The party was raging 30,000 feet in the air, far, far above the mass hysteria raging on the ground. Flying from New Orleans back to LAX, fresh off an overtime stunner of an NFC Championship Game, Nickell Robey-Coleman soaked in the moment. Music blared. Players danced. His Los Angeles Rams were going to the Super Bowl, and the blatant pass interference he somehow got away with was a huge reason why.
Amid the beautiful chaos, the 27-year-old slot cornerback decided mid-flight to turn on his Wi-Fi, and...hello.
Notifications tripped over themselves by the dozens. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. All of his accounts were blowing up with messages on a continuous loop and, no, they were not all congratulatory. There was a Saints fan promising to burn his house down. Another vowing to "f--k you up" at the airport. Another telling him he better leave the city ASAP or he "might not see tomorrow." There were countless death threats from what he presumed to be fake names.
Was he shaken? Did he alert authorities?
Uh, no. And no.
He closed his phone and kept celebrating.
"Wolves," he says, "don't concern themselves with the opinions of sheep."
Everyone below might have been up in arms over the egregious non-call heard 'round the world—the cannon blast that should've been flagged, that should've sent the Saints to the Super Bowl. Robey-Coleman, frankly, never gave a damn. Not about those cowards threatening his life or about any of the other sheep, including the Saints themselves.
Not about Sean Payton, whom he's heard whining since the game. "We outplayed them. We out-schemed them. And we outcoached them. ... The Saints need to hold themselves accountable. They did not play championship football. Their numbers were low. Michael Thomas had 36 yards receiving. They had 50 yards rushing. They didn't capitalize on the turnovers we made early. We capitalized on the breaks we got at the end."
Not about Benjamin Watson, who called on the NFL to make a statement. "Ben Watson, you didn't even play! Be quiet. I respect you as a 14-year veteran. I respect you as a league rep. But, no, in this case. No, bro. No, bro."
Not about the league itself for fining him $26,739. He finds it funny the league waited five days to fine him, as if scrambling to put on a Band-Aid only because of the unprecedented public backlash. "It's like, it's like...How could you? Come on. Five days later? I can understand next day." And he finds it downright hilarious that the league technically fined him for targeting. He tilts his head back and howls. "Targeting! Targeting! C'mon man."
Not about anyone still bemoaning the hit itself. "I put his ass on a Waffle House frying pan! It was football! If you don't know the sport, well, then, news flash: We hit people. It's the NFL. And sometimes, we'd rather take a flag and hit somebody than somebody catch and score on us."
Not about that petition with 760,000 (and counting) signatures demanding a do-over. What'd happen if the teams played again? "No ifs. It's irrelevant."
Sitting on the edge of the Rams' practice field end zone on a perfect, breezy, 72-degree late January day, a gorgeous canvass of mountains behind him, he grins. The beauty of this all, to Robey-Coleman, is he can kill 'em with kindness. He has noticed a correlation. The wider he smiles, the more everyone can see he doesn't give a damn, the more pissed everyone gets. So he'll keep smiling, all the way to Super Bowl Sunday.
Because now he's letting everyone know he most certainly does not give a damn about the New England Patriots' mystique, either.
No, he sees a very beatable team and a very beatable, aging quarterback.
He hates the Patriots to his core. That's right: "Hate."
Robey-Coleman, formerly of the Patriots-punching-bag Bills, repeats that word several times.
If you thought the wreckage he left behind in the NFC Championship Game was rough, you haven't seen anything yet. Robey-Coleman wants everyone to picture the the bar fight scene in A Bronx Tale. That's how he envisions Sunday going down. The Rams will be the Italian mobsters at the bar, the Patriots will be the visiting biker gang, and Robey-Coleman will play the role of "Sonny," Chazz Palminteri's character. The neighborhood kingpin.
"We kick 'em out of the bar, beat 'em up—and the one thing he said, he looked down at a guy and said, 'I did this to you.' That's how I want to feel: I did this to you. I did this to you."
As he says this, Robey-Coleman re-enacts the scene. He points an index finger down at the blacktop in front of him, and a twisted smile crosses his face.
The Super Bowl cannot come fast enough.
