It might have been a perfect way to end a two-month summer visit with his father in Florida.
It was 1987, just before Ronnie Robinson was to return home to Mount Airy, where he and his mother had moved a year earlier from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Ronnie and his father were scuba diving when a treacherous rip tide came up. Both were in the water.
Charles Ronnie Robinson yelled for his son, who is 80 percent deaf, to get out of the water. But young Ronnie had gone deeper, out of sight in calmer water, and when he didn't respond Charles went after him, but found neither Ronnie nor safe water.
Fourteen-year-old Ronnie Robinson, alone with strangers and in the muffled quiet of the hearing impaired, identified his father's body.
For a while afterward, said his mother, Patricia Spencer, Ronnie became quiet and bitter. Ronnie doesn't like to talk about it.
About a year later, an uncle Ronnie was close to, a Prince George's County policeman, burned to death inside his police cruiser. Again, said his aunt, Betty Spencer, Ronnie became quiet.
Ronnie doesn't like to talk about it.
"Athletics -- I think that's the only thing that kept him going," his mother said.
Now 17 and a senior running back at South Carroll, Robinson hasn't let his hearing loss isolate him nor his personal losses crush him. Instead, at 6 feet 1, 180 pounds, he has become one of the area's top backs with 640 yards rushing on 103 carries and just one fumble. He has eight touchdowns, all on the ground, kicked seven of nine extra points, and kicked a 27-yard field goal against North Carroll on his first-ever attempt to rank among the scoring leaders with 58 points.
He rushed for 206 yards against Glenelg, including a season's best 69-yard touchdown play, 100 yards against Centennial and 128 against Liberty.
No one at South Carroll (4-2) expected it. But few understood that the perseverance Robinson showed in the classroom, where he must read lips to pick up what other students hear, would help him develop his football talents.
"If you'd told me last year that he would start this year, I wouldn't have believed it," said assistant coach Joe Foltz, who also teaches Robinson three hours a day in electronics, where he's a B student. "He fumbled a lot; he couldn't function in the cold; he wasn't tough."
Robinson worked hard to make last year's team, and even started a couple of games, said Cavaliers head coach Ken Parker. Still, this year, "Some of the coaches were reluctant to give him the opportunity," Parker said.
But they didn't see what Parker saw. "I noticed last year that the players really like him, and he appreciates their blocking. He gives them credit . . . I knew the kid could run, but he came back this year with a lot of confidence. All summer he came to weight-training."
"I worked real hard this summer," Robinson said. "I read a book on summer conditioning Coach Parker gave me."
He worked full-time at a McDonald's this summer to help at home. But when he came up short to pay for a physical for football, Robinson earned it by raking leaves and cutting grass for Parker.
And a benefactor enabled him to attend a two-day kicking camp at University of Maryland. "They teach you how to keep your head down and your shoulders squared," Robinson said. "It helped the most with my concentration."
In fact, he has been honing his concentration for years. Robinson's 80 percent hearing loss was diagnosed when he was 4. Tests were conducted, but the doctors couldn't find a cause. The family was told it was permanent.
When he was 5, his mother said, he was taught sign language but has forgotten it. Years of work with speech and hearing specialists have developed his lip-reading and speaking skills. He has sets of hearing aids for both ears but, his mother said, declines to wear them because, "some kids make fun of him."
"It's not hard to read lips through the helmet," Robinson said. "My quarterback can talk real well."
Joe Goodwin is the Cavaliers' quarterback. "In the huddle I always try to look right at him and make sure I have eye contact on every play," he said. "On audibles, I try to scream real loud, and he hears it every time." In truth, Robinson admits that sometimes he reads the fullback to know where to go.
Parker marvels that he hasn't missed an assignment, that he has surprised everyone. But Robinson's success has gone beyond yards and touchdowns. "It's enriched our football team," Parker said.
Goodwin, himself a gifted student and athlete, appreciates his friend's achievements this year. "When you look at Ronnie, it makes you realize what you can accomplish if you use what's there," he said. "It excites us to see him do well because we know the type of person he is. It's just a great feeling to see him go into the end zone and come off [the field] all smiles. It gives me a great feeling, and I know the line is the same way."
On Tuesday, Robinson was named male student of the month at South Carroll. There was a ceremony, and his mother was there. He didn't know the award was coming and he was thrilled.
"A lot of times people overlook you growing up, and I think he wants to prove he can do it," said Betty Spencer, Robinson's aunt. "A lot of times you're not treated fair. Ronnie says it -- not in those words -- but if you sit and watch him, that's what he's doing."