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Barret Robbins' Road to Recovery the Subject of HBO's 'Real Sports'

Jul 20, 2009 – 9:15 PM
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Nancy Gay

Nancy Gay %BloggerTitle%

One of the greatest NFL tragedies of the past decade is the story of former Raiders center Barret Robbins, a Pro Bowl player whose career was destroyed and his personal life ruined by a mental illness that took far too long to diagnose.

Robbins' untreated bi-polar disorder, or manic depression, caused him to experience wildly alternating mood swings marked by intense, psychotic highs and devastating, depressing lows. It opened doors to alcohol and drug abuse, ended his NFL career, derailed his marriage and nearly got him killed by Miami police during a psychotic episode in January 2005, when Robbins attacked officers after they confronted him breaking into the manager's office of a South Beach bar.

Shot in the lungs and heart, Robbins lay in a coma for nearly two months. He's been in and out of jail and substance abuse facilities ever since.

In an upcoming episode of HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel debuting Tuesday at 10 PM ET/PT, correspondent Andrea Kremer gives us an in-depth look at Robbins' infamous disappearance two days before the Raiders' Super Bowl XXXVII loss to the Buccaneers, and what has happened to him since.

It's a well-done piece. Kremer's questions to Robbins and his estranged wife, Marisa, are sensitive to his illness, but elicit remarkably candid answers from a family torn apart by a crippling mental disorder that affects millions of Americans.

"The last couple of games before the Super Bowl, I was in a manic episode during both of those [playoff games]," Robbins told Kremer in an interview taped about three weeks ago. "I probably played some of my best games like that."

Kremer asked him to describe how he would play during those episodes.

"Fast. Real fast," Robbins said. "And real strong. Real precise. Things were so much more vivid.

"You know, when you're going through a manic episode, you feel like you're on top of the world, that nothing can harm you. But it's such a false hope. It's not real. What's going on in your head is not real. And that's what makes it so dangerous."

Robbins' bi-polar disorder went undiagnosed for years, and he describes efforts to alleviate his severe mood swings by self-medicating with alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and steroids.

When he felt "up," Robbins said he turned to booze or pot. When he felt down, he looked to cocaine to light a spark.

But while Robbins' mental breakdown and disappearance two days before Super Bowl XXXVII is acknowledged as one of the factors in Oakland's crushing loss to Tampa Bay, the toll has been far greater on the former Pro Bowl center's family -- in particular, his college sweetheart, Marisa, and his daughters Marley and Madison.

"There would be weeks on end where he would not even be able to function. He'd eat, and he'd go back and sleep,'' Marisa Robbins told Kremer. "And I would cover for him. I'd just tell the girls that Daddy is tired or Daddy is sore, long day at work, and we'll get him up tomorrow."

Robbins said he was in manic episodes "for weeks at a time" leading up to Super Bowl XXXVII week in San Diego and that the festivities were hell for him.

Super Bowl - Where Are They Now?

    Then: Barret Robbins, Center, Raiders (Super Bowl XXXVII) | Accomplishments: Robbins anchored Oakland's offensive line during its playoff run, but then went AWOL in the days leading up to the game. Once he returned -- after a reported trip to Tijuana -- the Raiders suspended him and he wound up in the hospital for bipolar disorder treatment.

    David Stluka, Getty Images

    Now: Robbins, seen here after an arrest in 2005, recently checked into a halfway house following rehab and is trying to get his life back on the right track. "When you get to a point where you are sick of jails, institutions, near-death experiences, things of that nature, God allows you to see things in a different light and he has for me," Robbins said.

    J. Pat Carter, AP

    Then: Bruce Smith, Defensive end, Bills (Super Bowl XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII) | Accomplishments: Smith was part of Buffalo's four Super Bowl teams, and earned a rare safety in Super Bowl XXV with a sack of Jeff Hostetler in the end zone in the Bills' narrow loss to the Giants.

    John J. Gaps III, AP

    Now: Smith was left in tears after being selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The ex-star now lives in Virginia Beach, Va., and works as a large-scale hotel designer.

    Chris O'Meara, AP

    Then: Doug Williams, Quarterback, Redskins (Super Bowl XXII) | Accomplishments: Williams made history in 1988 as the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl. He torched the Broncos defense for 340 yards and four touchdowns in Washington's 42-10 win and earned Super Bowl XXII MVP honors.

    Manny Rubio, WireImage

    Now: Williams, who spent time coaching at Grambling, now works for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers personnel department. He also presented the New York Giants with their Super Bowl trophy following their win over New England in Super Bowl XLII.

    Elsa, Getty Images

    Then: Carl Eller, Defensive End, Vikings (Super Bowls IV, VII, IX, XI) | Accomplishments: Eller appeared in the Super Bowl four times with Minnesota, but wasn't able to get a ring as the Vikings lost every trip to the big game.

    Manny Rubio, NFL / Getty Images

    Now: Eller recently filed a lawsuit against the Minneapolis Police Department, stemming from his arrest in April 2008. At that time, Eller was charged with two felonies and two gross misdemeanors after allegedly driving recklessly and then becoming combative with officers. Eller, who has acknowledged his substance abuse, claimed that his civil rights were violated in the incident.

    Hennepin County Sheriff's Office / AP

    Then: Timmy Smith, Running Back, Redskins (Super Bowl XXII) | Accomplishments: Smith had a career game on the big stage for the Redskins in 1988, rushing for 204 yards and a pair of touchdowns as Washington won its second Super Bowl title with a thrashing of the Broncos.

    Bob Galbraith, AP

    Now: Smith was released from federal prison in March 2008. He pleaded guilty in 2006 after attempting to sell cocaine to an undercover police officer in Denver, and served 2 1/2 years behind bars.

    Ed Andrieski, AP

Robbins' disappearance before the game is traced step-by-step, starting with Marisa -- fearing her husband was dropping into a manic state -- dropping off Barret at the Raiders' team hotel Friday before the 11 PM curfew.

The next morning, Marisa said she received a phone call from former Raiders executive Bruce Allen, asking about Robbins' whereabouts. When the center turned up at the team hotel at 7 PM Saturday after a night and day spent partying in nearby Tijuana, Mexico, Robbins was "out of my mind, out of control,'' he told Kremer.

"In my mind, we had already won the Super Bowl and we were celebrating," Robbins explained. "That's how delusional I was."

Banished by the team before the game, Marisa described Super Bowl Sunday as "tragic." She checked him into a San Diego hospital, where Robbins was finally diagnosed as bi-polar.

Did Robbins' breakdown and road trip to Mexico cause Oakland to lose that game? As a former daily beat writer who covered that 2002 Raiders team for the San Francisco Chronicle, I can say Robbins' game-day absence was a contributing factor, but certainly not the reason for such a lopsided 48-21 defeat.

In truth, Robbins' breakdown that Super Bowl week, and his banishment on game day by the team after it discovered he had been partying in nearby Tijuana, Mexico for almost 24 hours, was more distraction than anything. Adam Treu had been taking snaps in practices all week for the injured Robbins, and Treu did a solid job starting at center in the game.

More than anything, the Raiders were simply outfoxed in that contest. Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, who had spent the previous four seasons as head coach of the Raiders, was still intimately familiar with Oakland's defensive scheme, and he knew all of quarterback Rich Gannon's tendencies. That better explains Gannon's five sacks and five interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns.

Still, Robbins blames himself for the Super Bowl loss. He says he's been clean and sober for about seven months after spending time in a Houston halfway house, and told Kremer, "I can't take any more shortcuts."

His motivation to get well, he said, is his two daughters, who now live with Marisa in Southern California. "Just to be able to be in their lives again," he said.
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