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McFeely: Long before Christian Watson, Stacy Robinson was Bison receiver drawing NFL Draft attention

While the whippersnappers and even some seasoned veterans marvel at the idea of Watson possibly going in the first round of the NFL Draft — how can this be when the Bison throw the ball about 15 times a game, we ask? — there was a Bison pass-catcher four decades ago getting the same hype.

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Stacy Robinson played wide receiver at NDSU from 1982-84. He was drafted in the second round of the 1985 NFL Draft by the New York Giants.
NDSU Athletics photo
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FARGO — The NFL Draft was a big thing in 1985, just not the 24/7/365 juggernaut it's become today when everybody with a laptop, flatscreen and Twitter account declares themselves an expert and posts a dozen mock drafts.

Bud Grant, the legendary Minnesota Vikings head coach, in fact lamented the growth of the draft in 1985 when he complained the league was making it into a circus-like "sideshow," what with the first day of the draft beginning at 7 a.m. and going on well into the night. Bud is still alive today. Somebody should ask him what he thinks now.

To a majority of American sports fans 37 years ago, the spring NFL Draft was still secondary to the early stages of the Major League Baseball season and other major events like the Masters golf tournament.

That was reflected in the pages of The Forum which, despite having a potential first-round draft pick at wide receiver coming out of North Dakota State, had only a couple of stories previewing that possibility. And when the Associated Press' NFL guru projected that Bison player going 23nd overall in the first round ... the story was placed quietly on Page 2 of the sports section as baseball articles dominated the front page.

A Bison receiver going 23nd overall in the first round of a mock draft? Sound familiar?

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The Forum's front page in 1985 when NDSU receiver Stacy Robinson was drafted in the second round by the New York Giants.
Forum archive photo

Yes, while the whippersnappers and even some seasoned veterans marvel at the idea of NDSU receiver Christian Watson possibly going in the first round of the NFL Draft — how can this be when the Bison throw the ball about 15 times a game, we ask? — there was a Bison pass-catcher four decades ago getting the same attention.

And get this: NDSU threw the ball even less back then.

Stacy Robinson was Christian Watson fourteen years before Christian Watson was born.

Robinson played for NDSU from 1982-84 after transferring from Prairie View A&M. He went to high school at St. Paul Central, where he was a standout in football, track and basketball. Robinson stood just 5-foot-11 and weighed 185 pounds, but possessed speed few others did.

Robinson was a track champion in high school and ran for the Bison. His football coach at NDSU, Don Morton, said Robinson was clocked at 4.25 seconds for the 40-yard dash at Bison pro day.

Robinson's numbers at NDSU weren't particularly noteworthy. He caught 88 passes for 1,626 yards and 13 touchdowns in 31 games in his three seasons in Fargo. But these were the days of Morton's the veer offense.

In 10 regular-season games in Robinson's senior season of 1984 (the NCAA didn't include postseason games in their official statistics in those days), NDSU ran the ball 77% of the time. In 2021, the run-heavy Bison ran 73% of the time.

"We didn't throw it much, but when the scouts saw him run ... he was so fast," ex-Bison tight end Kermit Klefsaas told the Star Tribune's Patrick Reusse in 2012 . "Stacy's speed gave him an NFL career."

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NDSU lost the NCAA Division II national championship game in December 1984 to Troy State of Alabama and the local run-up to the NFL Draft in April of 1985 was muted, if the pages of The Forum are any indication.

Robinson played, and starred in, the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where he caught a touchdown pass and was named the offensive MVP of the North team. Robinson was taken in the third round of the USFL draft by the Portland Breakers in January, but didn't sign with the struggling spring league. Those notes drew little attention in the paper.

Ed Kolpack included an item on Robinson a few days before the NFL draft — the second item in a notes column behind a nugget about Fargo's American Legion baseball manager — when the longtime Forum sports editor and columnist speculated the ex-Bison could go in the first round.