Soon, he's sure, everyone will know him for far more than one play. He rattles off his duties, one by one—eliminate receivers, mash tight ends with a two-hand shiver, blitz, break on the ball, sacrifice his body against the run, pinball all over the field—and makes it clear he wants to be the new gold standard at his position. A player who's feared. This mentality to "make history," to "change the game" in ways other cornerbacks do not, is what drives him from the moment he wakes up to the moment he falls asleep.
The sound of an engine interrupts Robey-Coleman's train of thought, and Todd Gurley zips by in the end zone in the passenger seat of a cart. "What up, Lifesaver?!" he yells. He's been calling him that all week. Not bad. Robey-Coleman likes it. But he prefers to go by "Slot God." "Robey Island" never sufficed as a nickname because he does so much more. Whatever you call him, though, just know that this 5'8", 180-pound corner oozing with swagger isn't worried about what you or anyone else thinks. His life led him to this moment, and now that he's here, he doesn't intend to shrink in it.
After everything he's been through, you best believe his confidence is bursting.
So move along, Saints.
Nickell Robey-Coleman is on to Atlanta.
Death threats aren't going to faze him. Ever.
Not when he has faced actual death up close. Not when he lost the two people closest to him.
Before this moment in the spotlight, Robey-Coleman had seen the darkness. Twice. First as a senior in high school. Fifteen days after he committed to USC, on Feb. 18, 2010, his mother died from a massive heart attack. Then again just this season. On Nov. 15 of this year, his son died five days after birth.
The reason Robey-Coleman plays and speaks and lives so freely starts here, with tragedy.
He can still remember walking into his mother's bedroom before heading to class, to check on her because she was just in the hospital and had been dealing with high blood pressure. And there Maxine Robey was, passed out on the floor. He called 911. He performed CPR. He tried talking to Mom, but as her lips moved no words came out. An ambulance rushed Maxine to the hospital, and family told Nickell to go to school, to try to take his mind off this.
He couldn't, of course. He soon redirected to the hospital, walked into her room, and there was his mom, his "everything," deceased at 44 years old.
Nickell asked everyone to leave the room for a moment and knelt beside Mom's bed. Right then, he promised her he'd finish college, play in the NFL, live in her honor.
With Dad faded out of the picture, Mom handled it all in their household. Discipline. Empathy. Love. So Robey-Coleman knows his raw fearlessness absolutely comes from Mom, that willingness to attack receivers one-on-one despite being the smallest player on the field as far back as he remembers.
He'd go on to tell USC coaches to stick him on Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd one-on-one, even though Floyd was eight inches taller and 50-plus pounds heavier. He shut him down. He kept a picture of Mom with the letters "R.I.P." on it in his locker. He eventually added Mom's maiden name, "Coleman," to his last name and continues visiting her tombstone in Frostproof, Florida, every chance he can.
To chat. To continue that conversation in the hospital room.
And yet, one promise he made Mom was in question. When he entered the NFL draft in 2013, not a single team was willing to use a pick on him. So to this day, Robey-Coleman still can't get one number out of his head: 254.
That's the number of draft-eligible players this league deemed better than him that year.
It still baffles him. He still can rattle off the names of players who were drafted instead of him.
"It gave me that chip on my shoulder—being undrafted," he says.
What scouts didn't account for was that this was someone who idolized the ultimate lightweight-conquering heavyweights in Allen Iverson, someone who YouTubed clips of Spud Webb winning the NBA's dunk contest and returner Dante Hall dominating at 5'8", someone who took up boxing because he knew he'd need to be the bully and throw the first punch at the line of scrimmage.
He clawed his way onto the Buffalo Bills' roster as an undrafted free agent that year and never looked back.
His attitude fuels his play. He's been saying whatever he wants for years. When a pass interference call on Robey-Coleman cost the Bills a 2015 win in London, against the Jaguars, he shredded the officials. He called it "the worst call I've ever been a part of in my life," and the league basically admitted it was bogus by not fining him for his scathing comments.
He'd be doubted again. One of Sean McDermott's first orders of business in March 2017 was (inexplicably) to release Robey-Coleman. He was quickly scooped up by the Rams and became a voice to follow on one of the league's best defenses, earning a three-year extension ahead of this season. Size be damned.
