Zone Read: Duce Robinson – Past to Present

Arizona Sports News online

The Mythical Horse

Last spring I sat in the Pinnacle High football team room with head coach Dana Zupke for a post-practice chat about a little bit of everything. Eventually, the conversation (as it usually did) turned to then-junior star Duce Robinson.

Zupke slowly leaned back in his chair, folded his arms above his head – collecting his thoughts with a grin on his face before speaking.

“He’s almost indescribable. So unique. A unicorn.”

A unicorn, by definition:  (noun) Something that is highly desirable but difficult to find or obtain. 

Thursday evening the University of Southern California was the lucky college program to obtain the most coveted tight end in the entire Class of 2023.

Not bad for a young man who never played a down of tackle football before stepping on Pinnacle’s campus now nearly four years ago. 

If you think this is simply a Duce Robinson appreciation column, you’re right.

It absolutely is, and deservedly so.

Robinson, quite simply, is beloved by everyone. Coaches, teammates, teachers, classmates, even opposing coaches and players speak glowingly of the 6-foot-6, 230-pound athletic freak who’s professional future could very well be in baseball AND football (more on that later). He’s that kind of special.

A 3.8/4.2 student who also played basketball at Pinnacle, Robinson (somehow) found time to volunteer as a youth football coach, referee flag football games, and serve on the Executive Board of the CRAZIES – Pinnacle’s student section.

The Beginning

My first encounter with Robinson was in fall camp before his freshman season when one of the PHS assistants pointed him out to me between field work sets on a brutally hot August afternoon in the north Valley. I later approached him after practice, introduced myself, and just struck up some small talk. He was reserved, almost awkward. Every cautious, delayed answer started with “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir.”

My next time at Pinnacle, Robinson noticed me and broke away from the Pioneers’ pre-practice stretch to come over to quickly shake my hand.

“Nice to see you again, Mr. Sorenson,” he said flashing his infectious smile before jogging back to re-join his teammates. “Take care, sir.”

Over the next three-plus years, our conversations, much like his game, and body, evolved and matured. First it was the early stream of offers after word got out around the country about Robinson’s “ceiling” as a two-sport athlete at the next level. Then it was how he, and his incredibly humble parents, were handling the onslaught of college attention, specifically coaches texting and calling at all hours, trying to forge that “special relationship” which all hoped would end with the pot of gold this unicorn would lead them to this week.

In early 2022, I sat in the stands at a Pinnacle basketball game, surrounded by Power 5 coaches, all there to get a glimpse of the five-star prize, but 50-star person. This past summer I witnessed his senior leadership on full display as I went all-access with Pinnacle at Camp Tontozona. A few months later he went in-depth with me on his connected conversations with another incredible prep two-sport star, Kyler Murray. Later it was the financial benefits, and possible pitfalls, of NIL, trying to lead the ‘Neers to their first Arizona State Championship in school history, and much, much more. 

The Evolution

Zupke’s tales sprout from even deeper roots of Robinson’s journey as a football player.

“This was his first 7-on-7 tournament going into his freshman year,” The long-time PHS head coach began. “It’s our very first tournament and he’s starting on our varsity. He’s a big baby giraffe running around out there. Early in the tournament he’s getting blanketed in coverage. He’s being tentative, kind of soft. He had a couple drops.

“[Former Pinnacle assistant] Mike Brown was still the OC then. I distinctly remember Coach Brown screaming at him, ‘You’re not in eighth grade anymore! Start being a high school player!’ After that, I think the next ball that got thrown his direction was a jump ball, he snagged it.

“The very next game we played, he caught a vertical up top and then we saw a little bit of the moxie. We saw a little flex there. It was cool, Coach Brown essentially telling him to put his big boy pants on, and he responded.”

In many ways, those summer exhibitions began the evolution of Duce Robinson, the football player.

The Small Details

After arriving at Pinnacle one afternoon towards the tail end of the teams’ weight room workouts, Zupke instructed me to the locker room to talk to a few players, including Robinson (my last interview), for an upcoming story. 

After our conversation, we sat on a couple of weight benches before walking towards the double doors of the opposite end of the room which lead outside and in the direction of PHS’s practice fields.

On our way out, Robinson suddenly stops and veers off to a darkened corner of the room where he spotted a tiny of piece of ripped athletic tape sitting on the floor.

He bent down and picked up the small piece of tape, never breaking away the conversation we were having. As we walked towards the direction of the exit doors, he threw the piece of tape in the trash.

I spent my entire drive home thinking about how this mega star high school athlete made it his personal priority to leave the team’s facilities a little nicer than he found them that day.

It wasn’t for show or to impress, that’s just who Duce Robinson is.

A unicorn.

The Drive to Succeed

It was two games towards the back end of Robinson’s junior season which Zupke will never forget.

“It was a tale of two games against Chaparral,” Zupke began. “In the first Chaparral game here at home, [Chaparral cornerback] Plas Johnson, who’s a great player, got the assignment to lock Duce up. They don’t bracket him, they don’t help him over the top. Plas kicked his [expletive]. It was kind of demoralizing for Duce.

“So we go into the playoffs, beat O’Connor, and have an opportunity to play Chaparral again in the second round. Holy [expletive], it was a complete 180 in that game [for] Duce. The one play I distinctly remember is Plas was holding him, grabbing him, and Duce just Moss’ed him. He went right over the top of him, took the ball, and pulled the ball through his facemask…you could see that now Duce was in his head.

“To see that growth, literally, Duce never looked back. That game, that playoff game loss, Duce was unbelievable. He was making one-handed catches. He just went off.”

That night Robinson finished with eight receptions for 141 yards, and a touchdown.

Zupke says that was the game Robinson flipped the switch from being a great player in stretches, to the almost unstoppable, elite player we saw last fall when he tallied 84 receptions for 1,614 yards, and 14 touchdowns, despite frequently facing double, sometimes triple teams.

“Duce makes the team’s success his personal responsibility,” Zupke explained. “He demands excellence of himself, while celebrating the successes of his teammates. He is the most shining example of excellence I have ever encountered.”

The Future

Robinson is nearing a unique crossroad.

While his college football home is, for now, clear, there is the financial lure of professional baseball in the next 80 or so days. Most projections still consider Robinson, who some have compared to a young Aaron Judge, a Top 75 talent in the upcoming MLB draft. While he may not be the elite baseball talent Murray was coming out of the University of Oklahoma, his bat speed, paired with freakish overall athletic ability in the outfield, will garner quite a bit of attention in the early rounds come June.

The scary part is, in some ways, he’s still scratching the surface of his full potential in both sports.

Whatever the decision, you know we’ll all be watching, Duce.