"My agent tells me I should go in the last five picks of the first round or the first five of the second round," Robinson told Kolpack, showing that potential high selections were a tad more open about their draft prospects than today. Robinson also told Kolpack he'd talked with about seven NFL clubs, and indicated he wouldn't be all that thrilled to be taken by the Vikings.

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Oh, the refreshing honesty.

A couple of days before the first day of the draft, the AP's longtime and respected NFL writer Dave Goldberg came out with a mock draft. The Forum printed it on the second sports page under the headline, "NDSU's Robinson to the Raiders?"

Goldberg slotted Robinson going to the then-Los Angeles Raiders in the first round with the 23rd overall pick.

"Who?" Goldberg wrote. "With the Raiders, the 'whos' of the world turn into all-pros."

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It didn't turn out that way. On April 30, the first day of the draft, the New York Giants took Robinson in the second round with the 46th overall pick. There were six receivers taken before Robinson, including four in the first round. One of them, Jerry Rice of Mississippi Valley State taken at No. 16 by the San Francisco 49ers, was a particularly deft selection.

"I hoped to go higher," Robinson told Kolpack in a follow-up story the next day. "The first round or early second round. But that was a long shot and you can't feel bad about missing a long shot."

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In a tremendous column written by Reusse in 2012 , he recounted Robinson's draft day. It was spent in an old house near the NDSU campus with roommates Dave Beeksma, Todd Murdock and Rud Wasson. With money in short supply, the foursome hadn't previously sprung for new-fangled cable TV. With the draft beginning at 7 a.m. (on a Tuesday!) on the all-sports curiosity ESPN, the roommates got cable a few days prior.

At 10 a.m., Reusse wrote, Klefsaas burst into the house and asked loudly, "Did you get a job yet, Stacy?"

He had not. It would take a while longer. Robinson was finally taken after noon, which didn't diminish the shouts and handshakes among the 10 or so people who'd gathered in the old house.

Robinson told Kolpack that he talked with Giants head coach Bill Parcells after New York selected him and Parcells said, "We didn't draft you to watch; we drafted you to play."

Robinson did. He spent six seasons with the Giants, not achieving stardom with the hard-nosed, run-based New York squad under Parcells, but leading the team's wide receivers with 29 catches for 494 yards in 1986. He had five catches for 116 yards on a Monday Night Football game against the 49ers that year (when MNF was still the biggest thing in the regular-season sporting world) and had three catches for 62 yards — including a 36-yarder to set up the Giants' fourth touchdown — in the 39-20 victory over Denver in Super Bowl XXI in January 1987.

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Stacy Robinson in 1999.
NDSU Athletics photo

"I feel magnificent," Robinson said after the Super Bowl. "I'm elated. It is a greater feeling than I imagined it would be."

Robinson retired after the 1990 season, saying he'd lost the spark to compete in the NFL, even as his agent was negotiating a one-year deal that would've brought him another $275,000 (equal to $610,000 today). He'd won two Super Bowl rings with those great Giants teams to go along with the 1983 Division II title ring he won with the Bison.

Robinson worked at Southwest Minnesota State University following his playing career and later worked for the NFL Players Association.

Reusse's 2012 column was written for the saddest of reasons — it served as Robinson's obituary for Twin Cities area readers. Robinson died that year of multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in white blood cells. He was 50, leaving behind a wife and three children.

A Forum article written by Jeff Kolpack, Ed's son, shared a story from the CaringBridge page set up by Robinson's family in the weeks prior to his death. On it, former Bison quarterback Gary Barta recalled being a "hotshot" out of high school working with Robinson in summer workouts.

Robinson told Barta to take a five-step drop and throw it as far as he could. Barta did.

"I threw it as hard as I could ... and under threw you by 10 yards," Barta wrote.

That speed.

It was just one of the things that made Stacy Robinson a high NFL Draft pick out of a lower-level program that ran the ball way more than it passed.

Just like Christian Watson today, except in a long ago and much less-hyped time.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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