The Rams have a $135 million defensive tackle (Aaron Donald) and another (Ndamukong Suh) who once inked a deal nearly as large, and they coughed up a load of draft picks for the enigmatic Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and Dante Fowler Jr. But talk to those in the locker room, and this is the kind of personality that was desperately needed. A gnarly, brash throwback who serves as the glue for all of this talent and keeps everyone hungry. Always.
"You need guys like Nickell and the energy that he brings. That spark," says safety Lamarcus Joyner. "Whether you feel like coming to play or not, just seeing him doing his job can always motivate you."
Adds cornerback Troy Hill, "He's got that heart."
Its strength never clearer to teammates than this November, when Robey-Coleman lost his son.
After L.A. took down the Seahawks at home, 36-31, Robey-Coleman received chilling news. His son-to-be, Nickell Jr., was arriving a month early, and an emergency C-section was needed. He arranged for the best medical care possible, then headed to Colorado Springs with the Rams to prepare for their game against the Chiefs. The situation back in L.A. worsened and worsened, though, and on Nov. 15, five days after his son was born, Robey-Coleman hopped on a plane back to L.A. to be there for his son.
Upon landing, he learned Nickell Jr. had died due to collapsed lungs.
"A very, very empty feeling," Robey-Coleman says. "A feeling that I don't want anybody to go through."
Empty because he knew those traits Mom passed on to him—her fight, her determination—were going to live on in his son. Now he was gone too.
Was Robey-Coleman depressed after each of those tragedies? Absolutely. There are days he thinks about the son he won't have a chance to raise. The memories Sr. and Jr. will never share. Just like there are still so many days he thinks back to Mom. To her cooking, to rubbing her sore feet at night, to her unconditional love.
Says Robey-Coleman: "There were times when my son passed that I was depressed. I was down. When Mom passed, I was depressed. I was down."
He misses both, terribly. Losing both grandfathers along the way hurt too.
But he had powered through before, and would again. He played the Chiefs that week.
Hill couldn't believe Robey-Coleman's demeanor in the wake of this tragedy. He inspired everyone. "That's a person you're going to ride with every time," he says. "That's some real stuff that you're going through. And you're still here? I'm going to battle for you. I'm going to go harder for you."
Robey-Coleman says he's as proud of his response to the tragedy as anything he's ever done on the field. He thought about Mom. About his hometown, tiny Frostproof, where he knows so many kids more talented than him never even had a shot. About going undrafted. About Nickell Jr. And he harnessed it all and turned it into motivation. His daily routine, his thought process, the way he treated people, his maturity—"everything changed," he says.
"From that point, I was like, 'You know what, this season has to be the season,'" Robey-Coleman says. "This season has got to be the season. I've got to give it all I've got right here. There's too much going on. I've got to make the world feel this."
He has his chance in a Super Bowl showdown with—who else?—the New England Patriots.
Robey-Coleman wouldn't want it any other way. His animosity for this team was planted the first four years of his pro career.
"I've got Buffalo blood running through my veins, so you know I hate these guys," Robey-Coleman says. "I naturally hate them. I never liked New England."
It's the little things, he explains. The "arrogance." The fact that Bill Belichick is going to go for it on 4th-and-3 when he's leading 17-0 in the fourth quarter. The Patriots love "antagonizing" teams, Robey-Coleman says.
"S--t like that. Little s--t to look down upon a team," he adds. "Little assh--e stuff like that. That's what makes you not like New England."
He does respect the Patriots in this regard: They always seem to throw a punch the opponent doesn't see coming. A swing that catches everyone off guard. Then, for three hours, they proceed to psych teams out. They crawl inside your head, stay there and force you to make the costly mistakes. Suddenly, Dee Ford is lining up offsides, negating what would've been a game-clinching Chiefs pick. Suddenly, the Chiefs are giving up 10 yards and one inch on 3rd-and-10 after 3rd-and-10.
Suddenly, Tom Brady is leaping in celebration en route to a ninth Super Bowl.
Robey-Coleman, though, is ready.
Robey-Coleman has a plan.
When he speaks, he's animated in every possible way. His head bobs. His blond-tipped dreads sway. His cadence is rhythmic, like a boxer rapping into a mic. Sitting here near the field, through the eerie calm before the Super Bowl storm, Robey-Coleman explains that you first must prepare like you've never prepared before to swing at the enemy. The Patriots.
