Making academics a fantasy sport

Varina School students

Michael Robinson never understood fantasy football. Every year, he'd get asked to join a league; every time, he couldn't commit. With retirement looming this past winter, Robinson finally had a little time on his hands, and he acquired a team. He loaded it with talent and went up against his old teammates Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson.

Smack was talked, standings were pored over. And in the end, Robinson's team lost, foiled by a ... 15-year-old gymnast.

The MVP of this fantasy league, a 5-foot-3 girl named Asia Farmer, was part of a pilot program Robinson recently started in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. There are initiatives to get kids fit and to try to protect them from concussions, but Robinson doesn't think enough is done to promote academics. So he started sort of a reverse fantasy program at his alma mater, Varina High, and divided 30 freshmen into three teams in a competition for points based on grades, attendance and community service. Farmer is a studious type who doesn't like missing class, and, unfortunately for Robinson, she was on Wilson's roster, proving once again that quarterbacks get all the glory.

"The interaction with the kids," Robinson says, "that's the most rewarding thing."

In February, Robinson won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. It was especially meaningful because of all that he went through in the 2013 season -- the allergic reaction to anti-inflammatory medicine he suffered in training camp, the hospital trips because he was so violently ill, the 30 pounds he lost. Robinson was cut in August, but got a call to come back to the team around midseason. Ultimately he got what every NFL player wants: to go out a winner.

That was fantasy. He went to the White House, met the president and posed for a picture with Earl Thomas next to Abraham Lincoln's statue. He made a cameo appearance on "The Young and the Restless" and nailed his lines.

What he does now, with the teenagers in Team Excel, seems much more real.

"When we were done, the confetti was falling, and I was so grateful to be there," Robinson says of the Seahawks' Super Bowl XLVIII victory. "I had a tough year being sick and all the little things, being cut, and then coming back this way. ... I just felt like there was an emptiness. There was a joy I was anticipating that really wasn't there. I couldn't figure it out.

"I came back home and took a tour with a group called Communities in Schools. When you see these kids and they find out I was a Super Bowl champion, they go crazy. You appreciate what the Super Bowl does for you. You appreciate that platform. But you also see what really matters to us [as a society]. What did I really do for all this?"

Resources to succeed

Robinson was lucky. Although he grew up within walking distance of a couple of the roughest neighborhoods in Richmond, near drugs and gangs, he never was pulled in. His mom had huge expectations. School came easy for him, and she knew it. When he got a C, or even a B, she warned him that he wouldn't be able to go to football practice if his grades didn't improve.

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