Former Raiders center Barret Robbins knew a documentary film crew from the Bay Area traveled to Florida to see him in prison on Nov. 30, 2011 to discuss the events surrounding his disappearance just two days before Super Bowl XXXVII.
He had no idea Greg Papa was conducting the interview.
“He didn’t know I was going to be there,” Papa said. “When he saw me, he was so surprised and happy. We hugged.”
Robbins knew the longtime Raiders radio voice well from his playing days, and the surprise reunion proved a welcome ice breaker before starting a two-day interview that would be the centerpiece of a long-form documentary on Robbins by the regional sports network now known as NBC Sports Bay Area nearly 10 years after his infamous Super Bowl disappearance, including his life before and after the event.
The feature was ultimately called off and the interview shelved but dusted off for use in NBC’s “Sports Uncovered” long-form podcast series in an episode that debuted July 9.
Robbins had done these Super Bowl XXXVII interviews before, several times in fact. This one, however, was probing and at times tough. Papa was diving deep and, after an hour or so, the tension rose an octave.
[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]
It was accentuated by the environment, a small room not much bigger than an actual prison cell, with three cameras on tripods and lots of lights. Papa, producer Matt Abrams and videographer Steve Uhalde were packed in a room with Robbins and a prison guard.
Robbins started to bristle at some topics and the mood started to shift in these tight quarters.
“You could tell from his body language and his demeanor that he was done answering these types of questions, because they were getting really personal and we were starting to re-question some of his decisions,” Uhalde said. “It wasn’t just his side of the story. We were actively questioning why he did things. You could see he was done with it, and I remembered a point where his mood kind of changed, and I thought they were going to shut the interview down. I looked over the guard was actually sleeping in the chair.”
Papa, the crew and Robbins agreed to shut it down for the day.
“It was a weird moment where you could tell he was done with us,” Uhalde said. “It got to the point where I wasn’t sure he was going to show up for Day 2. He seemed that upset after Day 1.”
Guards at Dade Correctional Institute led the NBC crew back and forth through the prison yard and into the general population, giving them a first-hand look at how Robbins and others were living during a time where he was serving time for a drug probation violation.
While they left the first interview session wondering if there would be a second, Robbins showed up ready for another round.
“He showed up and apologized for his mood the previous day,” Uhalde said. “He acknowledged that he wasn’t ready for the line of questioning but, given the night to reassess and get ready for tough questions, he was great. Over the course of the two days, he was not shy about answering any question honestly, including some about steroids use and why he used cocaine to his marijuana use and his life after football, which hadn’t gone how anybody would want it to.”
Robbins has had several run-ins with the law, both before and after his NFL career ended. His mental health issues and struggles with bipolar disorder have been a factor in all of that, including some dramatic moments that put him in a terrible light.
He was open and honest about them all.
“He was so articulate and willing to open up,” Papa said. “I remember leaving there and calling everybody that I knew, saying that this was the most fascinating experience of my professional life.”
Uhalde hadn’t thought much about the interview after taping until it was unearthed for “Sports Uncovered,” when we went back through the sessions from every camera angle. Memories of those days came flooding back.
“I’ve never seen the bad side of Barret,” Uhalde said. “I’ve only seen the up-close, in-person interview we had, and I left that day thinking he was a good guy who obviously made some mistakes ... He’s a guy you still kind of root for and hope that he would do the things necessary to get his life back in order. Re-watching it reminded me of all those things. It solidified that opinion of him.
"If this is a good version of Barret, he’s a nice guy who answered a lot of tough questions that even a normal person like me would be very annoyed to have to answer. Retracing some of the worst moments of your life would be tough for anyone, and he handled it as well as anyone I’ve been around facing that line of questioning.”
While most know Robbins from one sensational Super Bowl story, Papa hopes the podcast and the interview, now available in a condensed version on YouTube, show Robbins in three full dimensions.
[RELATED: Raiders' party culture was Robbins' downfall]
“People are going to think about Barret Robbins and snicker and laugh and think, ‘We know what happened to him.’ ” Papa said. “There are reasons why people get driving to this extreme. There are extenuating circumstances, and Barret Robbins had a life worth living. He lived a great life in many respects. It could’ve been much greater had people embraced mental health on the professional sports side of it.
“I think that guy, in his own way, was crying out for help. He didn’t get the help he deserved, that he needed. I don’t want people to remember Barret Robbins that way. I don’t want that, but I can’t prevent it. By doing this podcast, telling his story, people will hopefully get to know the Barret Robbins that I got to know.”