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.
Super Bowl week is unlike any other in sports. It’s five days of media sessions, interviews, announcements and, for the two teams, preparation. Finally, on Saturday, with game plans completed and kickoff one day away, there is time for everyone to exhale.
For Barret Robbins, the eve of Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, featuring his Raiders against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was a time to get drunk.
After making 11 p.m. curfew Friday night, the Pro Bowl center climbed out of bed early Saturday and quickly began waging war within himself. He lost every battle, ultimately plummeting to such emotional depths that he was powerless to fight off his demons.
[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]
Robbins, diagnosed with depression nearly a decade earlier while attending Texas Christian University, got up early that morning, hopped into a car of men he barely knew and left the team hotel, the La Jolla Hyatt. He missed the team breakfast. His teammates were puzzled. He also missed the team’s final afternoon walk-through session.
“We jumped on the bus and waited for a bit,” right tackle Barry Sims says on the latest episode of the Sports Uncovered Podcast: "The Mysterious Disappearance that Changed a Super Bowl."
"And couldn’t find him. And it was really surreal to be out there doing walk-throughs and, you know, missing our guy. Missing our Pro Bowl center.”
The Raiders had no idea and even wondered if Robbins had been kidnapped. Team executive Bruce Allen remembers fearing for B-Robb’s life and informing the NFL, which contacted area law enforcement agencies.
Robbins was miles away, so immersed in a spree of debauchery he barely knew his name. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-3, 325 pounds, he rolled into countless bars in and around San Diego and even as far as Tijuana, Mexico, 20 miles south. He drank away the day and continued into the night and beyond. He engaged with prostitutes. He moped. He sobbed at the thought of his wife, Marisa, and their two daughters. He talked to himself and, according to some witnesses, pondered suicide.
The more he drank, the more his spirits sank. When coach Bill Callahan made last-minute changes to the game plan, abandoning the power running game to incorporate more passing, against the wishes of Robbins and many others, B-Robb felt undermined. He thrived in the power running game, and two days before the biggest game of his life it had been ditched.
It didn’t take long for Robbins to become separated from reality and completely separated from professional obligation.
“I was aware of all that, but I wasn’t,” Robbins recalls in a 2011 interview with NBC Sports Bay Area broadcaster Greg Papa, who also was the radio voice of the Raiders. “I wasn’t able to do the right things to get ... you know ... I don’t know. I just made some bad decisions, obviously.”
Robbins concedes that he’s unable to recount where he went, when he went, or even with whom he shared company. The one detail was clear even eight years later is that he spent the day drinking.
The first member of the team’s traveling party to run into B-Robb was ex-Raider Calvin Branch, who put him in a cab back to the La Jolla Hyatt. When Robbins returned to the hotel Saturday evening – after an absence of roughly 14 hours – he was incoherent, didn’t know where he was and even mumbled something about the Raiders having already won the Super Bowl.
“He had told me he was excited about that we had won the game,” Allen recalls. “And he asked to catch a plane for the Pro Bowl (in Honolulu) the next morning.
“We left the doctor (the late team doctor Robert Albo) with him, and (Albo) was concerned. And the doc was right, because Barret later told me everything he had drank and done. And I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
Albo quickly realized Robbins was intoxicated but didn’t know to what extent – or whether it was simply alcohol or a combination of drugs and alcohol. Head coach Bill Callahan was moved to downgrade Robbins’ game status from “questionable” to “out.” After examining Robbins that night and into the morning, Albo checked the big man into a hospital for observation.
Robbins spent Super Bowl Sunday at an undisclosed hospital. The Raiders lost the game, 48-21, and his teammates were annoyed and concerned. Some, feeling betrayed by their best lineman and the man who called out offensive assignments, were furious.
Sad as it was, Robbins was undone by mental illness, alcohol and his impaired physical condition – all of which were enhanced by the stress of the Super Bowl. A hospital bed, being monitored, was the best place for him.
The only place for him.