ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- For the past several seasons, New England Patriots reporter Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com has filed a weekly feature called a "football journey," a sit-down interview with a lesser-known player that traces his path to the NFL.
For both reporters and readers, it's a welcome opportunity to get to know a player on a more personal level. Even though we may analyze, critique and grade players' performances, listening to these players tell their stories is a reminder that many have fought hard to make it to the highest level of the game.
Starting today, our objective is to bring you a Buffalo Bills "football journey" each week during the season.
Cornerback Nickell Robey was one of two undrafted rookies to make the team this season, along with quarterback Jeff Tuel. The youngest (21 years old) and smallest player (5-foot-8, 165 pounds) on the Bills roster, Robey drew the praise of coach Doug Marrone on Friday:
"He has a role for us. We're happy with the way he's been playing," Marrone said. "He'll be part of some packages that we do. He's been consistent."
Here's the full Q&A with Robey from this week, including his reaction to losing his mother to a heart attack days after signing his letter of intent for USC, and his lofty goals for his rookie season in the NFL:
Why he started playing football: "I first started playing football at age 5. The thing that inspired me to play football was my older cousin, Cedric [Cox, a former receiver at Southeast Missouri State]. My dad put a football in my hand when I was a young kid. He always told me I was going to play football and 'make his name great.' Through the whole process, just watching my older cousin play football, taking tips from him -- he taught me how to play the game -- I got older, started getting a mind of my own, started finding out my own talents, and it just branched off from there. Just having fun for the most part, just playing with my friends, stuff like that. That's how it was."
What positions he played: "Pop Warner, I played quarterback and I played safety."
Favorite memory from Frostproof (Fla.) High School: "My favorite memory is when we beat a crosstown rival that had beaten us nine years straight. This would have been the 10th year. We beat them and broke that curse. I had the game-winning touchdown with two minutes left in the game. The [quarterback] threw a fade route in the back of the end zone and I caught it. We won the game. That was my best memory in high school, and I'll never forget that moment."
Role models growing up: "The people that grew up in my neighborhood. My older cousin Alvin Harper played for the Dallas Cowboys and won two Super Bowl rings. That definitely inspired me to play football. Watching him score and dunk the field goal posts, that right there excited me. We traveled to Dallas and watched them play when I was just a young kid. I knew one day that I could play just like he could play, and that's what I had in my mind at the time. Basically, as a family member, that's who inspired me a lot. But my favorite player in the game is Deion Sanders. I love his swag. And he's from Florida, too. I love Deion. As a kid, he was my inspiration. He's the reason why I wear the towel on my side, or why I wear my wristbands. That's what put an edge to my game."
If he has met Deion Sanders: "Never met him. Never had a chance to talk to him. I've seen him at the combine; I was up close and personal with him, but never got any words with him."
Decision to attend USC: "Initially it was Georgia, Tennessee. At the time, Coach [Lane] Kiffin was at Tennessee. I was originally committed to Georgia, but the whole defensive staff there was fired. Then I committed to Tennessee, and that's when the Kiffins went to USC. Right in the midst of all of that, my mom passed. She had a massive heart attack. That gave me even more reason to go away and play football and try to do something on my own. That's probably what it was telling me to do the whole time. I just went with it. Coach Kiffin said I had a great opportunity to start as a true freshman and be All-American and all that good stuff. I went to USC and I did just that: I started my first year and got tremendous playing time, made a lot of plays and had fun. It was cool."
Favorite memory with the Trojans: "When I picked off Andrew Luck. Three minutes left in the game, fourth quarter. We needed a big play. He threw an interception. I took it for six [points]. We still ended up going into overtime. He came back down and scored within a minute. We lost that game, but that's a memory I'll never forget."
Why he decided to declare for the NFL draft after his junior season: "I believe in myself. I'm very confident in myself. I also believe in the guys that play with me. I feel like if I could bet off me, I would bet on me every single time. I knew coming into [my junior season], I was thinking about the plays I made at USC. Am I really ready for the next level? All those questions went into my head, and at the end of the day, I sat down and just simplified it. I said 'Nickell, this is what you love to do. All of your life you've been dreaming of going to the next level. You know you can play at the next level. Your film shows it. You make enough plays to show the scouts that you can play at the next level.' From that point on, I went with it. I said that I was going to the next level, I was going to the league. I didn't have the best combine numbers, but as far as me being a football player, going out there and lining up against somebody, I can do that all day. I redeemed myself a little bit on my pro day, but initially I knew I could play in the NFL."
Not being drafted: "It wasn't so much of a disappointment. It actually turned into a blessing. It's awkward to say, but it showed me how much you have to work and how much you have to learn in this league. Things happen for a reason. I never questioned 'Why did I go undrafted?' To this day, I don't question it. Whatever happened, it happened. I wish I could do something about it. If anybody could do something about it, I wish I could do something about it. But I couldn't. I was just blessed enough and happy enough for a team to pick me up, because I knew if a team picked me up, I would be able to prove myself and show them what I have to offer. That's exactly what I did. Every day I just thank God that I'm able to play football, because there's a lot of people that can't do that. It's the one percent, and that's deep. When the opportunity came my way, I make sure I seized it. At the same time, I still have fun. I love everything about the game of football."
Being the youngest player in the Bills locker room: "It wasn't intimidating. But it's more like, when you're in college, you're the old guy by the end. Now I'm in the NFL locker room, and I'm the youngest. It just lets me know, you still have to make gradual progressions at each level that you go. Everything has a level to it. You have to understand that. You have older guys that are in front of you, and know a lot more than you. What you have to do is take notes and start from the bottom again and build back up."
Preseason, including two muffed punts: "I wish I could get those punts back, but Coach just told me, make sure you learn from your mistakes, just keep playing. At the same time, I'm still learning back there. Leodis [McKelvin] gets with me and tells me certain things to do, what decisions to make in certain situations. It's not so much about trying to make a play all the time, it's about being smart and knowing what situation you're in. As far as the preseason, defensively, I got a lot of snaps. I like my performance. You can always be better. I'm learning, and I'm getting better, and I'm taking steps forward. That's the most important part for me. I know the more reps you get, the better you get at it. I'm just working every day, making sure that I'm staying on top of everything I need to stay on top of, and prepare as much as I can to get ready for whoever my opponent is that week."
Goals and expectations for this season: "I already set high expectations for myself, sometimes high enough where I can't even see it. If you train yourself every day that that's what you want, then you'll get it. My expectations this year is try to make it to a Pro Bowl. Make a lot of plays. Special teams. It doesn't matter. Making plays is making plays. If I can make big plays in big-time moments, I know I'll get to that point. Coach always -- we talk about talking things into existence. A Pro Bowl is something that we really need, especially in the secondary. I feel like I can definitely be a Pro Bowler if I really work hard enough to get there. I try to be an MVP on something, just make a huge improvement to this organization."