Oct. 18, 2000
A GENTLE GIANT
By Chas Jordan
At first glance, you may mistake his football headshot, with its big, wide grin, for a picture out of his family photo album. Talk to him on the phone, and you hear the voice of an extremely mild-mannered individual whose friendly and outgoing personality shines through. Ask anyone who coached him here at Virginia, and they will all agree his heart as is as big as he is. Yet, this aptly describes Detroit Lions starting offensive tackle, Ray Roberts, only when he is off the field and away from the game of football. Come Sundays between September and January, the 6-6', 320-pound Ashville, NC., native remains one of the most effective and dominating offensive linemen in the NFL, and this has been the case for the past eight seasons. It is this extreme dichotomy between his on-the-field and off-the-field personas that prompted Roberts to contribute a weekly journal entry to the Lions' official website during the 1997 season. Believe it or not, one of the NFL's toughest, most aggressive players is not afraid to admit he has a soft side.
"I like to let people get to know a little bit of me on a more personal level," said Roberts. "I like to be an approachable person. I like to meet people, I like to talk to people, and I like to make people feel comfortable. You never know what road you might go down [later in life], what may happen, or who you are going to meet, so I did the journal to let people see another side of me."
A four-year letterman at the University of Virginia, Roberts set himself apart as one of the best offensive lineman to ever don the orange and blue. As a senior, he earned first-team Kodak All-America honors and was a finalist for the Lombardi and Outland Trophy, given to the nation's top interior lineman. Selected by the Seattle Seahawks as the 10th overall pick of the 1992 NFL draft, Roberts made an immediate impact, becoming the only offensive lineman in team history to start every game of his rookie season.
Now in his ninth year at the professional level, the former Cavalier standout serves as a seasoned veteran who continues to prove himself as one of the most consistent and dependable offensive lineman in the game. During his lengthy career, Roberts has battled through several injuries, made the difficult transition to a new team, and watched many players come and go. Through it all, the one constant that remains for Roberts is his approach towards achieving success on the football field.
"As far as the game is concerned, nothing has really changed. It is still football, and it still comes down to blocking and tackling," said Roberts. "I may go up against a faster guy or a bigger guy, but it's still football. Some of these offenses, the same plays have been run for 20 or 30 years. So, the only thing that has really changed is the speed and tempo of the game and maybe the attitude of some of the younger guys, being more independent and doing things the way they want to do it."
After starting the first 46 games of his NFL career, Ray Roberts suffered a season-ending injury in week 14 of the 1994 season. Following arthroscopic ankle surgery during the offseason, he returned in '95, but for the first time since his redshirt freshman season at Virginia, Roberts failed to start a contest. After four years in the Seahawks' organization, he knew it was time to move on and make a fresh start. An unrestricted free agent after the 1995 campaign, Roberts sought to find the ideal situation where he could make a smooth, comfortable transition to a new program that would afford him the opportunity to reestablish himself as a top-notch player. Though the Lions' organization fit the profile, the chance to once again play along side a former Virginia teammate and long-time friend proved instrumental in attracting Roberts to the Motor City.
"The key for me coming to Detroit was Herman [Moore]," said Roberts. "I came in, and I probably knew him better than anybody here on the team. The relationship I have with him made the decision to come to Detroit a lot easier."
Though Herman Moore served as an integral part in helping the Detroit Lions acquire Roberts for the 1996 season, it was several other former Virginia players who helped him become accustom to the new organization and acquainted with his new surroundings. In all, nearly half-a-dozen one time Cavaliers appeared on the Detroit roster, making Roberts feel right at home.
"Don Majikowski was here, Greg Jeffries was here, and the year I came here, [the Lions] drafted Chris Harrison. Then, Matt Blundin ended up here, so we had five guys from Virginia that I had played with or had known for quite some time," said Roberts. "It made the transition a lot easier. Had I gone to another team, I don't know exactly how things would have happened. I can't imagine what it would have been like had I gone to a team where I did not know anybody."
Due in large part to the support he received from former Virginia teammates and friends on the Lions' squad, Roberts made a quick, and almost seamless transition into the new organization. He started all 16 games during his first season with Detroit, and remarkably, since joining the Lions prior to the 1996 campaign, Roberts has started 60 of the team's 64 regular season games. The support shown from his network of college friends not only helped pave the way for his immediate and continued success but also left a lasting impression on him. In fact, Roberts went out of his way to show this same type of camaraderie with former Cavalier receiver Germane Crowell when he joined the team in 1998. The offensive lineman immediately took the young rookie under his wing, guiding him through the trials and tribulations of his first season in the NFL. Even though Crowell is now in his third year at the pro level, Roberts continues to offer the advice and constructive criticism needed to help the talented wideout become an even better player.
"He is in a high profile position, and sometimes those guys get their heads in the clouds. Sometimes I have to bring him back down to reality a little bit," said Roberts. "Some games he may not get as many balls as he wants, or maybe he is not happy with the way he played. So, I try to lift him up when he needs to be lifted and pull him down when he needs to be pulled down. I try to be a stabilizer for him. He can be a great player for a long time in this league, he just needs a little direction from time to time."
Yet, Germane Crowell was not the only person looking to Ray Roberts for leadership and guidance throughout the 1998 season. Selected by his teammates to act as one of two offensive co-captains for that particular year, Roberts served as a role model for the entire offense. On the field for every Lions' offensive play in '98, he took the honor of being named co-captain very seriously and worked diligently to become the consummate leader.
"I just try to lead by example. I'm the oldest guy on the offensive line, and I try to work the hardest," said Roberts. "Hopefully, people will notice if the oldest guy is working hard, then maybe the youngest guy should work just as hard."
No matter the degree of success or the amount of impact he has on the field, Roberts will never abandon his amiable disposition, which makes him such a unique and special individual. Though he has established himself as a first-rate offensive lineman, those who know him are always quick to point out his friendly nature and genuine kindness. Once his playing days are over, Roberts hopes to utilize his knowledge of football and his likeable personality in pursuing other career endeavors.
"I majored in communications at Virginia, and that is a field I would like to pursue when my football career is over," said Roberts. "I do not know if it will be on a local level or a national level, but I would not mind doing something in radio or television."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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