American Football: The tragic demise of a Super Bowl hero

As America prepares for a sporting showpiece on Sunday, a former gridiron hero fights for his life in a Miami hospital
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Here in the harbour the cruise ships twinkle in anticipation. Super Bowl XXXIX is laden with historic possibilities as the New England Patriots seek a dynastic three wins out of four under their phenomenally clinical coach Bill Belichick.

Here in the harbour the cruise ships twinkle in anticipation. Super Bowl XXXIX is laden with historic possibilities as the New England Patriots seek a dynastic three wins out of four under their phenomenally clinical coach Bill Belichick.

There is also the warming uplift of a potentially classic quarterback duel involving the golden arm of Tom Brady, who, statistically at least, has already drawn alongside the legendary Joe Montana. He goes against the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb, another of those black quarterbacks who runs and passes in brilliant defiance of the old law that his race could never fill the most glamorous role on the gridiron.

Compelling themes these, surely, even for the most hyped occasion in the whole wide world of sport? Pity, though, that the tragic spectre of 31-year-old Barret Robbins, former lineman of the Oakland Raiders, just won't go away.

Two years ago in San Diego, Robbins had all of this Super Bowl glory before him as the Raiders prepared to meet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he could not take hold of it. Battling manic depression which had been savagely exacerbated by the long-term steroid use which fuels the dark side of American football, he slid away from the television lights and binged in the backstreet drinking dens and drug parlours of Tijuana across the border.

Now he fights for his life in a hospital in Miami, where his decline accelerated so fast in the bars and clubs of the South Beach district his family and friends could only await in horror some kind of ultimate denouement.

It came three weeks ago when he was apprehended by police in a women's restroom after a suspected burglary. They claimed, after putting bullets into his lung and perilously close to his heart, Robbins had tried to overwhelm them as he reached for their guns. Now he survives on a ventilator with an armed guard at his door. If he makes it, his reward will be arraignment on three charges of attempted murder and the possibility of a life sentence. His lawyer says, drily, that a plea of insanity, if needed, will be an automatic option.

As any good old football guy will tell you here these next few days, you cannot blame America's game for the plight of a Robbins, any more than you could that of the apparently god-fearing Atlanta Falcons defensive star who was arrested for propositioning an undercover policewoman on the eve of another Super Bowl in Miami six years ago - or the controversy that swirled around the consummate linebacker of the Baltimore Ravens, Ray Lewis, when he was investigated by Atlanta police on the suspicion that he was an accessory to a brutal street murder at Super Bowl time.

No, you are told that such eruptions are inevitable when young men operate under such pressure, and with such great rewards. There will be casualties, of course.

Their theory has stronger legs before you trace the shocking, booze, drug and painkiller-laced story of Robbins, a boisterously amiable mother's boy while growing up in small-town Texas - and remember that there were precursors enough decades ago, perhaps most memorably when another Raiders lineman, John Matuszak, was apprehended by the California Highway Patrol while secreting in the glove compartment of his car a machete and a Magnum revolver. But then Matuszak was a twisted glory of football more than a victim. He was a surreal anti-hero.

The truth which does not square with so much of the wholesome all-American Super Bowl image - which now generates a record $2.4m price for a brief advertising slot - is that when you look at it from a certain angle Robbins' football career resembles nothing so much as a long and unanswered scream for help.

One of the most ghastly phases of a story which, to the extreme embarrassment of the National Football League, is now being told with ever increasing detail was this week most graphically described by Robbins' estranged wife Marisa, who eventually decided on the shock treatment of placing a restraining order on her husband. Marisa recalls the time she flew to Denver to rescue the ferocious player after he had been found dazed and mumbling incoherently the day before a game at the Mile High Stadium.

Marisa recalls: "When I got there he had peas in his ears from his meal the night before. He was saving them for me, he said. He recognised me for an instant and said, 'I knew you would come to save me.' The next moment he was talking to me like I was one of his old college teachers - 'How about that test today?' Then it was like I was his friend Jimmy. 'What are we going to do today, Jimbo?'" As Marisa drove him out to the airport for the flight home to California she realised for the first time that there would be no easy rerouting of a life filled with so many promises laid out by an American dream. "Each time we got to a stoplight, he would try to jump out and say, 'Hey, thanks for the ride.' Astonishingly, the young woman was left to deal alone with a man-child veering out of control. When Robbins missed the game the Raiders explained to the press that he was suffering from "influenza syndrome." Marisa Robbins is bitter about that. She could not put her man to bed with a kiss and a soothing hot drink.

Last year Robbins was called before the Balco inquiry probing the designer steroid controversy that brought down the British sprinter Dwain Chambers and has cast such shadows over Olympic star Marion Jones and record-shattering baseball slugger Barry Bonds. Robbins had tested positive for the offending drug THG. He was fined three weeks' wages by the NFL.

This week Marisa Robbins offered a searing postscript to one American tragedy. She said: "I want to remind everyone that Barret is not a bad man. He's not a potential murderer, he's not a burglar and he's not a vandal. He is a sick man." Meanwhile, the Super Bowl celebrations surge on as down the coast in Miami the doctors check the vital signs of a man who so recently might have been at the centre of them.