SANTA CLARA -- In making their most controversial decision during the three-day NFL Draft, the 49ers relied heavily on the perspective of the most respected person in the organization.
Cornerback Rashard Robinson, who last played at LSU in November 2014, did not meet extensively with coach Chip Kelly or general manager Trent Baalke before the draft, Robinson told Bay Area reporters on Saturday.
The football people in the organization handled the on-field evaluation. But the biggest questions about Robinson are off the field. And to help in that process, the 49ers called on team chaplain Rev. Earl Smith, who recently traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to begin establishing a relationship and building mutual trust with Robinson.
“Earl’s been with this organization for a long time and Earl himself has a lot of history with dealing with these young men,” Baalke said. “We just felt that Earl was the right person at the right time to go down there and really just get to know him and spend some quality time with him.
“So Earl came back, gave us his recommendation. Obviously, his recommendation was positive and it led to us making the decision -- or at least helped us make that decision.”
Robinson made an immediate impact as a freshman at LSU in 2013. But at the start of his sophomore season, he was suspended for reportedly failing a drug test. He started eight games that season but was suspended indefinitely for failing to meet academic requirements.
He re-enrolled after sitting out one semester, but he never again played college football. In August 2015, he was arrested for alleged unauthorized entry into the apartment of an LSU teammate. The charges were dropped, and Robinson described the incident as "a big misunderstanding.”
When asked if he is a character risk, Robinson answered, “No, sir. I had things come up in the past, but you know I had to learn from my mistakes in the past – you know, just missing this whole season and everything. (I’m) just learning from them and just trying to progress and become better as a man and a person, as a whole.”
The 49ers weighed the on-field talent that Robinson possesses, as well as the potential risks off the field. And the organization ultimately invested a fourth-round pick, No. 133 overall, to select him.
“We had him rated very high, very high on our board as a talent,” Baalke said. “One reason guys slip is because of the decisions they make along the way. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn from those decisions and take advantage of the opportunity they’ve been given. And we fully expect him to do that.”
Robinson said he had a “great meeting” with Rev. Smith. (The 49ers declined a request from CSNBayArea.com to interview Rev. Smith for this report.)
Rev. Smith has served for years as the team chaplain of the 49ers and Golden State Warriors. He spent more than 23 years as the chaplain at San Quentin. He had personal interactions with such notorious prisoners as Charles Manson and Stanley “Tookie” Williams, as detailed in Rev. Smith’s 2015 book, “Death Row Chaplain.”
During an appearance last May on the Tavis Smiley show on PBS, Rev. Smith spoke about the fine line that enable many individuals to find the right paths while others from similar backgrounds end up incarcerated.
“I tell people all the time, they’re very similar,” Rev. Smith said. “They both have numbers. Prisoners have numbers. Athletes have numbers. And they’re from the same counties, the same cities . . . the same neighborhoods.
“We talk about air. Was it toxic air that locked up and bound one person and allowed you, as an athlete, performer, whatever it may be, to escape? Was there a separation in the air? Was there a clarity that came? Was there something that made a difference in how you breathed and what you’re doing?”
Rev. Smith was admittedly a troubled youth, growing up in Stockton. He reveals he nearly died at the age of 19 after being shot six times in a botched drug deal. He made immediate changes to his life’s course. Rev. Smith likely shared details of the mistakes he made as a young person with Robinson.
“We sat down and we related about a lot of things,” Robinson said. “We sat down, and hearing his story and he’s listening to mine, it was a good feeling.”
Robinson said his approach during the draft process was to be honest with teams that spoke to him about his past.
“Just manning-up to whatever you did and just being honest,” Robinson said. “Showing people you’re trying to move forward from your past and not trying to go back.”
In the interview on PBS, Rev. Smith said he speaks with the athletes he counsels about holding themselves accountable for their actions.
“We talk to our guys about choices, decisions, consequences,” Rev. Smith said. “And we do that because we want them to understand that you made a choice, and based on that decision, there are going to be some consequences. And every step along the way, I want you to remember that.”