In 1937, Robinson enrolled at Pasadena Junior College, moving from football, to basketball, to baseball, and track, at times competing in two sports simultaneously. One day, Robinson set a junior college broad jump record of 25 feet, 61/2 inches, then raced across town to a baseball game to help Pasadena win the league championship. Though baseball was never Robinson's best sport, he stood out on the diamond. His first year at Pasadena, Robinson played shortstop, hit .417, and stole 25 bases in 24 games.
His second year at Pasadena, Robinson ran for more than 1,000 yards to score 17 touchdowns and lead the football team to 11 straight victories. He even returned a kickoff for a 104-yard touchdown. In basketball, he averaged 19 points per game and led Pasadena to the California Junior College championship. That spring, Robinson was named Southern California Junior College MVP after leading the baseball team to the league title, all the while running and jumping for the track team.
Colleges took note of Robinson, and in 1939, he accepted a scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He was a dazzling runner in the open football field. His first season at UCLA, he led the nation with an average of 12.24 yards per carry.
During his time at UCLA, Robinson became the school's first four-letter winner, playing baseball, football, basketball, and track. While at UCLA, he met nursing student Rachel Isum, his future wife.
In spring 1941, seeing no future in athletics or college, Robinson left UCLA. "I was convinced that no amount of education would help a black man get a job," Robinson noted in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made. "I felt I was living in an academic and athletic dream world."
The fate of his older brother, Mack, may have prompted Robinson's disenchantment. Mack Robinson participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, finishing second in the 200-yard dash behind Jesse Owens. When he returned home with his silver medal, Mack Robinson's achievement went mostly unnoticed, and the only work he could find was street sweeping.
After leaving college, Robinson was drafted into the Army in 1942 as the United States became more involved in World War II. Robinson achieved the rank of lieutenant and became a morale officer for a black unit at Fort Hood, Texas, where the Army's policy of segregation finally got the best of him. One day in July 1944, a bus driver at Fort Hood instructed Robinson to move to the back of the bus. Robinson declined and drew a court-martial. Because of Robinson's stature as a respected athlete, the black press took up his cause. Eventually, the Army dropped the charges and granted Robinson an honorable discharge.
In 1945, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs as a shortstop. The Monarchs, led by fireballing pitcher Satchel Paige, were a marquee Negro League team. Little did Robinson know, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey was monitoring his performance.