Barret Robbins

Behind-the-scenes of Greg Papa's lost Barret Robbins prison interview

Behind-the-scenes of Greg Papa's lost Barret Robbins prison interview

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.”

Barret Robbins' disappearance, troubles caused by mental health issues

Barret Robbins' disappearance, troubles caused by mental health issues

Barret Robbins was 29 years old before his mental health issues were properly diagnosed. There were warning signs that something wasn’t quite right well before then, especially when compounded with excessive substance abuse.

Those issues resulted in run-ins with the law, including one while at TCU where he broke a car dealership window and was arrested for burglary. Robbins was given probation and allowed to play his senior season, after which the TCU medical staff diagnosed him with depression.

Another came in the center’s second season with the Raiders, after he was sent home from a game at Denver that he was found in no condition to play after missing the bus to a team walk-through. Robbins flew home commercial, but never boarded a connecting flight following a layover in Utah. He went outside the airport, got into a hotel shuttle and sat down in that lodging’s restaurant without a dime to his name. He got arrested for trying to dine and dash, and his girlfriend eventually flew out, picked him up and took him home.

With the welcome benefit of hindsight, Robbins beleives he was in manic episodes during these incidents and out of control.

“If when I got into a manic episode I can ask for help, I’d be OK,” Robbins said in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area’s Greg Papa in 2011. “But when I go into a manic episode, it’s not in me to ask for help. It doesn’t happen that way. That’s the frustrating part about it. I know what’s going on, but I’m not conscious of my decisions. I’m just basically sleepwalking. That’s really what it is. That’s what it amounts to.”

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

People with depression aren’t prone to manic episodes. Robbins was recognized as having depression and medicated based upon that diagnosis in college and in the pros.

“All I ever heard was depression,” Robbins said. “They put me on some medications and, you know, let me see a doctor and stuff like that. But I still never once heard the word bipolar. Never once heard the word bipolar until after the Super Bowl.”

Robbins is referring to Super Bowl XXXVII between the Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game he missed after going on a bender in San Diego and Tijuana two nights before.

That incident, and the underlying mental health issues that caused it, are detailed in the latest episode of NBC’s Sports Uncovered podcast, which debuted on Thursday.

Robbins was evaluated the Saturday night and Sunday morning before the Super Bowl by team doctors at the La Jolla Hyatt and interviewed by top officials, all of whom decided he wasn’t able to play the championship game in San Diego. Robbins was sent to a local hospital and put on suicide watch, and eventually ended up at the Betty Ford clinic in Riverside.

It was only then that Robbins was properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“What was great – well, not great – but what felt good for me is that it explains some of these incidents I’ve had,” Robbins said. “And it put a label, it put a tag on that, because it was previously unexplained for me.”

In his interview with Papa, Robbins detailed moments where he believes he was manic before being diagnosed. He also discussed moments of extreme depression that are also part of being bipolar.

“I can remember one day, or almost a month of the offseason where I couldn’t get out of bed,” Robbins said. “I mean, to think a man could have a $2 million house and $500,000 worth of cars and whatever he wanted and still be depressed and not be able to get out of bed [seems unreal]. That tells you that depression is very powerful, and it crippled me for a long time.

“Football would always get me there. Football is my love. If I was going to go play football that day, I would be OK, you know? I would be able to get out of bed.”

Bipolar individuals misdiagnosed as having depression can cause significant problems, according to Decartes Li, M.D., director of the bipolar disorder program at UCSF.

“Antidepressants, the medications as a class have not been shown to be helpful for people having bipolar disorder, in particular when they’re having mania or hypomania,” Li said. “In fact, there have been some studies that show antidepressants can trigger manias or hypomanias, to cause them to kind of overshoot.

“What happens is that, when you get the person with bipolar disorder and give them lots of antidepressants, you can either make them worse or you’re not doing anything and not actually helping them in the long run.”

[RELATED: Brown blames Callahan for Robbins missing Super Bowl]

Li also said that these cases can develop “mixed episodes,” meaning they have mania and depression at the same time. Li said they can be triggered by antidepressants or other substances. Ingesting narcotics like hallucinogens or heavy doses of marijuana -- Robbins admits to at times heavy marijuana and alcohol consumption -- during mixed episodes or outside them can make things more severe or worse over time.

“For people who go through these mixed episodes, they can be really bad,” Li said. “If you can imagine, you’re feeling kind of depressed or suicidal, that’s some depressive symptoms. The you can have some of these manic symptoms while you’re depressed or suicidal, you have racing thoughts and can be really impulsive. … You could see how that’s really bad for the individual who with really high risk.”

Al Davis never got over Raiders' Super Bowl loss to Bucs, Greg Papa says

Al Davis never got over Raiders' Super Bowl loss to Bucs, Greg Papa says

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.

Al Davis hated to lose, no shock for someone synonymous with “Just win, baby.” The Raiders' longtime owner and football chief enjoyed plenty of success, building a perennial playoff contender with three Lombardi Trophies in the case.

Davis’ last chance at a fourth particularly hurt, especially after the Raiders got robbed by the Tuck Rule and lost in the AFC title game the two previous years.

A 48-21 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII wasn’t painful just because of built-up frustration.

There were several factors at play.

The first, and most obvious: The Raiders got trounced.

The pre-game setback (and massive distraction): his Pro Bowl center Barret Robbins wasn’t available after going on a bender the two days before -- Robbins's mental health made things more complicated than it originally seemed -- in a story that broke not long before the game. 

The real stinger: they lost to Jon Gruden, a head coach that Davis traded to Tampa Bay roughly a year before.

All that influenced a disastrous day at the office for Davis. It's discussed in great detail on Thursday’s episode of NBC’s “Sports Uncovered” podcast, which focuses on Robbin’s disappearance and its root causes, while looking at all reasons why the Raiders lost that Super Bowl.

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

Part of that analysis was Davis’ reaction to the end result. As you'd expect, he took it to heart.

NBC Sports Bay Area’s Greg Papa called Super Bowl XXXVII on the radio and was entrenched with the Raiders leading up to the game. The former, longtime voice of the Raiders was close to Davis and knew how much this loss hurt the late Raiders owner.

“Al was a sore loser to the highest level,” Papa said. “He didn’t tolerate losing. It just wasn’t part of his mentality … He was a fierce competitor, so whenever he lost, you could see it all over his face. He was a sore loser; a pissed-off loser, but this look on his face, it was the kind of look if someone told you that you had terminal cancer, your wife or husband was going to die or had died.

“It was just the look on his face. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the most painful expression. I honestly thought, he’ll never get over this. He’ll never -- even if they come back next year and win, he’s never going to get over this game.”

Papa knew that losing to Gruden exasperated that sentiment. Tampa Bay made an insane offer for Gruden: two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and $8 million. For a coach. That’s insane, and Davis took an offer that would've been hard to logically refuse. The popular coach hoping for a contract extension with the Raiders was shipped across the country, only to lead his new team to victory over his old one. Locking horns and eventually losing to an ally-turned-motivated opponent was particularly difficult.

“I really believe he changed forever after that game,” Papa said. “He was never the same person. His body began to break down. … And he became maniacal, increasingly maniacal, about trying to over--, you know, to change it. To the day he died, I don’t think he ever got over that loss.”