Editor’s note: Sports Uncovered, the newest podcast from NBC Sports, shines a fresh light on some of the most unforgettable moments in sports. The fifth episode tells the story of "The Mysterious Disappearance that Changed a Super Bowl," chronicling Barret Robbins' absence from Super Bowl XXXVII.
Party hard, play with a vengeance. Under strong-willed owner Al Davis, the Raiders of the 1960s and ‘70s crafted an image of rebelliousness, with a touch of villainy. They got away with it because they won.
That mentality faded over the years, but never fully left the owner’s suite. Davis believed, until his last breath, that talent would overcome detrimental characteristics. Because he saw it.
Which is why the Raiders were a comfortable environment for Barret Robbins, the football player -- but perhaps the worst of NFL franchises for Barret Robbins, the man.
“We used to drink the night before, get IVs and yeah, played some great games, some of our best games,” Robbins recalled in a 2011 interview with Greg Papa of NBC Sports Bay Area.
“That was the Raider Way, you know,” said Rod Coleman, a Raider from 1999-2003. “You work hard, you play hard. That was the mindset.
“That culture was very dangerous, looking back now because when you’re in your 20s and the world expects you to win every day, every week, every season, it’s a lot of stress and pressure on you. And if you had no one to talk to about it, then, you know, any type of underlying mental issues you have, they’re going to come out sooner or later.”
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When Robbins was drafted by the Raiders in the second round of the 1995 NFL Draft, he was two years removed from being diagnosed with depression during his time at Texas Christian University. The 6-foot-3, 325-pound center would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Failure to receive proper treatment would play a significant role in Robbins’ infamously mysterious Super Bowl 37 disappearance in January 2003 and, 18 months later, also be a factor -- along with injuries -- in the end of his NFL career at age 30.
In the meantime, there were games to win. With Robbins anchoring a potent offensive line, the Raiders dug out of mediocrity and back toward the elite status they once took for granted. After going 4-12 in 1997, Davis hired Jon Gruden as head coach and the team narrowly missed the playoffs in 1998 and ’99.
Oakland went 12-4 in 2000, reaching the AFC Championship Game. The Raiders were winners, again, and Robbins was literally and figuratively in the middle of the revival.
By 2002, they were back in the Super Bowl, for the first time in 19 seasons. Just winning, baby.
“When anything went on in this town -- good, bad or indifferent -- we were above it because we were winning,” recalled left tackle Lincoln Kennedy. “We had Charles Woodson getting arrested for DUIs, drunk and disorderly conduct. And we had guys that were getting in bar fights and guys that were hitting women. We had all this stuff going on, like any other dysfunctional family in the Bay Area, in any area. You know what I mean?
“And when it was all said and done, when you look in the win and loss columns, we had more wins than we had losses. So, what can you do?”
The Raiders offered no counseling or other therapeutic outlet for Robbins’ struggles with mental illness, which led to emotional swings that were greatly exacerbated by drugs and alcohol, both of which were part of his routine, according to the late Mo Collins, the guard who lined up next to him.
“You couldn’t go out and just have a beer with Barret -- or two beers with Barret,” Collins recalled in 2011, three years before he died. “He would never let your glass be empty. It was an all-night event.”
That’s how it was throughout the 2002 season as the Raiders cruised toward Super Bowl 37. If didn’t matter much if Robbins was late to meetings or missing them altogether because he was destroying opponents on game day. Barely raised eyebrows if he was late to practice or missing them altogether because he was marching toward All-Pro honors.
He was dipping deeper into the Raider spirit than any of his teammates and still dominating. The team for a while made attempts, according to wide receiver Tim Brown, to monitor Robbins’ prescribed medication.
“When he showed up at practice every day, the first thing he had to do was come in the training room and take his medicine,” Brown recalled. “They actually kept the medicine there. So, they knew that he was taking it. They didn’t even let him take it home. Once he became that player, that Pro Bowl player, they didn’t make that mandatory anymore. Why? I don’t know.
“But I think, when they look back on it -- not that you blame anything on them -- I think they would have probably done things a little differently.”
The 16 years since Robbins retired have brought considerable advances in awareness and also a broader variety of treatment options regarding the challenges of mental health in society. Most NFL teams, realizing the millions they pay players, now have at least one individual whose role is to help cope with off-field issues.
The Raiders now understand this.
In March 2012, five months after Davis died and seven weeks after ex-Raider Reggie McKenzie was brought in to direct the football operation, the Raiders hired Lamonte Winston as their first director of player engagement. One of his core duties was to be available “24/7” for crisis management for players, coaches, staff and families.
Times have changed, even with the Raiders. Unfortunately for Robbins, many years too late to be of any help.