Former Citadel football players Morris Robinson (left) and Tony Cicoria will find themselves on the same playing field for the first time Sunday — a Piccolo Spoleto Spotlight Concert at McAlister Field House, benefiting The Citadel Football Association. Photos by Ron Cadiz and Grace Beahm.
Dr. Tony Cicoria sat at a shiny black concert grand piano and pounded out crashing chords that sounded like rolling thunder.
"My music has a dark side to it," Cicoria said with a chuckle during a quiet moment.
Little wonder. It was, quite literally, a thunderbolt from above that made music a central part of Cicoria's life. A lightning strike 17 years ago nearly took his life -- "a near-death experience," he called it -- and turned a successful orthopedic surgeon into a musical obsessive, and a fascinating case study for neurologists.
For Morris Robinson, a life in music was more of a slow turning. A rumbling bass voice and an early love of gospel, rhythm and blues and hip-hop turned into a busy career singing opera and the classical repertory.
"It's the life of a rock star," Robinson said, "without the millions of dollars."
These two former Citadel football players -- both all-Southern Conference linemen, separated by 17 years -- will unite for the first time Sunday for a Piccolo Spoleto Spotlight Concert at McAlister Field House benefiting The Citadel Football Association.
Their paths to music are each remarkable in their own right.
Cicoria, a 1974 graduate of The Citadel who played under legendary football coaches Red Parker and Bobby Ross, was 42 and a successful orthopedic surgeon in Upstate New York when he was struck by lightning in 1994. He was standing at a pay phone, making a call to his mother.
"An out-of-body experience," he called it. "I could see myself lying there."
A nurse waiting to use the phone revived Cicoria, but his life was changed forever, as detailed by well-known neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sachs in his book, "Musicophlia: Tales of Music and the Brain."
The short version: Cicoria, decidedly nonmusical to that point, developed an overwhelming urge to hear piano music. That turned into a desire to play, and today Cicoria has something of a double life: a practicing surgeon and professor of orthopedics and a performing pianist and composer.
"If ever there was a blessing and curse, this is probably it," Cicoria, now 59, said this week between hours of rehearsal at Fox Music House in North Charleston. "It's added a whole other aspect to my life, and sometimes it competes with what I do for a living. Sometimes it gets tough to manage the time commitments to both. It's like living two lifetimes in one."
Cicoria called the first piano piece he wrote "The Lightning Sonata." The piece he will perform Sunday night with the Piccolo Spoleto Festival Orchestra is as yet untitled, but he wrote it with his son, Chris, a student at the Berklee College of Music.
"I had started to write the first bit of it when he came home for the summer," Cicoria said. "I was in the bedroom and could hear him playing the piano. He was playing what I had just written. Amazing, and we decided then we had to do the piece together. Nobody else has heard it, but we like it."
Cicoria performs only a few times a year, and this will be his first performance with an orchestra. Returning to play at The Citadel for the first time is special, he said.
"The Citadel and I locked horns from the day I got there until the day I left," he said. "But it gave me strength I never really understood the depth of. As I go through my daily life, I feel I can handle almost anything because I have that experience to draw on."
Robinson, a 1991 graduate, played for Charlie Taaffe and helped set the foundation for the Bulldogs' Southern Conference title in 1992. While at The Citadel, he sang in the gospel choir and took music appreciation, discovering an affinity for the classical repertory.
"It was all about gospel and R&B and hip-hop for me growing up, in that order," Robinson said this week from Montreal, where he is singing with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. "But I took a music appreciation class at The Citadel and I aced it. It just seemed to click with me."
After a brief sojourn in the business world -- "company car, sales meetings, the whole thing," he said -- Robinson realized he had to sing. He studied at the Boston University Opera Institute and the Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and has since traveled the world signing the great bass roles.
"We all have things inside us," Robinson said. "I liken Tony's story to mine in a lot of ways. I've always taken to this kind of music, and when you tap into these things, it's very compelling.
"It takes a certain gear, a certain understanding to communicate this stuff. You learn a lot in conservatory and in years of listening to it, but I also feel I was blessed with an ability to just get it."
Robinson has performed at The Citadel before, and said it's always meaningful.
"It's such a great school," he said. "I mean, they don't bring in a lot of kids who think they will be first-round draft picks. They are all smart kids with different backgrounds, and you don't have to fit into that jock mode.
"Look at Tony and me," he said. "We were both jocks, and then music took over."