Mistaken identity. Had to be. Or the news reports had it all wrong.
There was no way the man arrested that night was the universally admired Eugene Robinson.
But it was.
And 17 years later, Robinson has revisited the circumstances of his costly lapse of judgment to serve as a cautionary tale for the Carolina Panthers, the Super Bowl team for which he now works as radio analyst.
It is generous of Robinson to so publicly address the topic of his lowest moment, a misstep that shocked those close to him and surely must have shadowed him every day since.
It was late Saturday night in Miami, the night before Denver and Atlanta met in Super Bowl 33.
I’d spent much of the week covering the beloved former Seahawk safety — he of the spotless reputation and public image — as he had become a veteran leader for the Falcons.
It seemed a valedictory week for Robinson, then in his 14th season in the league. He had been voted to his third Pro Bowl.
And for his years of laudable behavior and community involvement — 11 of them in Seattle — Robinson on that very day had received the Bart Starr Award for character and leadership.
No more fitting honor, it seemed.
Yet the lead story on the Miami news that night cited his arrest for solicitation of an undercover prostitute the night before the game.
I quickly remembered him counseling teammates earlier in the week that if any of them thought they had come to get in trouble in Miami, they’d have to deal with his wrath.
And when I saw him at an NFL function Thursday night, he said he was heading back to the hotel early to be sure not to come anywhere near a curfew violation. All players should be such pros, I thought.
But the police on Saturday night reported he’d been arrested and charged. He played the next day, but poorly, and was burned for a long Denver touchdown.
Afterward, he said that he was sure he’d be found innocent of the charges, but that he nonetheless had not been “righteous.”
That sounded very much like an admission of guilt. And the massive fall from grace in a single day had the feel of Greek tragedy.
Robinson played another season with Atlanta and one more with Carolina before landing a job with the Panthers’ radio crew.
And this week, he stood up before the Panthers and volunteered his story.
“This is what I told them: I cried all night … it was painful,” Robinson said of the arrest.
He talked about how easy it can be to lose your way when you’re selfish and thinking only about yourself. He said he continues to feel the pain whenever he hears the word “solicitation,” but adds “I’ve got to call it what it is; I don’t try to sugar-coat it.”
It has been strange, in the lengthening aftermath, that it’s as if all the positive things he accomplished as a Seahawk were expunged around here by the negative headlines from that night in Miami.
It seems he’s almost never mentioned as a notable Seahawk, despite his 11 seasons, his 42 interceptions (second all-time), his five seasons as a team captain and his four times being selected as the team’s Man of the Year — more than anybody in team history.
Maybe fans and staff who held him in such high regard felt as if he let them down personally.
He always was so sincere and genuine. I asked those close to Robinson if there had been any hint of there being another side of him. Unanimously, the answer was an emphatic “no.”
I remember feeling at the time the need to be more suspicious, even when covering athletes with the most exemplary reputations.
It says something that Robinson is still married to his wife and has stayed close to the game. And that he returned the Bart Starr Award. And now he’s trying to keep others from similarly making a costly mistake.
None of which could have been easy.
“It was one of the bravest things I’ve seen a guy do,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Robinson’s talk to the team. “When he got done, our guys gave him an ovation. For him to step up and relive that and tell the guys he was wrong, (that) he forgot the reason why he was there, that’s a huge message, and I think it’s a great message.”
And maybe after 17 years, it’s fair to once again to remember to give him his due for what he accomplished as a Seahawk.