The first time Duane Robinson was exposed to soccer, he wasn’t quite sure what he was looking at.
The West Trenton native was 10 years old and walking alongside Parkway Elementary School when he noticed a group of children playing a game he had never seen before. With his curiosity sparked, he asked to join in.
“That day was the first time I played, and I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I loved it so much, I ran right home to tell my mom, ‘You have to sign me up for soccer.’”
Robinson, now a vice principal at Steinert High School, went on to have a decade-long professional soccer career. He was also a member of the under-20 national team and a record holder at Adelphi University.
Robinson played baseball and basketball before he started soccer. Once he discovered soccer, though, he couldn’t be pulled away. Something about the sport set it apart from the other two.
“I think it was just more of the nonstop movement,” he said. “I was always a hyper kid. In baseball, there’s a lot of downtime. There are stoppages in basketball. That’s why I call soccer ‘the beautiful game.’ It just flows.”
Robinson signed up for recreational and later competitive soccer in West End. While his late start put him at a slight disadvantage, he learned fast and quickly made a name for himself on the pitch.
“We had a good travel team,” he said. “We would travel to Long Island, to Virginia, places like that. That was my first real exposure to kind of moving outside of New Jersey.”
Robinson played locally until he was 15, when he made the move to the Union Lancers, one of the top youth competitive teams in the state. Around the same time, he starred as a forward on the Notre Dame High School squad and was a member of the New Jersey State Select team.
From there, he was chosen as a member of the Eastern Regional team, one of four regional teams from across the United States. He made the U-20 U.S. national team as a junior in high school, and that was when he said his career really started to take shape.
As a member of the U-17 national team, Robinson played in places like Triniadad and Tobago, Russia, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.
“It was different from baseball and basketball,” he said. “You wouldn’t have those experiences at that age. Soccer is an international sport, so I really got the opportunity to travel everywhere from Eastern Europe to South America.”
Playing against teams from soccer-centric nations introduced Robinson and his teammates to different style of play. While teenage soccer players in the U.S. were training to get recruited and play in college, he said, their European counterparts were already being groomed to perform at the professional level.
“We were basically playing against guys that were already on the first team,” he said. “I think what happens is we fall behind because once they hit that age, they’re full-time. I think we were very competitive up until that 16-17 age range, but we didn’t really have that full-time professional league back in 1988.”
Playing against high-caliber athletes, though, proved to be beneficial. Robinson said their advanced pace, touch and overall technical abilities prepared him for his college and later his professional careers.
“You really learned how to be a professional player at a young age,” he said. “You get to know what it’s like training every day on a regular basis, being on time, just constantly playing.”
After his stint with the national team ended, Robinson moved on to Adelphi University. While there, he led the team to three consecutive NCAA tournament berths. Robinson himself was named a third-team All-American twice and a second-team All-American once. His 57 career goals and 20-plus assists broke the school record for goals and total points, which still stands today.
Robinson’s college success on top of his youth career made him an attractive prospect for budding professional teams. The Illinois Thunder selected him as the number one overall pick in the National Professional Soccer League draft. Later in his career, he played for the American Professional Soccer League’s Penn-Jersey Spirit and the United States Soccer League’s North Jersey Imperials. Robinson also played in Switzerland and San Diego.
That constant moving was necessary to continue playing a sport that was, at the time, financially unstable.
“I called it ‘the life of a vagabond,’” he said. “I did everything that I could to just keep playing.”
Robinson said soccer took off in the U.S. during the mid-1970s with Pelé and the New York Cosmos, but the sport hit a lull in the 1980s. By the time his career started, he and his fellow players were forced to bounce from team to team as leagues folded beneath financial burdens.
He recalls an instance when he and his team decided to stage a mini strike before a game after not receiving nearly a month’s worth of paychecks.
“The owner came in and basically begged us to go out and play the game,” he said. “I think that was the biggest thing: the financial instability. Even now, you have the MLS, and it’s good, but at the end of the day, it’s not producing the type of salaries that set you up for years to come. I wish that was better.”
Even as a child, Robinson knew that at some point, he wasn’t going to be able to depend on soccer as his only source of income. He started teaching during the 1993 offseason, and after his career ended due to a hip injury in 1998, he got a job as the vice principal at Nottingham High School. He has been in the Hamilton school district ever since.
Robinson said he doesn’t think his playing career would have ended differently if the sport were at football and baseball levels of popularity. Still, though, he has great expectations for the future of soccer.
“We put as much work in as other professional athletes,” he said. “We loved the game. I still do. I always hope it can reach the levels of other sports here. I think it’s getting there. I still have hope for the game.”