By Laken Litman
FOX Sports College Football Writer
He’d cut pictures out of game day programs — of any player, not just starters — then paste the heads on toothpicks or popsicle sticks. He’d orchestrate the games, just like his grandfather did in real-life.
Cleo Robinson hung around Bijan’s idols every weekend for work, working as a Pac-12 official for three decades, most recently as part of the league’s top instant replay crew. He was the one who collected the programs to bring to his grandson. Now Cleo, who retired in the spring at age 75, is the one off the field, watching his grandson’s childhood vision become reality.
“I’ve been around so many great athletes officiating college football. Now, it’s kind of shocking to see, ‘Hey, that’s my grandson doing these things now,’” Cleo says. “He’s that person I’ve been admiring all this time.”
Bijan Robinson has always been close with his grandfather Cleo, a Pac-12 official for three decades. (Photo courtesy of Terri Robinson)
While Cleo played a huge role in fueling Bijan’s love of the game, his impact goes deeper — touching every part of Bijan’s life. Their relationship is beyond the typical grandfather-grandson dynamic, closer to father-son. Bijan even calls him Dad.
“He loved football and he loved Dad,” Bijan’s grandmother Terri says. “One of the things that tickles me when I watch him now is [when he was little] he would always throw himself on the ground and say, ‘Tackle me! Tackle me! Tackle me!’
“And now it’s the opposite. He hates to be tackled and does whatever he can to not be tackled.”
Alabama will find out how difficult it is to tackle Robinson in Saturday’s matchup between Texas and No. 1 Alabama (noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App), though the Crimson Tide already knows it’s going to be a massive chore.
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“He can do everything,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Robinson this week. “He’s got speed, he’s got power. He’s a very instinctive runner. He sets up his blockers and has a burst. He’s got great hands, he’s a good receiver. They use him in the passing game.
“This guy is as good of an all-around back as there probably is in the country.”
With expectations in Austin this season for the Longhorns to win the Big 12 championship behind Robinson’s rising star, Bijan is leaning on what got him here in the first place: his family.
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Bijan’s grandparents have always been a big part of his life. When his mother, LeMore Saul, got pregnant in college, the family decided together that for her to keep her scholarship and graduate, she would move back home with her parents in Tucson, Ariz., and raise Bijan there. Cleo stepped in as his father figure.
It was a welcome development for both. Cleo and Terri have two daughters, so the women in the household outnumbered the men.
Cleo remembers coming home from work trips, yelling to the girls — who were chatting in the bedroom — that he was home, then seeing Bijan’s head pop up with a squeal: “Oh my gosh, it’s Dad!”
“The look on [Bijan’s] face was, ‘Get me out of here!’” Cleo says with a chuckle. “‘Here’s a dude I can hang with.'”
(Grand)father and (grand)son quickly became attached. When Saul got married, a young Bijan had the option to move into a new home with his mom, stepfather and his children, or keep living with his grandparents. He decided to stay put.
“Cleo is the only dad he’s ever known and what young boy wants to leave their dad?” Terri says.
Football was an early bonding point.
Bijan started playing flag football when he was 5 or 6, running the wrong direction for a touchdown the first two times he got the ball. He began to show off moves he saw on TV or at Cleo’s games, and soon fell in love with Reggie Bush – whose No. 5 he now wears at Texas. (Cleo, of course, had worked the famous “Bush Push” game in 2005.)
Bijan and Terri attended many games Cleo was officiating, especially if they were at nearby Arizona State. A young Bijan would get so animated that it impressed season ticket holders in their section.
“It even got to the point where it was like four guys and they’d switch off holding Bijan on their shoulders so he had a better view of the game,” Terri says.
Aside from his growing passion for the game, there were also early signs of one of Bijan’s natural strengths: his vision. At Texas, he runs north-south, picks up short yards and is seldom tackled for a loss. It’s a skill that his grandmother noticed when he first started playing tackle football at age 8 or 9.
