A one-of-a-kind path to the NFL draft: How the XFL's BattleHawks prepped ball hawk Kenny Robinson


By Kevin Seifert
Courtesy of ESPN

(Editor's note: Robinson was drafted in the fifth round of the 2002 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers. This story was originally published April 18, 2020.)

For a moment, Kenny Robinson was a trailblazer. He was the first to follow a new path to the NFL draft, one that put money in his pocket and bypassed the restrictive structure of college football. If all went well in the coming years, dozens of players would leave school early and follow his route through the XFL.

But the XFL's unexpected demise closed that door for the foreseeable future, making Robinson one of the most unique draft prospects in history. He is a former All-Big 12 safety at West Virginia who, at age 21, has a half-season of professional football on his résumé.

During five games with the XFL's St. Louis BattleHawks, Robinson intercepted two of the eight passes thrown into his coverage, according to Pro Football Focus charting. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projects him as a Day 3 prospect in next week's draft, meaning he could be selected in the late rounds or targeted as a priority undrafted free agent. But if nothing else, Robinson emerged from the experience convinced he had accelerated his professional timeline by two seasons.

"The big thing is that I was a professional football player. I was being paid to do a job. That was my job. I feel like, being around pros, learning how to be a pro, that just gives me a leg up."

Robinson was dismissed last summer from the West Virginia program because of an academic violation. At the time, he assumed he had two choices. One was to transfer to another Division I school, sit out the 2019 season and then likely walk on in 2020. The earliest he would enter the NFL draft was 2021. The other option was to play right away at a lower-level school.

The transfer process grew complicated, however. Robinson's mother was diagnosed with cancer, creating an urgent financial need. And West Virginia couldn't release his transcript because he owed $1,500 on his school bill. So Robinson's trainer connected him with the agents at Beyond Athlete Management, who explained the existence of a new alternative. A high-level professional league had formed, with all of its games slated for national television, and was accepting college players who weren't yet eligible for the NFL draft. (Robinson was only two years removed from high school, and the NFL requires three for draft eligibility.)