Then, his adrenaline pumps. His right hand balls up into a fist.
He's holding an imaginary knife and staring down an imaginary foe.
Once you've prepared?
"Stick a dagger in them. They're not a team that you want to play around with. Stick the dagger in them and don't leave it in them! Take it out!" says Robey-Coleman, then pulling out his knife. "And let them leak. Let them leak slow. Put the dagger in them, pull it out, and let them leak slow. Just kill 'em slowly. That's how you do them."
He can't even put into words what it'd feel like to take down the Patriots. What a feeling that'd be. All he can do is stumble over his words and muster an "Oh my God" as he looks up into the sky.
All he knows is that he is built to be that virtual dagger in this year's Super Bowl.
"Because I know the art of war," Robey-Coleman says. "I know when to sink my teeth in. And when it's time to take advantage, when somebody's on their heels...you've got to come at them. Stick the dagger in them. Leave no doubt. That's all you've got to say. Leave no doubt. Don't fear, don't fear, don't fear beating the giant. Don't fear beating the GOAT. Don't fear it. Embrace it. Embrace it. Take it in—while you're doing it."
There's zero need to put the Patriots on a pedestal. He knows you cannot play afraid against New England because that's what Brady and Belichick feast on. They sense weakness and attack. So, no, Robey-Coleman won't play scared and won't speak like he's scared, because he sure as hell isn't.
He knows most everyone outside of New England is pulling for the Rams. He says he can feel it.
And it's precisely that vitriol that Brady's feeding off like never before. He's searching for every slight he can, real or perceived, to keep fueling and refueling that legendary fire within.
In other words, you'd think every Ram would be treading extremely carefully all week.
But, no, Robey-Coleman doesn't care. He sees signs that the Rams can get to Brady "all over the place."
"We have to stay connected," he says. "And he will slowly start to reveal himself."
Asked if there are signs that Brady isn't the same Brady, he nods aggressively.
"Yes. Yes. Age has definitely taken a toll. For him to still be doing it, that's a great compliment for him. But I think that he's definitely not the same quarterback he was," Robey-Coleman says. "Movement. Speed. Velocity. Arm strength. He still can sling it, but he's not slinging it as much. Whatever he was doing—because of his age and all that—he's not doing as much of that anymore. He's still doing the same things; he's just not doing as much of it. And sometimes, it's not the sharpest. But it still gets done."
The Chiefs had opportunities and the Chiefs failed to take advantage.
The Falcons were up 28-3, and we all know how that ended.
Robey-Coleman's volume rises.
"You've. Got. To. Take. Advantage."
So no way will that NFC title controversy slow down Robey-Coleman. If anything, it'll speed him up. It'll take him to a new level. Because this is his moment.
His one-on-one assignment Sunday, he knows, will be Julian Edelman, and this is what he says Edelman should fully expect for three hours:
"A savvy football player that's been through a lot, that's hungry, that's willing to do anything to win right now."
This is his season, his moment, and so much has led to it.
Mom will be there with him in Atlanta.
His son, too.
With that, Robey-Coleman jolts to his feet and darts inside to the locker room, where a pack of local reporters are waiting for him to address his fine. As he snakes through the TV cameras, other Rams DBs watch him closely, and Marcus Peters yells from a few lockers away, "Tell them to take it up with your lawyer!" Robey-Coleman is diplomatic. He speaks for about five minutes before heading to his locker and pulling a Money Talks hoodie over his head.
The legacy he envisions for himself is simple. He says he wants to be known as someone who overcame adversity and changed his position. He makes it clear he's not depressed anymore. No, Robey-Coleman hasn't had a bad day in weeks. He tosses clothes into a laundry bin, checks a nearby clock and shoots out the door. A defensive meeting starts in about five minutes.
Robey-Coleman sprints into the dark, cackling with the other corners all the way.
Prepare accordingly, and he believes his dagger moment will come. He'll watch the Patriots bleed. He'll hoist the Lombardi Trophy. And, deep into the night, he'll check his phone, where more trolls will absolutely await.
The language will likely be nasty, and Robey-Coleman won't care. He'll just do what he did before: fire up a live stream, turn the camera on himself and have one reaction.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.