Bijan Robinson displayed uncommon vision early on, once telling his grandmother Terri, “I know where I’m going before I get there.” (Photo courtesy of Terri Robinson)
“He said, ‘I know where I’m going before I get there,’” Terri recalls. “And he looked at me as if to be able to help him understand how he knows that and I had no clue. I said, ‘You do?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, when they hand me the ball, I already know where I’m gonna end up before I get there.’
“I thought that was interesting, but left it there. Later, when I began to hear people talk about his vision, I was like, that’s what’s happening. That was the moment I knew this was a God-given gift. He didn’t understand it either, but I think that was the point where I recognized there was something a little different about him.”
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While Terri went to every one of Bijan’s games at Salpointe High School, Cleo was forced to miss most of them for work. But he’d always watch a replay later so the two could hash out Bijan’s performance.
At Salpointe, Robinson became Arizona’s career all-time leading rusher (7,036 yards) and touchdown leader (114) in four years. He also became the first running back in state history to run for more than 2,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. He was named Gatorade Arizona High School Football Player of the Year as a senior in 2019 and 247Sports ranked him the No. 1 running back and No. 15 overall player in the country. The highly touted recruit ended up choosing Texas over powerhouse programs like Alabama, USC, Ohio State and Notre Dame.
Last year as a sophomore at Texas, he rushed for 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games, missing the final two after injuring his elbow in a loss to Kansas. And as the 2022 season gets underway, he is a Heisman Trophy and Doak Walker Award candidate.
And as his fame has grown, so has the Business of Bijan.
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From the very beginning, Robinson’s football career has been a family affair, from his mom and grandparents supporting him at his high school games to talking shop with his grandfather. Now his aunt, Cleyrissa, manages his business dealings, which include all of his NIL contracts.
Bijan has at least 10 partnerships, including C4 Energy and Lamborghini Austin (though he only drives that on the weekends and would rather sit behind the wheel of his truck).
“I try not to flash it out,” he says. “That’s not me.”
A condiment company recently gave him a deal and named a mustard after him: “Bijan Mustardson: The Official Dijon of Bijan.”
“You see him on the football field doing his thing, you see him in commercials, you read about him. You’d think, ‘Wow, what a great guy,”’ his grandfather says. “Then you remember: He’s just Bijan.”
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Robinson hears the Heisman hype and sees it on social media, though he tries to ignore it.
“When you start getting into that, you start believing it and then you work less,” he says. “So I don’t really get into it.”
But he’s feeling more confident than ever, telling reporters at Big 12 media days in July he has bulked up from 213 pounds last season to 222.
“Now I can break that extra tackle or make an extra move to get in the end zone,” he says. “I just needed to get that on my body for this season so I’ll be ready for it.”
“Those teams didn’t back down,” Bijan says. “They came in there and punched them in the mouth and didn’t stop. They didn’t give up in the third quarter or fourth quarter. They made it a dog fight the whole game.
“When you match that intensity and understand that you need to bring that same fire back to them, then that’s when games can go the way you want it or you did everything you could to get what you want. And so that’s what they did and what we need to do.”
Bijan Robinson has bulked up from 213 pounds last season to 222. “Now I can break that extra tackle or make an extra move to get in the end zone,” he says. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
While the Alabama game brings the greatest anticipation this weekend, the most special part for the Robinson family is that Cleo won’t have to miss it for work. In fact, it will be the first time Cleo is able to attend consecutive Bijan games. Retirement has its perks.
“When I told Bijan [I was retiring], he was like, ‘Yes!’” Cleo says. “We always talk after his games, but I would only talk in generalities because I hadn’t seen it. Now we can talk specifics.
“People have tendencies to build him up and build him up, but good things don’t help you get better. You need to know the bad things.”
That’s exactly what Bijan Robinson expects from Dad.
Read more on Texas-Alabama:
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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