It's been a pretty darn good rookie season for Nickell Robey. The undrafted cornerback not only made the Bills 53-man roster out of training camp, but has effectively nailed down the primary nickel corner role and made his fair share of plays.
The plays that he has made have been followed by a ritual he's adopted since his late mother Maxine passed away from heart failure at age 44, when Robey was a high school senior. A couple of quick taps with his left hand on his right wrist has become his small way of letting his mother know that she is not forgotten.
In college at USC, Robey would write 'Mom' in black marker on the athletic tape on the inside of his right wrist, but with NFL rules prohibiting any messaging on one's uniform attire he stopped writing her name. Still, he taps his wrist to honor her.
"It's all for you," said Robey of the significance of his tapping practice. "That tap it symbolizes what she wanted me to do. Whether it was the classroom, the football field, my everyday life that I live all that I'm doing now is for her. From that point I've always used it when I play football because sometimes you tend to forget and the one thing I told myself is I'm never going to forget the times when she mothered me through the years and what she did for me."
Robey still thinks about his mother daily wondering if there was something he could've done better in his young life or on the day his mother suffered a heart attack that eventually took her life.
Maxine Robey wasn't 100 percent healthy. She was on high blood pressure medication and had a heart condition. She had just been discharged from the hospital in February of 2010 when her son Nickell was a high school senior in Frostproof, Florida. That morning in a routine stop by his mother's bedroom before heading off to school he found his mother on the floor.
"I immediately clicked into, 'Okay stay relaxed,'" said Robey. "But my heart was racing at the same time. But I got focused and started performing CPR, and she came back. She was trying to catch her breath and came back to life and kept trying to talk. I was looking in her eyes telling her stay there, stay there because she was fighting. I kept performing CPR on her and we were waiting on the ambulance. It took them 12 minutes to get there. I timed it."
The EMTs continued to work on Robey's mother and eventually wheeled her out of the home, but it took a long time before they left her bedroom.
"Right then and there I figured she had passed away in the room," he said.
Robey forced himself to go to school after getting assurances from the EMTs that his mother was okay. Upon arriving at school however, his emotions overwhelmed him.
"After I got to school I couldn't hold it. I went straight to my coach's office and I just broke down," he said. "I didn't feel good at all inside. To a certain extent I was traumatized a little bit because I had never been in a situation like that and it was my mom. I never thought that something like this would happen, especially when you're that young. My sister was 13 at the time. I had just turned 18, but my sister was experiencing that and my little cousin was there and saw it too. It was very mind boggling. I was in a whole other world."
Upon arriving at the hospital with his coach, Robey met up with family members and discovered his mother had, as he feared, passed away. He asked for time alone with her body and promised to follow through on all the things he said he would do in his life. His college degree being the top priority.
From that day forward Robey clung to the words his mother had shared with him several times over when things got difficult.
"She always told me, 'Nickell don't worry about anything.' Whenever I'd talk to her or if we ever had a deep talk she'd tell me not to worry about anything," Robey said. "She said to live life and always have fun. She said I'm a special kid and God will protect me everywhere I go."
Naturally he found those words harder to live by after his mother was gone. Over time he said he came around to understanding why things are the way they are in his life. Still, more than three years removed from her passing, Robey doesn't picture his mother as deceased.
"To this day I sometimes don't even think she's gone," he said. "I think she's far away on vacation or something. That's what I put into my head sometimes. She's not gone, she's just far away. She'll be back soon."
Robey's mother attended every one of his games when she was alive, despite working two jobs, so the Bills rookie cornerback doesn't believe anything is different now. That's why he's convinced his mother had a hand in his interception return for a touchdown in the win at Miami back in Week 7, the first of his NFL career.
"Yeah mom had a huge hand in that," said Robey. "I was back home, I had all my family there, my sister. I could see my mom saying, 'Let's have it in Miami. Why not?'
With his late mother's birthday being Nov. 11th, Robey believes something big could happen in Sunday's game against the Steelers.
"The thing about it is it's her birthday this weekend and the Pittsburgh Steelers were her favorite team," said Robey. "She loved (Mike) Tomlin. She loved him for some reason. But when I saw this game on the schedule I said, 'Oh it's going to be a special weekend. It's going to be a special weekend.'"
Second on the team in pass breakups and an interception return for a score, Robey has not been lacking for instances in which to tap his wrist during games. He'd rather have an in depth talk with his mother like he used to when he was a teenager trying to stay on the right path.
Three years removed from his last heart to heart with his mother, Robey knows what she'd tell him now about the man and player he has become.
"Her comment would be to stay humble and not let the NFL lifestyle change Nickell Robey. Then she'd say good job and keep working," Robey said as a smile crossed his face. "First, she'd give me the real, then she'd show me the love."