My Cause, My Cleats program leads Bucs captain to adopt twins

Bucs defensive back Joshua Robinson and his wife, Julianna, adopted the twin boys, who are 4 weeks old. Photo courtesy of Jackie Slone

Just before 5:30 a.m., Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Joshua Robinson is readying himself for duty. He pushes in the hard, pullout hospital sofa that has become his makeshift bed and wipes the sleep from his eyes. With a bottle in his hand and a warm blanket, he reaches for the oldest of two tiny babies, gently cradling him in his arms.

He takes off his shirt because the skin-to-skin contact helps them bond. After 30 minutes, he'll do the same with the baby's twin brother, Joshua's other son (the boys' names and location are being withheld to protect their privacy).

The twins are 4 weeks old.

"[We're] in milliliters right now," Joshua said. "The oldest [who weighs 5 pounds, 12 ounces] is getting about 30 milliliters and the youngest [who weighs 4 pounds, 10 ounces] is getting about 24. We're slowly trying to get the food intake up at each feeding so that they can eventually be discharged."

They have to be fed every three hours. Though a nurse takes over at times, Joshua is up throughout the night holding them and rewrapping them in blankets.

"I'm spending the rest of my offseason here," said Joshua, overjoyed and undaunted despite having to juggle NFL training sessions between sleepless nights and being separated from the rest of his family by more than 1,000 miles. "I've been telling people lately that I've been living a dream."

Back home in Tampa, his wife, Julianna, is getting the kids' nursery ready. She is with their two biological children, who anxiously await the day they can meet their baby brothers. Jesse, 4, and Judah, 2, have been carrying around baby dolls for practice for two weeks. Jesse also has a working theory, according to Julianna. "Babies come from airports," she said.

'Do you have room for one more?'

This all started in December 2017 at the NFL's My Cause, My Cleats game in Week 13, when players can showcase a charity of their choosing on their cleats. A little boy from Joshua and Julianna's church was adopted with the help of Sacred Selections, a nonprofit organization that was started in 2006 to provide Christian couples the financial resources to adopt.

"Sacred Selections families, especially, are open to adopting children that are typically unwanted -- when you start getting into a disability that people are uncomfortable with, a low birth weight, a preemie -- some people when they adopt, they want their picture-perfect family," Julianna said. "The families [they] are working with are typically focused on a Godly mission of loving the unloved."

The cleats Joshua wore on Dec. 3, designed by Tampa artist Jason Hulfish, had the names of the first 200 children who had been adopted through the program. Joshua set up a You Caring page and pledged $2 for every $1 donated, up to $10,000. He raised $27,500, which immediately went to two families.

Throughout the fundraiser, the Robinsons got to know several families who had adopted. That's when a revelation came. They met a 17-year-old girl who had been adopted, and she was asked what she would say to families who were considering this decision. "Do you have room at your table for one more?" she asked.

"To me, it was so profound, to see a little heart thinking, 'I don't need much. If you have room,'" Joshua said.

"It can be that simple," Julianna said. "It was touching to hear her speak on adoption in that way, in just such a simple way -- 'Do you have room at your table for one more?' And a lot of people do. We live in a world of such excess, especially here in the United States."

Joshua had just turned 27 and finished his sixth season in the NFL and second in Tampa Bay, where he'd become a captain on special teams and one of the Bucs' most versatile defensive backs, playing cornerback, nickelback and safety. He and Julianna, 29, had been married since 2013. Their home was stable.

"We figured that better than sharing an opinion [about adoption] would be just to show the right thing to do, for there to be action and not just words," Julianna said.

When it came time to present the organization with a check at an event in Tampa in February of this year, the couple announced their intention to adopt.

"That was the first time we shared it with anyone," Julianna said. "I think we said it publicly so we couldn't back out."

'You've just kinda gotta jump sometimes'

This wasn't an easy decision, and it was something they'd been wrestling with for months.

"I had always wanted to adopt. I wasn't sure about it until we got involved. But for Julianna, it was a whole different mission," Joshua said.

"I didn't want to," Julianna admitted. "And since we decided, a lot of people have said, 'You're such great people. You've done such a good thing.' And it's a bit awkward for me, because I don't feel like I'm doing anything great or outstanding -- and especially because I know my heart and I really fought this. I did not want to do this. I was so scared of the whole thing. I fought that a lot because I was so scared. Adoption is scary. There are a lot of question marks and variables. I had so many fears. ... My big fear was, 'How could I love this child the way I love my biological children?'"

Then the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School happened Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, about 25 miles from Joshua's hometown in Fort Lauderdale.

"The shooter was adopted. The media focused on that part of his story so much," Julianna said. "But I realized that most problems have solutions if you're honest and not afraid of hard work, and getting children the support that they need. That's something that, little by little, I was able to get over that hurdle. Because you know what? People who are not adopted also do awful things."

Ultimately, it was the couple's faith that won.

"Once you see the kids, you're like, 'Man, this is the right thing to do,'" Julianna said. "You've just kinda gotta jump sometimes."

Most of Joshua's teammates know about the adoption and have been supportive. Some have even expressed interest in doing it themselves, which is a demographic -- young people -- the Robinsons hope to reach.

"The focus should not be on what we're getting, but on what we're being able to give to a child or children," Julianna said. "And it shouldn't be like a last-ditch effort -- 'We can't have kids so we might as well look at adoption.' We're trying to show that adoption should be considered because there is a need out there. And people are caring. I think people do want to make a difference and help."

'A roller-coaster ride'

Adopting can be a long and difficult process, and it was challenging for the Robinsons. It can also be expensive. The cost of private agency adoptions ranges from $20,000 to $45,000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Honestly, it was a roller-coaster ride, and there was no other way to describe it. A roller coaster," Joshua said.

The Robinsons started off by getting approved through a home study -- when a social worker visits to determine if the home is suitable for children. The couple then went through Sacred Selections and a private agency to increase their chances of finding a match.

There were multiple instances when they thought they'd be getting a child, only to have things fall through.

"You instantly get attached to these little kids, whether they're inside their moms still, or are newborn," Joshua said.

When a birth mother has been matched with a family but ultimately decides not to place her child up for adoption, it is referred to as a "false start." According to a survey from the website Adoptive Families, 38 percent of all U.S. newborn respondents experienced one or more false starts.

Also complicating the process are the adoption laws that vary by state, including revocation of consent, in some cases even months after the fact. So even after Joshua and Julianna walked off a plane to meet the boys at the hospital after they were first born, Joshua said, "We weren't sure if they were gonna be ours. It was kind of a 'hold-your-breath' type feeling."

"I almost started crying," said Julianna. "We were in the NICU as visitors, not as parents. ... We had to kind of remind ourselves that we were looking at this mother's babies, not ours."

'You have a dad'

After the Robinsons first saw the boys, they had to fly home to Tampa and wait for the birth mother to formally make her decision. She signed the adoption papers the next day, legally granting them adoption of the two children.

They flew back, and that plane ride was much different from the first. Their anxiety was replaced by joy. And they couldn't stop smiling thinking of the little boys waiting on them, bundled up in blankets stamped with tiny pink and blue footprints. They were already leaving an indelible mark on their new family's hearts.

"When we finally walked into that room to hold them for the first time, my first [words] were, 'You have a dad,'" Joshua said. "I wanted them to know, 'I'm gonna be your dad. I'm going to be there for you for the rest of your life. I'm going to love you for the rest of your life.'

"To hold those two boys, it was like a dream come true. I told Julianna, 'I've probably cried more times with these boys than I have with my own.'"

Joshua has been affected greatly by his relationship with his own father, Johnny. Before just about every home game, Johnny can be found on the field, near the tunnel, wearing a "Robinson" Bucs jersey. He always makes sure to give Joshua a hug after pregame warm-ups. He and Joshua's mother, Shirley, have seldom missed a high school, college or NFL game.

"He's been so instrumental in my life," Joshua said. "The more I've grown, the more I've appreciated him. I used to tell people, it's crazy, because I've had grown men come up to me in the NFL, saying, 'To see your dad at every one of your games -- I wish my dad was around.' I've had NFL players tell me that."

'They are worth it'

The terms of every adoption are different, but Joshua and Julianna want the boys to have a relationship with their biological mother.

"We want our boys to know that their mother loved them enough to one, have them, and two, to choose great parents to take care of them," said Joshua.

In addition to the adoption agency's thorough screening process, the boys' biological mother wanted to Skype with the Robinsons and meet face-to-face prior to the babies' birth.

"She still loves and cares about these boys," Joshua said. "That's something we want to instill in them."

They've arranged it so she can see them at least once a year, something agreed on prior to the adoption.

"I feel like we owe it to these boys, we owe it to their birth mom, we owe it to our fellow Christians, to these Sacred Selections families who are looking at us and saying, 'Great job,'" Julianna said. "We owe it to everyone, but to God most of all, to raise these children the right way, to love them with everything we have."

The Robinsons still don't know when they'll be able to bring the boys home. The twins have to be discharged from the hospital first. Then they have to be formally approved to leave their birth state through the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC). The last step in the adoption process is a finalization hearing in court.

"It's been really hard," said Julianna, who visits Joshua and the babies when she can. "You want to bond with them, because you know how important it is to have them bonding with their parents at this early stage, and then at the same time, you have this huge hole in your heart because your two bigger boys, you know they miss you terribly, and you're not there, so you're being pulled in two different directions."

Then there's Bucs training camp, which kicks off July 25, then preseason and the start of the NFL regular season, which means Joshua won't be around as much to help. Julianna's mother, Frances, who works as a school principal, will be staying with them. They've also arranged to have a babysitter watch the kids on game days.

"The workload here is going to increase now ... quite a bit," Julianna said. "And I'm sure we're gonna have moments where we feel stretched pretty thin, but it's worth it. They are worth it. That's kind of been a motto for me -- they are worth it."