When Eddie Robinson Jr. and Bubba McDowell meet on the field at some point during pregame warm-ups inside ASU Stadium on Saturday, there will be smiles, a respectful handshake, and a hardy embrace.
There likely will be words exchanged about the position both men have found themselves in — one-time NFL teammates turned first-year HBCU head coaches at Alabama State and Prairie View, respectively.
They are part of a growing group of ex-NFL players who’ve matriculated to the HBCU level to coach along with Deion Sanders at Jackson State, Eddie George at Tennessee State and Rod Milstead at Delaware State.
“I can’t speak for him (Robinson), but I’m going to love it,” McDowell told HBCU Sports in a phone interview about what will be an emotional encounter. “We’re both so similar and we’ve both hit this thing runnin’ at the same time being head coaches. I’m very honored just to know this young man and to see how far he can go.
“It’s definitely going to be one of those moments that will be celebrated because we don’t get this opportunity very often.”
How a quiet NFL bond developed a long friendship
For McDowell and Robinson, their relationship began three decades ago when the two played on the same Houston Oilers defense.
Robinson was the quiet, unassuming young linebacker from Alabama State. McDowell had made a name for himself as a ball-hawking defensive back on a perennial Super Bowl contender.
What drew them together, said McDowell, was the similar personalities they shared. Neither man admittedly spoke much. It was mostly about the business of football and establishing a contributing role in the pro ranks.
“Bubba was a guy that I have a lot of respect for,” said Robinson. “I wouldn’t have made it 11 years in the NFL if it was not for him. Coming into the league (McDowell) was probably five or six years in and he was one of the guys that would help a young guy — everybody wasn’t like that.”
Robinson, who started as a rookie on Buddy Ryan’s aggressive and ferocious defense, leaned on McDowell for expertise. Through that experience, a friendship was kindled.
“We both were very quiet guys and didn’t say a lot,” McDowell said. “Our mentalities were the same. We listened and we went out and did our own thing. When we were with the Oilers we did what we were supposed to do on the field and off the field. People who knew us would say we didn’t say much but we’re good guys and that’s why we clicked.”
A football journey comes full circle
And long after the two retired from the NFL, McDowell and Robinson remained in contact over the years.
When Alabama State beat Howard in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge earlier this season, McDowell sent a congratulatory text to Robinson after earning his first win as head coach. When Prairie View knocked off Texas Southern a week later, it was the old rookie Robinson who returned the gesture.
“He (McDowell) is a guy who I’m rooting for every week,” said Robinson. “He’s the guy who I want a lot of success for in the conference because he deserves it. He’s been working in the SWAC for a long time and is just a great guy.”
From the NFL locker rooms to SWAC sidelines, McDowell and Robinson have appreciated their different paths into the coaching ranks. For now, they will both pick each other’s brains and share the varying experiences of leading teams for the first time.
“I’m definitely looking forward to talking about the near future,” McDowell said.
Prairie View at Alabama State
5 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 24
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