Own It: Demetris Robertson is comfortable in his own skin

PDowney-8
Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Watching the crowd gather for a 19-year-old to announce his decision on where he’ll be playing college football, one thing becomes clear: This kid is a big deal.

It’s not uncommon for big-time recruits to pick their school of choice on national television, but this announcement is something else. It’s set to take place at the College Football Hall of Fame.

Sitting in the heart of Atlanta and sleekly designed to resemble a football, the hall is anything but low-key. The place is hallowed, filled with the stories of nearly 1,000 former players and more than 200 former coaches honored by the National Football Foundation. And now, the relatively new building is hosting Demetris Robertson’s announcement ceremony.

Again, this kid is a big deal.

Demetris painted a sign with the logo of the school he’s chosen, but it sits under covers, waiting to be revealed. The room is tense, as a crowd dominated by Georgia fans eager to get their native son’s commitment can barely contain its excitement — still, it seems just a formality at this point.

His recruitment has stretched into May, but the Georgia faithful remain confident. It’s rumored that Demetris is down to Georgia, Notre Dame and Cal. What big-time recruit leaves the Southeast?

“I’ve decided to take my talents to …” Demetris begins saying with a smile.

“I want to do things like Marshawn (Lynch) is doing. I want to go around the globe and help people that don’t have as much as we do and building houses and things that they need.”

The buzzing crowd is totally hushed at this point, waiting to explode in cheers. Everyone has seen it time and time again. A highly touted recruit puts together a crowd, makes the expected choice and is barraged by cheers.

Then:

“The University of California,” Demetris says, as he pulls off the cover to reveal the Bears’ logo.

Silence. The crowd is shocked for a second. Then there are some cheers and a lot of polite clapping. That was different.

Things always are with Demetris Robertson.

While most high school stars play all over the field, the sheer extent to which Demetris excelled at all the positions he played — essentially everything short of playing on the line — portended a phenom in the making.

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Flourishing at even one spot on the field is an accomplishment, but Demetris would’ve been an NCAA-caliber recruit at any of his high school positions. He was mostly a running back at Savannah Christian Preparatory School, but his smooth transitions to other positions, ranging from quarterback to wide receiver to safety, should’ve been expected.

“I started playing when I was 10. I’ve always been a pretty fast guy, pretty talented,” Demetris says matter-of-factly. “I scored on my first play.”

He continued dominating his peers into high school. As Demetris’ star grew, classmates began to take notice. He started getting varsity reps as a freshman, and his role quickly expanded from there. Eventually, he racked up 35 total touchdowns to go along with more than 3,000 all-purpose yards in high school.

Students who once ribbed him for his hair and his style realized they were dealing with the school’s biggest name. They even adopted his signature look.

“No one really liked my style. No one liked it until I became good, then everyone copied what I did,” Demetris says. “No one (else) really wore skinny jeans before that.”

His appearance and unparalleled football skills weren’t the only things setting Demetris apart from his classmates, though.

For one, his interest in art was especially uncommon for a star athlete — football players aren’t usually drawing logos to reveal their college decisions.

But Demetris has been drawing and painting for as long as he can remember.

From coloring with his twin sister at a young age to taking AP Art in high school to now majoring in environmental design at UC Berkeley, Demetris’ artistic inclinations are more than a hobby.

“Football’s not going to last long. I want something to sustain me for after football.”

“I want to do things like Marshawn (Lynch) is doing. I want to go around the globe and help people that don’t have as much as we do and building houses and things that they need,” Demetris says. “I also want to build my own house.”

Arts are a central aspect of the identity that he is proud of, and he concentrates on them with the same fervor as he does football.

“He’s really focused. He doesn’t let a lot of things distract him. … He’s got a focus and a maturity that you just don’t see with many young guys,” says Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “He’s very comfortable being himself. For young kids, and especially college kids, that’s hard. Everyone wants to fit in a certain place. He just is himself.”

Given his personality and skill, the attention Demetris’ college-decision process received was well-deserved. The day of his announcement had been a long way coming. Not just in the metaphorical sense either, as he committed in May — three months after most recruits commit on National Signing Day. While this isn’t the norm, Demetris had no qualms about waiting until he was sure of his choice, especially after decommitting from Alabama in April 2015.

“I read stuff on him that said, ‘He’s holding out because this kid is about himself.’ And that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” says Jacob Peeler, Cal’s inside receivers’ coach and the one in charge of recruiting players from the South, such as Demetris. “His brother told me this: ‘If you have one bite of an apple and you get one bite your entire life, wouldn’t you want to make sure you pick the right apple to take a bite out of?’ ”

After his family encouraged him to reconsider schools with traditionally stronger academic backgrounds, Demetris opened up his recruitment again to find a place that would set him up for life after football.

