Offensive linemen are football’s unsung heroes. They sacrifice their large bodies to protect quarterbacks and make way for running backs. Their jobs are essential, yet their success is reflective.
James Robbins, known as Tootie, was one of those strong, silent types during his 12 years with the Cardinals and Packers. Drafted in 1982, he made the N.F.L. all-rookie team and helped the Cardinals, then in St. Louis, make the playoffs that season. Many losing seasons followed as the team moved to Arizona, and he finished his career with two years in Green Bay. Year after year, Tootie was there at right tackle, despite a long list of injuries.
His teammates warmly remembered Robbins, who was listed as 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds in his playing days; they called him “Big Smooth” because he was “so smooth the way he dressed and went about his life,” said Derek Kennard, a fellow offensive lineman on the Cardinals. Between practices, Robbins would retreat to his custom-designed van, where he would watch television and listen to music with his teammates.
“He liked to just have some of his close friends around, not too many people outside his circle,” Kennard said.
Robbins died on Aug. 2 in Chandler, Ariz., of Covid-19-related pneumonia, his wife, Shaneeta Robbins, said. He was 62.
James Elbert Robbins was born on June 2, 1958, in Windsor, N.C. His parents, Cullen and Mary Robbins, were sharecroppers, and Tootie — called that because of a babysitter who had the same nickname — worked in the fields picking corn, tobacco, peanuts and soybeans before heading to football practice. He attended East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and remains one of the best players to reach the N.F.L. from that school.
He married Shaneeta Robbins in 1984.
“He used to tell me, ‘I grew up on the farm, ate whatever I wanted and had great health, and then we moved to the city and I can’t believe people pay for bottled water,’” she said.
The couple had one son, Barret, who as a strapping teenager caught the eye of his school’s football coach. But Tootie, whose body was breaking down after decades of football, said no.
“I want him to walk when he’s 30,” he said, according to his wife, who works in human resources for a school district in the Phoenix area. “People don’t realize the beating these men take,” she added.
Robbins played in 159 games in his career, starting 147. He retired when the Packers cut his salary dramatically after the 1993 season.
“Injuries take their toll, but I was fortunate to play 12 seasons in the N.F.L.; a lot of guys would take that,” Robbins told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2015. “I loved the game and didn’t play it for the money. But the reality is that it’s a young man’s game and someone is always going to take your job.”
After he left the N.F.L., Robbins, who lived in Chandler, Ariz., worked in security at a high school, but he stopped after a few years because severe rheumatoid arthritis made it too difficult for him to get around. He stayed in contact with old teammates, including Kennard, Stump Mitchell and Ron Wolfley. In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by his five brothers and sisters.