By Henry Walker
Saturday is Carolina’s Annual Monogram Day where we celebrate UNC letterwinners during Homecoming Weekend. Often on these weekends, we remember fondly the athletic exploits of players such as Charlie Choo Choo Justice, Don McCauley, Dre' Bly and Julius Peppers.
This season also marks the 25th anniversary of Johnathan Robertson's 1992 letterman year. The uber humble Robertson describes himself as the “worst player in Carolina history,” but he is actually one of Carolina’s most successful football letterman off the field who recently made a significant contribution to the University.
In 1992, Robertson was named to USA Today’s Academic All American Team after achieving one of the highest GPAs of any Division I football player in the nation with virtually straight A+'s. His senior year he was awarded the International Luce Scholarship, was a recipient of the national Truman Scholarship, and was North Carolina’s Rhodes Scholar selection. He went on to Harvard Law School and met his wife, a Stanford grad then attending Harvard Business School. They both initially went to work at McKinsey & Company and for the last 18 years, Robertson has been working at a venture capital investment firm, TG Capital, where he serves as President and Managing Director. His athletic ties are still firmly intact as he is currently serving a term as a Trustee for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Foundation.
Last month, Johnathan and Shannon committed $100,000 to Innovate Carolina for initiatives that support student entrepreneurs. Judith Cone, Vice Chancellor for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development commented “This gift came at an important time as UNC Chapel Hill, the town and the county work together to expand the services and spaces for student and faculty startups in Downtown Chapel Hill. Having a vibrant startup community adjacent to the campus creates a learning lab for students while creating tremendous social and economic benefit for the region. We are grateful to Shannon and Johnathan for their generous investment in Innovate Carolina."
In a recently Q&A, two things shine through about Johnathan. First, he never brags … never. And second, his advice goes far beyond football.
GoHeels: How did you stack up as a player?
Johnathan Robertson: I’ll give you two examples. My sweet spot to get playing time was when we were up or down by about 30 points. I was on the sidelines on a cold day in October standing by the space heater to keep warm. A spark flew out and singed my shoe lace. My position coach called my name since the game’s outcome was in hand and I had to sheepishly tell him I couldn’t re-tie my shoe lace. Here’s a second example: On pro timing day, the pro scouts loaded 225 pounds on the bar for bench presses. We lined up alphabetically, and they instructed us to do as many subsequent repetitions as we could. I was right after Austin Robbins alphabetically who you may know went on to play for the Raiders. Austin completed 32 reps. I did two and a half. And I was really proud of the half as a personal best!
GH: What did you most learn from the coaching staff?
JR: Mack Brown was my head coach. It says so much about him that to this day he makes an effort to stay in touch with me and players from our class. He taught me to see football cerebrally and strategically—as a 22 piece chess match where you are looking at relative strengths and weaknesses and trying to create positive match ups. And thinking that way was really my first introduction to strategic problem solving where one analyzes the germane portions of a given situation, breaks down component parts of the problem, isolates fulcrum issues, and solves them one at a time. You use those skills when you put together a football game plan and you do the same in life.
GH: We heard you had a tryout for the Patriots while you were studying at Harvard?
JR: I did. I became extremely familiar with the patterns on the ceiling of New England’s interior practice facility as I found myself lying on my back a great deal after being blocked or tackled. Bobby Grier, who was then New England’s Director of Player Personnel, couldn’t have been nicer when he explained to me that Coach Parcel liked “the bigger guys” as he walked me to the parking lot and put me in a cab back to Cambridge.
GH: What lessons did you take away from football?
JR: For me I learned that failure leads to improvement as long as you fail with 100 percent effort. If you are willing to focus on the long term, resist the impulse to think myopically, and put off instant gratification in exchange for long term goals then eventually positive things will happen.
GH: What’s the secret to having a successful career after football?
JR: The secret is there is no secret. All shortcuts are false. It doesn’t matter if it’s football, a new discovery, or an entrepreneurial idea. You have to put in focused time and effort and be willing to move forward after multiple failures to ultimately have sustained success.
GH: Why did you elect to support Innovate Carolina and its programs like the accelerator and venture lab?
JR: Coming up with an innovation or a concept is difficult work and it requires you to put yourself out there a bit. Shannon and I wanted to support Vice Chancellor Cone’s efforts to surround students with resources which will encourage them to persist through the roadblocks they will inevitably encounter as they work through their ideas. Resources like a facility out of which to work, basic funding, and a venture coach to use as a sounding board all help to keep entrepreneurs sanguine and focused on their long term goals. And we are honored to be associated with that.
Mack Brown, Johnathan’s coach at Carolina, coached college football for 42 years, 30 of which were as a head coach. Now an ESPN College Football Commentator, Coach Brown summed Johnathan up best:
“Johnathan was one of the best students I ever coached. He was as passionate about his academic work as he was his work on the field. The joy my wife Sally and I have out of coaching is not the wins, not the super plays, but seeing our players become successful with their families as a father, husband, and in their business life. That's really the job of the coach. To help a young person grow and prepare him for life after his football career is over. There was never a doubt that Johnathan would be a real success in life.”