.

Every night before bed, they’d play a game Dominic called “High-Low:” asking his son to tell him his highest point of the day, and his lowest.

A young Robinson would chatter, for half an hour on end. There were plenty of highs.

Back then, Dominic wasn’t far removed from his two-sport career at Florida State. And in Robinson’s 3-year-old mind, his father wasn’t some sort of superhuman. He was just the goofy dude who raised him.

“I was like, well, if he can do it,” Robinson remembered, “I can do it too.”

He’d tell anyone who asked, at that age, he wanted to be a “sports player.” It had no specific definition. And his parents never tried to give it one. He played 104 games of travel baseball when he was 11 years old, and played basketball and football in high school.

“We just kept asking him, like, ‘Dude, are you having fun?’ and waiting for that answer to change,” Dominic said. “And it never did.”

Two years ago, Robinson visited the Texas Rangers’ spring training facility in Arizona, continuing a sort-of mentorship under Rangers bench coach Donnie Ecker. On that trip, Ecker remembered, the Rangers’ general manager Chris Young came over to meet the kid. Young had played both baseball and basketball himself at Princeton, the first male athlete to win Ivy League Rookie of the Year in two sports.

“So,” Young asked Robinson, “what’s your favorite sport?”

“Man, I love ‘em both,” Robinson replied.

Robinson paused. Young stared. And in a sort of mind-meld, Ecker remembered, they both spoke at the same time.

“My favorite sport,” they said in acknowledgment, “is the one I’m playing right now.”

He navigated his collegiate recruitment with a plan unlike quite anything seen before. He intended to get drafted by an MLB team the summer after high school, play collegiate football in the fall, then play in the MLB’s minor leagues in the winter and spring. Deion Sanders never did that. Bo Jackson didn’t, either. And Robinson had never played a season of organized high school baseball, but had impressed at top showcases like the Area Code Games.

“The mold of clay,” Ecker said, “is as high-end as it gets.”

After committing to USC, though, Robinson never heard his name in last summer’s MLB Draft, sensing teams felt his potential wasn’t worth the risk in his two-sport approach. And suddenly, his careful plan was dashed, pivoting abruptly to balancing football with collegiate baseball for a coach in Stankiewicz who hadn’t recruited him.

“High-Low,” as it was known then, stopped a long time ago. But Robinson and his father still play it, in a different way, through texts and phone calls over a decade later.

The highs, these days, come both elated and weary, that natural joy flattened by bureaucracy and the weight of his own self-expectation.

‘He will kill himself to get this right’

On the morning of April 9, back in Arizona, Dominic Robinson woke up, walked his dog, and wrangled Robinson’s younger brothers to school. Several hours later, he sped back home, showered, and hopped on a flight to Los Angeles, finding a seat that night in LMU’s Page Stadium for USC-UC Irvine baseball.

On the morning of April 9, back in Los Angeles, Duce Robinson arose and pulled on his pads for USC’s 5 a.m. spring football practice. 13 hours later, he assumed a spot in the dugout at Page Stadium, hardly moving save for mid-inning breaks to jog to the outfield fence to stay loose.

Eventually, as USC’s bats exploded in a 12-4 drubbing of UC Irvine, Stankiewicz called on Robinson in the later innings. The Anteaters’ dugout began to murmur as Robinson strode to the dish, a metal bat looking like an oversized toothpick on broad shoulders. “Duce!” one player whispered in curiosity, the freshman an unknown entity.

Dominic watched from above the third-base line, pensive. In his first at-bat in over a month, Robinson saw three pitches.

Swing and a miss.

Swing and a miss.

Swing and a miss.

He trudged back to the dugout. Dominic’s expression didn’t change.

“We’re trying to build an athlete to do something that nobody else is doing, nobody else has done,” Dominic said a month earlier. “So, we’re not going to try to throw it in the microwave. Like, we’re going to slow-cook with him.”

Slow-cooking is difficult, however, when a dish must split time between two separate ovens. And Dominic, having been through it at Florida State, knew his son would crash early in the spring.

In late February, Robinson’s wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons texted Dominic.

“Hey,” Simmons wrote, as Dominic recalled, “I think Duce is going through that little funk that you told me about.”

It persisted. On any given Tuesday across the past month, Robinson would get up and lift, hone some swings in the cages, dash to class, sit in on football meetings, suit up for a sliver of football practice, then be escorted by a USC-provided car service down to Orange County for a baseball game. The NCAA’s denial made it even more imperative for Robinson to maximize his time, and to make matters worse, USC has played the majority of its home games 50 miles south at Great Park in Irvine, as longtime on-campus stadium Dedeaux Field is under construction.

“There’s a skillset and a strength to him that can do it, right,” Stankiewicz said, when asked if he felt Robinson could eventually be a contributor in both sports at USC. “Now, is he going to have the time to develop? That, to me, is going to be the question mark.”

The frustration simmered into Robinson’s conversations with his father, eating at his self-confidence.

“Dad,” Robinson would tell his father, “I struck out again.”

“He will kill himself to get this right,” Dominic said. “He will go to the end of the Earth.”

A wiser perspective

About three years ago, midway through Robinson’s junior year at Pinnacle High in Arizona, the same pressure crept into his movements. If he dropped a pass, football coach Dana Zupke remembered, he’d turn visibly upset. And the he would probably drop a couple more.

So Pinnacle’s athletic director Patrick Hurley began a ritual. Before every game, he’d find Robinson on the field, grab him, and ask him something to the effect of: “Who’s the baddest dude on the field?”

“I am,” Robinson would repeat, on end.

He struck out, yes, against UC Irvine. But shortly before, he’d texted his father, excitedly: he’d torpedoed a ball in batting practice 425-feet to dead center.

“There’s a peacock thing,” Dominic smiled in the stands at LMU on April 9, as Robinson stood in the dugout. “There’s a, ‘Have you hit a ball 425?’”

Robinson suffered an ankle injury in USC’s spring football game April 20, one that’s limited him for baseball even after football’s been wrapped up. But he’s set to play summer ball, another sign to Stankiewicz of his commitment.

“I want to be able to be one of the reasons that, in the next generation, there’s a kid who ends up playing two sports and ends up being successful,” Robinson said.

Earlier in April, Robinson and his father were embroiled deep in conversation, and it became time for Dominic to get his own words out. A bus sat in front of them, blocking their sight. And Dominic pointed at it, suddenly sensing a metaphor.

You’re standing here, Dominic told his son, and going to the edge of the bus, and seeing no way around. But Dominic had been through it. He could see over the bus.

A month later, the bus still lingers in Robinson’s vision. But it will pass.

“In my opinion, we get so caught up in this world of, ‘You have to be successful all the time,’” Robinson said. “We’re so focused on the results that we forget to just enjoy the moment.”

“Like, we forget to enjoy just the fact that we’re able to do this.”

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