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He Might Have Been Great

Do you remember?

I recently saw some footage from a 1983 Yankees game, and I thought it would be a good time to remember Andre Robertson, number 18, and revisit and share with some of our younger readers the tragic event that would change the lives of him, and a young woman named Shenikwa Nowlin.

Looking back, Andre just might have been the bridge between Bucky Dent and Derek Jeter (with maybe a year or two of Spike Owen or Roy Smalley thrown in), he had all the tools to be a star shortstop for many years.

It all started with the death of Thurman Munson on August 2, 1979 which left the Yankees with broken hearts and a void at catcher. Andre became an add-on in the trade that sent Chris Chambliss and Damaso Garcia to Toronto, and brought Rick Cerone to the Yankees.

Cerone went on to be the starting catcher for several years.

For Andre, his defense drew immediate attention in the minors. He made the World Series roster in 1981, and became the Yankee starting shortstop in 1983.

He quickly became a central part of the team with his defense and strong arm, and was hitting over .290 before two hit-by-pitches slowed him down that summer.

In August, the Yankees were in a tight race with the up and coming Blue Jays, Tigers and Orioles in the AL East, and had the Tony LaRussa managed White Sox coming to town. On the night of August 17, a 13 inning game that ended after midnight when the Sox beat the Yankees, he showered, dressed and left the stadium close to 1:00 AM.

He had plans to meet an old friend after the game who was in town visiting from Texas, where Andre grew up. Her name was Shenikwa Nowlin and she was a law student at The University of Texas, a ballet dancer, former beauty pageant winner, cheerleader and the girlfriend of Philadelphia Eagle tight end Lawrence Sampleton.

As he took her sightseeing, they drove down the West Side Highway in the early morning hours near 72nd St. as a dangerous curve loomed in the distance. Andre didn’t react quick enough to the turn and his 1982 Buick Riviera crashed into the concrete median, then into another barrier, then completely flipped over, throwing both of them onto the highway.

It was estimated that they were traveling 70 MPH in the 55 MPH zone. No alcohol or drugs were involved. No seat belts were worn. It was just a terrible accident caused by non-familiarity of the road, and what was eventually proven in court to be poor warning signs on the road.

Andre suffered a broken neck, cracked ribs, and a right-shoulder injury that would never allow him to throw a baseball the same way again. Doctors told him that he’d been “a millimeter from paralysis or death”.

Shenikwa went into a coma, her spine was crushed, and she became paralyzed from the waist down.

Her dreams of a career in ballet were instantaneously erased. She suffered through years of depression and pain after the accident.

She ended up suing the City of New York and eventually became a lawyer.

The Jurors ruled that New York City was mainly liable for her injuries because the sign indicating the tough turn did not provide sufficient warning to motorists, and that was why Andre had the accident. He was considered partially responsible because he was speeding.

For Andre, the loss was not the use of his legs, but the loss of his promising big-league career and the millions of dollars in earning potential that go with it. Even more, the agony of having to live with his friend’s paralysis affected him immensely.

Over the next year he healed up better than most doctors thought he would, got stronger and returned to the Yankees in 1984. Unfortunately, he was not even close to being the same player he once was, as his arm strength and agility were significantly reduced.

The following year he had a promising spring training in 1985, then tore up his knee and required surgery.

As a part time player in 1985 he managed to hit .328, but at age 27, with a damaged throwing arm, shoulder and torn up knee, he was regarded more as a utility player, last man off the bench type, than an everyday shortstop.

Quite a change from just two years prior.

He got traded with Ken Griffey, Sr. to the Braves for Claudell Washington and Paul Zuvella on June 30, 1986, then bounced around the minors for four long seasons, never to play in the major leagues again.

One single event destroyed the future of two young adults on their way to bright careers and living out their dreams.

No one knows how his career would have been had the accident not occurred. Some scouts were very high on him, and others felt he lacked the discipline at the plate to be a consistent hitter at the major league level.

Regardless, at that time he was considered a top prospect and became the starting shortstop. He was supposed to be Willie Randolph’s double play partner for many years to come, and was already a hitting student of Lou Piniella and Dave Winfield.

He played second base on July 4, 1983 behind Dave Righetti’s no hitter and went 1 for 3 with a key RBI.

After he retired, he went back home to Texas, worked at a factory, earned his college degree, and lived in a modest small-town, with his family and friends.

Nowlin lives with her family in Dallas, practicing law.

When asked once if he felt bitter he said “How can I be bitter?” “I got to do what I dreamed of doing. How many people get to say that?”

A truly sad story.


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