“My mom wanted me to take a look around. She felt like I did it too early. I really did it based on just football,” Demetris says. “But football’s not going to last long. I want something to sustain me for after football.”

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Just a few months later, he received his offer from Cal.

Of course, as a five-star recruit, Demetris essentially had his pick of the collegiate litter. He could stay in Georgia and play for the Bulldogs — or attend the state’s stronger academic school, Georgia Tech. He could go to a traditional football powerhouse in Notre Dame. He could go anywhere.

Peeler knew this, and went after Demetris hard. And it was working. Cal was put in a unique position: dark horse for the nation’s top wide receiver recruit, not to mention one from the haven of college football in the Southeast.

With Peeler’s efforts starting to pay off, the pipe dream was starting to smoke. Cal was in position to reel in its biggest fish since the heyday of the program. But when trying to land a player like Demetris — one who was the star at each and every position in high school — Peeler knew he had to go the extra mile.

And that meant not just going to Demetris’ football games. He trekked out to Georgia for Demetris’ basketball matches and, most notably, to attend some six-hour track meets.

“I had a Cal polo and some slacks on in Georgia in the spring. It was probably 90 degrees. No kidding, my arm probably looked like one of those orange pylons. It was crazy how sunburned I was,” Peeler laughs. “But it was all worth it.”

Not only was Peeler’s determination and pitch about Cal and a UC Berkeley education paying off, but the farther into the process he got, the more impressed Peeler became with Demetris.

While visiting the recruit, Peeler went to a Buffalo Wild Wings with Demetris and his brother Carlos, with whom the young star lived in Savannah.

With Demetris completely wrapped up in the videos highlighting the Cal offense and the UC Berkeley experience that Peeler had brought along with him, the coach spent the whole outing talking to Carlos instead.

The fit became clearer and clearer, as Demetris grew more interested in Cal and Peeler realized he had someone special, even for a five-star recruit.

“The minute he walked on campus (for an official visit), he fit,” Peeler says. “The kid is the most remarkable kid. … He just fit, he took everything in. He asked the questions you want the kids to ask.”

When Demetris finally committed, the internet swelled with videos and blog posts from furious fans, screaming at the audacity of a 19-year-old to move away from Georgia.

But Demetris was worth getting angry over.

Now, just six games into his college career, Demetris is already living up to the hype.

The kid who jumped onto the field and scored in his first play of organized football needed just a bit more time in college. Of course, it still didn’t take long. By Demetris’ fourth game with the Bears, quarterback Davis Webb was consistently looking the true freshman’s way. Demetris scored two touchdowns in that game — against Arizona State — and two more the next week against Utah.

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

While his route-running can certainly use some polish, he has one skill that’s been immediately translatable — he’s fast. Demetris took advantage of the attention thrown at Cal’s leading receiver, Chad Hansen, and started breaking free downfield. He’s consistently been able to speed past opposing cornerbacks and safeties, and it’s not rare to look up and see Demetris 10 yards clear of his nearest defender.

“He gets better every single day,” says Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. “He approaches the game with a lot of passion. … I can see his role increasing dramatically throughout his career here. I think he’s a special type of talent, and we got to find ways to get him the ball.”

With good hands and a 40-yard dash time Demetris unassumingly claims is near NFL Draft Combine records — “4.25” he says — anything more is just gravy. But as his hold on the offense exponentially grows, the receiver’s flashing some scary potential.

“I want to see what he’s capable of doing,” says Cal running back Khalfani Muhammad. “He can do it all. He’s just all about having fun and getting after it.”

And he’s not content with being just a star receiver. That’s not why he came all the way to Cal.

Along with hoping to use his UC Berkeley education to prepare him for a post-college life, Demetris’ athletic aspirations are endless. He came to Cal because it provides options for after football, but given his talent and his current trajectory, that’s not a reality he’ll have to deal with for a long time. You won’t hear him say it, but he knows he can achieve anything he wants to athletically.

Not only is he eager to lobby for some playing time on defense, but Demetris also plans to join the track and field team in the spring.

A natural progression would be running the 100-meter dash, like teammate Khalfani Muhammad does. But no, Demetris wants to do more to prove he’s the best: the decathalon.

“He really wants to be good, it’s important to him. … He never takes a lazy step,”  Dykes says. “I think he can be one of the best receivers in college football, without a doubt.”

That future and Demetris’ mentality make him one of the most distinct star football players you’ll find.

“Since I was kid, I’ve been different from everyone: the way I carry myself, the way I dress, the way I wear my hair,” Demetris says. “I always wanted to stand out on the football field. I didn’t want a lot of attention. I just wanted to be myself and standout and know that I’m me.”

Hooman Yazdanian is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian