Editor’s note: Sports Uncovered, the newest podcast from NBC Sports, shines a fresh light on some of the most unforgettable moments in sports. The fifth episode tells the story of "The Mysterious Disappearance that Changed a Super Bowl," chronicling Barret Robbins' absence from Super Bowl XXXVII.
Raiders defensive back Calvin Branch ran into teammate Barret Robbins at a San Diego bar for the second night in a row. That in itself wasn’t particularly odd.
The practice week heading into Super Bowl XXXVII was over, leaving more free time for players to enjoy the festive atmosphere leading up to the biggest game of their lives. It wasn’t particularly late on that Saturday, well before curfew, so neither guy was in the wrong just for being in a massive watering hole in San Diego’s Pacific Beach neighborhood.
But one indicator told Branch that something was off.
“I don’t know where he was coming from,” Branch said on the latest episode of the Sports Uncovered Podcast: "The Mysterious Disappearance that Changed a Super Bowl."
“But he had the same stuff on that he [wore] the night before.”
[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]
That was a sign that Robbins hadn’t been home in a while. Branch recognized the oddity but didn’t dwell on it. Robbins had a reputation as a partier, so little was a surprise with the team’s Pro Bowl center in that regard.
Branch met up with some college teammates, had a few drinks and then headed outside to hail a cab back to the Raiders' team hotel. Branch then approached a taxi he thought was free, only to find out it was already occupied.
“I look in there, and it’s Barret,” Branch said. “I get in the cab and all of a sudden I hear Barret, like he’s trying to hold back tears. And I look over and he’s got tears running down his face.”
This previously unknown part of Robbins’ disappearance just before his Raiders played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVIII -- and what happened just after -- is explained in great detail in the latest episode of NBC’s Sports Uncovered Podcast series. The episode debuted Thursday morning and explains what led Robbins to miss the biggest game of his life.
He didn’t just get drunk and make a dumb mistake. There’s far more to it than that. Robbins was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental health issue that troubled him throughout his life. We explore where he could have been helped, and why he shouldn’t be blamed for the Raiders losing the Super Bowl.
He wasn’t, however, allowed to play in the championship game despite Branch’s best efforts to help him do so.
Robbins recalled that cab ride home during an archived interview with NBC Sports Bay Area’s Greg Papa, considering it the point when the reality of his misdeeds hit home. Robbins partied all day Friday and into the night, leaving San Diego for a debaucherous outing in Tijuana that extended through Saturday until he saw Branch in Pacific Beach.
It was in that cab with Branch where Robbins finally broke down.
"I was crying,” Robbins said. “I was in bad shape, man. I was so sad at that point. I knew it was going to end up leading me to not be able to play in the Super Bowl and, you know, live my dream.”
Branch wanted to make one last attempt to get Robbins back in the team hotel and in the lineup. He knew he couldn’t take Robbins through the lobby of a hotel loaded with team officials after he was missing in action, so he tried another way.
If he could just get Robbins to the room undetected, let him gain composure and get to the Saturday meeting, maybe the center could rebound and play.
“We drive around to the back, and there was another entrance,” Branch said. “I’m thinking, ‘Okay, as long as nobody gets on the elevator, he can get to his room and collect himself. Just get him in the elevator.' ”
Branch did exactly that, but the plan was foiled by an unexpected pick-up.
“The elevator stops, and our linebackers coach gets on, Fred Pagac,” Branch said. “I’m trying to stand between him and Barret, so he’s not really seeing what kind of emotional state he’s in, and then my floor comes up. So, I get off, and I’m not sure what happened there.”
Whatever happened the rest of that elevator ride is ultimately inconsequential. The decision already had been made that Robbins would not play in the Super Bowl.
Head coach Bill Callahan had made that decision. The team had Robbins examined by team doctors, who said he couldn’t play.
Then-Raiders general manager Bruce Allen explained what happened next.
“He was in a difficult condition in that he was cheery,” Allen said. “Most worrying of all was that he had wondered if we had won the game. … [Then] he had told me he was excited that we had won the game and he asked to catch a plane for the Pro Bowl.”
After further examination, Raiders doctors recommended Robbins go to the hospital. In hindsight, Robbins knows it was the right call.
“The next morning, I woke up and stretched and walked with (Raiders ambassador) Willie Brown and saw the doctors and everything," Robbins said. "And if they would’ve told me I could have played, I don’t know that I could have at that point. To be honest with you, I was sick.”
Robbins was diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly after, when he was sent to the Betty Ford Clinic in Riverside.
“It was great -- well, not great -- but what felt good for me is it explains some of these incidents that I have had," Robbins said. "And it put a label, it put a tag on that, because it was unexplained for me.”