Playing in an indoor stadium whose main occupants are a Major League Baseball team, two former Illinois State Redbirds may have opened doors and more than a few eyes in their quests toward professional football careers.
Running back James Robinson and safety Luther Kirk grabbed attention with their performances in the practices leading up to and the East-West Shrine Bowl itself, held this past week in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Robinson, a Rockford Lutheran High School graduate and the all-time leading rusher in Illinois prep history, rushed for 80 yards on seven carries and caught two passes for 56 yards. Robinson produced two highlight plays — a 46-yard catch and run off a screen pass and a game-record 63-yard touchdown burst.
Kirk, who nearly quit football midway through his time at Illinois State, garnered defensive MVP honors. The Garland, Tex. native had an interception (and lost another to a penalty on another defensive back). Kirk recorded two tackles.
"Today was great for me and Luther and we love the doubters," Robinson told STATS FCS editor Craig Haley afterward. "For all the FCS players out there, remember playing at small schools doesn't mean anything. Keep working hard and show how talented you are."
Saturday's game — which was broadcast on NFL Network — capped a week of practices in front of pro coaches and scouts. It also featured a visit to a local Shriners Hospitals for Children to meet the patients and gain a greater understanding of the importance of the game.
"It was an amazing experience going out to the hospital and seeing those kids with smiles on their faces with all the adversity they face," Kirk said in a story on Illinois State's official athletic website.
"Learning from all the NFL coaches and competing against the top talent in the country was great for us. I think James and I proved ourselves and showed that we more than belonged here," Kirk said.
According to the ISU website, Kirk and Robinson were the fifth and sixth ISU players selected to play in the prestigious game and the second pair of Redbird teammates. Current Denver Broncos defensive back Davontae Harris and defensive lineman Dalton Keene both represented Illinois State in 2018 at the Shrine Bowl, while former ISU standouts Chad Pegues (1998) and Boomer Grigsby (2004) also played in the game.
"It was a great performance by those guys today and certainly did not come as a surprise to anyone here," ISU head coach Brock Spack said on the website. "They've had tremendous careers at Illinois State and have always represented themselves and this program well. It was great to see the Redbird logo on NFL Network so much today and those two showed just how good Redbird football, the MVFC and FCS can be. I think both those guys helped themselves out a lot in the eyes of scouts and pro evaluators and it was certainly a great day for the Redbirds."
Former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson, now working for the NFL Network, was impressed with Robinson.
"He's a two-time Walter Payton Award finalist. That means the best player in FCS. Big guy, strong between the tackles, and as I mentioned, they questioned his long speed, but on this run, he actually showed that he has decent speed. Maybe not burner speed, but this is good enough," Tomlinson said.
Most draft experts and websites have projected Robinson as a middle-round selection in the upcoming spring NFL Draft. Spack sees Robinson going in the “third- or fourth-round area," according to a recent story by Jay Taft of the Rockford Register Star.
Nearly all draft experts and websites classify the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Kirk as an undrafted free agent.