Denard Robinson sprinted out the door and shattered the day’s peace with a joyous yell. It was Monday, March 11, 2013. The former Michigan star quarterback had just received a phone call saying he was going to be on the cover of EA Sports’ NCAA Football 14 video game. At some point in his elation, he darted out of his apartment, then ran back in to explain his glee to his brother, Durrel.
“I just started screaming,” Robinson says, recalling that day nearly eight years later. “My brother was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And I’m like, ‘Man, I’m finna be on the cover of NCAA!’ And then he starts screaming, and we’re running around in my apartment. I’m pretty sure my neighbor said something to me that day, because I was screaming, man. I never felt that feeling before. It was unreal, man.”
Electronic Arts had asked Robinson, who was 22 at the time, to not tell too many people about the news just yet. But he understandably couldn’t help himself. Robinson says he called everyone who supported him, from his mother, Dorothea, to his childhood friends whom he’d spent hours playing NCAA Football with growing up. A Deerfield Beach, Florida, native known as “Shoelace” would grace the cover of one of the most iconic football video games ever, sporting the Wolverines’ famous maize and blue threads.
“I didn’t even dream about being on the cover—I dreamed about being in the game, one of the guys on the roster,” he says. “I couldn’t even fathom thinking about being on the cover of the game. That was something that I never thought would happen.”
For nearly a decade, it looked like Robinson could be the last cover star of EA Sports’ college football series. Six months after Robinson learned he’d be emblazoned on the front of NCAA Football 14, EA announced that it would not produce a college football game for the following year, citing a legal dispute between the NCAA and athletes seeking compensation. The company halted work on NCAA Football to evaluate the future of the franchise altogether, a pause that stretched through the rest of the 2010s. It wasn’t until last week, when EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company announced a partnership, that the possibility of a new coverman became a reality.
As of July 2018, more than 1.5 million copies of NCAA Football 14 had been sold. Despite both Xbox and Playstation releasing two new consoles since its release, there’s a large online community that continues to play it. The COVID-19 pandemic only increased the title’s popularity, with some going to extraordinary lengths to attain a copy. Over the weekend, Ebay prices for the game ranged from $18 to almost $400, a testament to its value for players.
The biggest hurdle facing the series’ return is how to compensate the athletes who appear in the games. Athletes didn’t receive any money for anchoring the NCAA Football franchise until 2016, when payments began on a $40 million settlement reached in 2013 between EA, the NCAA, and athletes whose names, images, and likenesses (NIL) were involved in both college basketball and football video games. EA Sports and CLC’s partnership facilitates the return of a college football video game. More than 100 FBS schools’ game-day traditions, uniforms, and playbooks will be included. The issue of using players’ NIL remains, although Congress has recently stepped into the situation and could soon pass federal legislation that permits athletes to profit off their NIL. There’s also a possibility for group licensing—a key development that would allow EA to directly negotiate with players for use of their NIL in future games.
Robinson, who currently serves as an offensive quality control coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, was in the middle of poring over film of the College Football Playoff when he learned about the video game’s revival. Despite having his image become synonymous with the most-prized installment of the NCAA Football franchise, he felt a sense of relief at the news. The 30-year-old says that he didn’t revel in the possibility that he’d be the final player to be on the game’s cover.
“I know the feeling for me—I wanted to be in the game,” Robinson says. “That was a big accomplishment for me, being able to pick myself with Michigan and go play with me. I wanted kids to feel that same feeling I had. For those new dudes coming up in the game, I wanted them to have the same feeling of being able to play with themselves in the game.”
Tens of millions of copies of NCAA Football have been sold during the past two decades. Robinson was among those who grew up playing it obsessively. He recalls childhood summers when he and his friends Steve, Tevin, and Carlos would all get together to play on their PlayStation consoles, ordering pizza and competing through the night.
“When that game came out, my mom didn’t see me,” Robinson says, laughing at the memory over the phone. “Because we’d be playing the game the whole time. When the sun came down, we’d come inside and we’d go to someone else’s house just to play the game and sit there all night, until 3 o’clock in the morning to play the game until my mom or their mom would say, ‘It’s time to go home.’” Just how obsessed was Robinson? He says he and his friends “would probably run, like, four or five seasons in just one night. So we’d basically graduate from college in one day or night.”
