THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Nickell Robey-Coleman’s personality is infectious.
In the Los Angeles Rams' locker room, he’s among the most welcoming of faces. A stereo sits inside his locker, and many days he turns it up to provide a soundtrack for the room.
Robey-Coleman’s teammates describe him as their scrappiest player. He’s not only their 5-foot-8, 180-pound nickelback, he’s their hype man. Per usual, the defensive backs will look to him to provide inspirational words before they take the field against the New Orleans Saints in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
“He gets us up,” safety John Johnson III said. “He gets that fire in us.”
That’s what makes it so difficult to fathom. Underneath his exuberant and upbeat personality, the 27-year-old has already experienced some of life’s deepest sorrows.
“It’s a beautiful storm that you can’t really describe,” Robey-Coleman said. “It’s ugly, but it is great. It hurts, but it feels good.”
Eight years ago, he held his mother in his arms moments after she had passed away. And two months ago, in the middle of the season, his newborn son died before he ever had a chance to hold him.
Football has provided a path away from the pain.
Maxine Robey was a sweet lady.
“I know everybody is going to say that’s what their mom was,” Robey-Coleman said, laughing. “But she was a great woman.”
Maxine believed in God and education, and she always had food and lemonade ready for any occasion. She taught Nickell how to be a man, from a woman’s perspective.
It brought Maxine great joy when her 17-year-old son signed to play college football at USC, even though it meant he would move across the country from Frostproof, Florida, a tiny town of about 3,000 people, in the central part of the state.
But two weeks after he signed his letter of intent in February 2010, his world shattered.
Maxine had high blood pressure and a heart condition. Before he left for school one morning he made a quick check on his mom, who had recently been hospitalized, and found her on her bedroom floor.
For seven minutes before paramedics arrived, he performed CPR as his mother’s heart failed.
“My lungs aren’t as strong as they are now,” Robey-Coleman said. “But I tried my best.”
As medics tended to his mother, Nickell was told to go to school. But with the help of his high school coach, he later made his way to the hospital, where his family gathered.
The looks on their faces revealed a child’s worst fear. His mother had died. She was 44.
“It was a moment,” Robey-Coleman said, “that I never expected.”
Robey-Coleman took a final few minutes with his mom, even as she laid lifeless. When he signed with USC, she made him promise he would get his degree. He told her he would keep that promise and do everything possible to make her proud.
“She knew that I could be more than an athlete because she’d seen something different in me,” Robey-Coleman said. “It pushed me to want to do better and want to be better.”
Robey-Coleman’s final memory of his mom was holding her in his arms.
“She inspires me so much,” Robey-Coleman said. “She’s the reason why I never quit.”
On Nov. 11, on what would have been Maxine Robey's birthday, Nickell Robey-Coleman Jr. arrived prematurely and with complications. His lungs weren’t fully developed, and doctors immediately took him away to try to stabilize him.
The Rams had defeated the Seattle Seahawks earlier in the day. Robey-Coleman received a message after the game that his son, who wasn’t expected for another month, would soon be delivered via an emergency cesarean section.
Robey-Coleman boarded a plane the next day with the Rams, who had planned to spend the week training in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at high altitude, in preparation for a Monday Night Football game in Mexico City against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Robey-Coleman understood his son needed serious medical attention and with the help of doctors within the Rams organization, was able to ensure he received the best care possible. “As a father, I just tried to be there for him as much as possible,” Robey-Coleman said.
With Robey-Coleman in Colorado, he got an early-morning message on his phone revealing that his son’s situation was dire. “I waited,” Robey-Coleman said. “I waited. I said I’m going to wait a day, I’m going to see what goes on, but it got worse.”
Robey-Coleman boarded a return flight to L.A. five days after his son’s birth, on Nov. 15. When the plane landed, he learned that Nickell Jr. had died.
“Having my mom gone, that’s real,” Robey-Coleman said. “But having my son gone is even more, like, reality. Like it ain’t a reality check, but it really brings you into reality. Like you really feel human.”
Football provided an escape, a reason to focus.
“We put our arm around him,” Johnson said. “He knows that we care about him and anything he needs from us, we’ll do it.”
Four days after his newborn son passed, Robey-Coleman suited up and came off the bench in a victory over the Chiefs.
“I just didn’t want to feel empty,” Robey-Coleman said about his quick return to football. “That was just going to make me feel too empty [to not play] because I felt like me being around my guys, that would have been enough for me, and that’s what coach let me do.”
A footprint from Nickell Jr. hangs on Robey-Coleman’s keychain. His baby clothes remain in the house.
“There’s not a day that go by where I don’t think about him,” Robey-Coleman said.
During the offseason, Robey-Coleman has returned to classes at USC, the campus adjacent to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. He left school after three seasons to pursue the NFL.
He went undrafted, but earned a spot for four seasons with the Buffalo Bills. His ability to make it as an undrafted player made it even sweeter when he signed a three-year deal worth more than $15 million over the offseason with the Rams, after he proved his worth in Wade Phillips’ defense on a one-year deal in 2017.
“It was a moment that I needed in my life,” Robey-Coleman said. “Just seeing hard work pay off.”
As a sixth-year pro, he has carved a role for himself on a team that has clinched back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1979.
In two seasons with the Rams, Robey-Coleman has three interceptions, 13 deflected passes, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
“Just an aware, savvy player, great competitor,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “His ability to read and recognize things. ... He's got a great play energy about himself.”
This spring, Robey-Coleman is scheduled to earn his USC degree, in keeping his promise to his mom.
He has spent the past eight years grieving Maxine’s death, but knows she would be proud. “She’s the reason why I never quit,” Robey-Coleman said. “She’s the reason why I never gave up on myself.”
And he knows that on Sunday, when he hypes up his teammates before they take the field with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, he’ll have a hype-section of his own.
He said he believes his mom and son will be watching from above.