Written by Dave Dulberg, USC blog contributor
Just 19, Nickell Robey has had to endure more than his fair share off-the-field road blocks, which include a tough childhood in Frostproof, FL, and the loss of his mother just 10 days after signing his letter of intent to USC in February 2010.
Despite it all, Robey has run through every wall placed before him, coming out not only a better person, but a bona fide football star in the making.
"He's exactly the way we describe a Trojan, and what we look for in terms of academics, how he handles himself off the field, to the weight room, to training, to nutrition to practice habits," Lane Kiffin said of Robey this past week. "I'm not saying he is the same player, but he has the same kind of attitude and work ethic that Troy Polamalu had."
While most sophomores might get wrapped up in the admiration of a head coach, Robey (picture by Rivals.com) insists that his mother Maxine deserves the credit for the man he is today. After all, Robey says that she was the one who impressed upon him the importance of playing football with the level of respect and humility it deserves, which is a lesson he carries with him on a daily basis.
"It means a lot to hear that [Kiffin's comments], and it feels great following the Trojan way and doing things the way great Trojans did before me," Robey said. "It's a big honor and a big responsibility knowing I am always going to be watched. But she [his mother] forced me to do things the right way when I was a young kid and everything is paying off now. I respect her and love her for that."
Robey's standout 2010 season (48 tackles, a team-high four interceptions, one forced fumble and a touchdown) tells the story of a true freshman who began to find all the right answers on the field. However, the Trojans' cornerback admits that his biggest struggle last year came off-the-field trying to fulfill the role of family caregiver after his mother passed away.
"It made me grow up fast as a man, because it made me realize that I am not just taking care of myself, but my family as well," said Robey whose family lives 3,000 miles away from USC. "I know that if she could see me she would be so happy. It would be indescribable. But I know she's happy right now as her spirit is with me every day. That's the mentality I bring to the field, that she's everywhere I go."
This fall, Robey's polished play and wide-grinned smile continue to be mainstays during camp. And, while the sophomore continues to cope with life without his mother, USC's rising star of the secondary has decided to honor her memory by acting as a role model for inexperienced guys on the team like Isiah Wiley, Anthony Brown and Ryan Henderson.
"I see myself as a role model because I do my job and I'm coachable," said Robey (picture by wearesc.com). "Guys follow me because of who I am. It's about maturity, because as you grow up you want to be a better person and make a difference in other people's lives."
Although his No. 21 jersey is not available in the USC bookstore, don't be surprised if the battle-tested cornerback bursts onto the scene in 2011 as the newest face of the program. While Robey has not etched his name in Cardinal and Gold lore just yet, after what he's been through since coming to USC, it's hard to believe any obstacle is too much for the second-year starter, who personifies the Trojan spirit.
"I hope Trojan fans see a great young man that has his head on right," said Robey. "Someone who is a great player and a respectful young man that is going to work hard, that does the right thing at all times and that has the motivation and courage to be a Trojan."