Robinson’s real-life college career wasn’t as brisk, but it was undoubtedly memorable. He rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons as a full-time starter (2010 to 2012), emerging as one of the nation’s most exciting dual-threat signal-callers as a sophomore. In 2010, he broke the single-season Division 1 record for rushing yards by a quarterback and became the first player in NCAA history to pass and rush for 1,500 yards in a single year. He was also named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-American, and finished sixth in Heisman voting. In 2011, Robinson led Michigan to its first win against Ohio State since 2003—and its last since. He graduated following the 2012 season, after breaking the NCAA record for career rushing yards by a quarterback (4,495, a mark surpassed by Navy’s Keenan Reynolds in 2015).
For Robinson, appearing in the NCAA Football titles is an accolade that is worth putting up there with all his others. His debut character was rated an 80 overall in NCAA Football 10, with 83 throw power, 80 accuracy, and 88 speed. He remembers going home to link up with friends to play NCAA Football during breaks in Michigan’s school schedule and marveling at seeing himself. “I used to edit myself and gas myself up in the game and give myself a 99 [rating],” he says.
Playing NCAA Football didn’t help Robinson prepare for the grind of actual Division 1 football, but his practice on the sticks over the years aided him when participating in teammates’ tournaments. He loved talking trash and being competitive. Perhaps Robinson’s passion for the video game made him a perfect ambassador for it. He remembers traveling to New Orleans over Super Bowl XLVII weekend, participating in photo shoots and making appearances on ESPN to promote the game. The vote to determine who appeared on the front took place over Facebook, and involved Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, Oregon’s Kenjon Barner, and Alabama’s Eddie Lacy, but came down to Robinson and former Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope. There was controversy, too, as fans created accounts to boost their favorite candidate’s votes. But Robinson won—coming back after slightly trailing Swope with a few days left in the vote—to become the third Michigan player featured on the game’s cover, following Heisman winners Charles Woodson (NCAA Football 99) and Desmond Howard (NCAA Football 06).
Robinson laughs at the thought of how often he’s asked about being the game’s cover athlete. “Almost every day,” he says. Considering so much time has passed, Robinson’s celebrity bears a mythical hint to those who recognize him. This is especially true for those who might have missed or been too young to watch and remember his college or NFL career, however would still recognize him from NCAA Football 14. In 2019, Jacksonville University coach Ian Shields hired Robinson as an offensive analyst, and Robinson says players were amazed at the fact a video game icon was their coach. It was an accomplishment held basically on par with his on-field accolades.
“They brought it up a lot,” Robinson recalls. “They were always like, ‘Man, he was on NCAA! I remember watching you in college!’ And they’d be like, ‘Man, that’s a dream come true.’”
While getting into the game and fronting its cover are priceless accomplishments, Robinson believes that players deserve to be compensated for their inclusion in the titles, as well as the labor they provide universities. Robinson says that players should form a unified group and have representative leadership established for them in the fight for NIL rights. He refers to former UCF kicker Donald De La Haye, who was ruled ineligible for monetizing YouTube videos in 2017 and how nonsensical it was to prevent someone to profit off their NIL in that way. He adds that it’s a difficult decision to concede your ability to make money off your work at such a young age.
“When you sign your name on the dotted line, you become somebody else’s,” Robinson says. “But when does your likeness become somebody else’s at 18? Your likeness—you can’t even use your name to promote something? That’s ridiculous. At 18 years old, you have to make that decision? That’s tough. Normal 18-year-olds are not doing that. It’s crazy.”
“A lot of these kids out there, they have a certain platform to show themselves, to show their stuff, to show their likeness. So why can’t they make money off of it?” he continues, expressing a sentiment that many share. “I think it is a tough situation, but they’ve got to come to grips with it and they’ve gotta figure out a way to handle that. I don’t think I can actually say, ‘This is what it is’ or ‘This is how they should do it.’ But I know that something needs to be done.”
Still, just like hundreds of thousands of others, Robinson is excited for the arrival of EA Sports’ college football series, even if there isn’t an official release date yet. When the news of the game’s return came in, he couldn’t help imagining how fun it would have been to use some of the players he was studying.
“It’s cool, because those kids get to see themselves in the game,” Robinson says. “It’s been what, seven, eight years? That’s two different [recruiting] classes—going on three—that won’t be able to be in the game. That’s tough, man. I remember that feeling of being happy of just going to the next level and then I got to be in the game. That was some cool stuff.”