Photo: Willie Roaf in Canton
“The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.” – Mark Twain
By Tom Shanahan
Let your mind wander for the length of this story to ponder the credible versus incredible. This story is about Willie Roaf, Michigan State and “what if” former Spartans coach George Perles wasn’t distracted and his assistants didn't turn lazy.
How would Roaf -- a Pro Football Hall of Famer of 13 NFL seasons inducted in 2012 and College Football Hall of Famer out of Louisiana Tech enshrined in 2014 -- have looked in Michigan State’s green and white?
“Oh, you know I would have been happy to go to Michigan State,” Willie told me. “I didn’t have big schools recruiting me. But Louisiana Tech turned out to be perfect for me. They took the time to develop me. I needed the individual attention I got there.”
Well, in fiction, it’s credible to imagine Roaf having played offensive tackle for the Spartans as a legacy recruit from 1989 to 1992.
His father, Clifton Roaf, made a phone call in 1988 to the Duffy Daugherty Building – named for the coach that recruited him out of the segregated South in 1959 as the first passenger on his Underground Railroad teams. He asked about sending film of his son out of Pine Bluff, Ark. He was proud to provide his alma mater the inside track on his son.
In reality, though, it’s incredible to hear how an assistant coach on Perles’ staff thoughtlessly dismissed Clifton Roaf over the phone: “We don’t recruit Arkansas.”
Mark Twain would have chuckled at such reality vs. fiction irony.
Clifton Roaf told me the story when I researched and wrote “Raye of Light,” my book about Michigan State’s leading role in the integration of college football.
Although Clifton hurt his knee and never played for the Spartans, he remained indebted to the school. He earned his degree, returned home to Pine Bluff and served his community as a dentist for 40-plus years. He passed away Sept. 12, 2017 at age 76.
I recently had a chance to ask Willie about Michigan State and his father’s hope to send him to East Lansing. I interviewed him for a Detroit Free Press story on the Lions’ first-round draft pick, Frank Ragnow, an Arkansas offensive lineman that won the Willie Roaf Award presented by the Little Rock Touchdown Club.
In fairness to the Perles assistant, unsolicited phone calls from proud fathers can be burdensome. But in the retrospect, we know now that Perles, at the very least, was distracted.
He began to use the 1987 Rose Bowl season to play off NFL interest for a bigger contract. Power plays followed for the dual role of football coach and athletic director. Without his attention to detail, the Spartans began to slide.
In the 1991 and 1992 seasons, which were Roaf’s redshirt junior and redshirt senior seasons at Louisiana Tech, Michigan State plummeted to 3-8 and 5-6. Perles was fired two years later after 6-6 and 5-6 records.
For Roaf to commit to Michigan State, all the Spartans had to do was view tape his father was willing to provide. They would have seen a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder that was athletic enough to star on his high school basketball team. And if they met Clifton Roaf after the phone call, they would have seen Willie had the frame of his father to bulk up to a lineman.
That’s how sleepers are found.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, now in his 12th season, is still turning over rocks despite three Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl championship and a College Football Playoff berth.
Kenny Willekes, a walk-on defensive end, was a key to the Spartans’ 10-3 record in 2017. More directly related to Roaf, Dantonio’s staff developed Jack Conklin from walk-on in 2012 into an All-American left tackle and NFL first-round draft pick by the Tennessee Titans.
Roaf’s progression began when Louisiana Tech saw his potential and offered him a scholarship. He was so raw he was redshirted his first year on campus in 1988, but that year practicing and not playing allowed him time to develop into a four-year starter. His 6-foot-5 frame grew from 236 pounds as a redshirt freshman to 268 as a sophomore, 275 as a junior and 290 his senior season in 1992 (he played at 320 in the NFL).
He was no longer under the radar.
“My sophomore year we played Maryland in the Independence Bowl,” Roaf said. “I knew then there weren’t a lot guys in the country as athletic and as big as I was or could run like I could. I knew I had a chance to play pro. How high I didn’t know – maybe the top three rounds.”
In the 1993 NFL Draft, he was a first-rounder as the eighth pick overall and the first offensive lineman taken, one spot ahead of College Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy. He wasn't a bad pick either, enjoying an 11-year NFL career with three Pro Bowl seasons.
As a senior in 1992, Roaf was a consensus first-team All-American pick and Outland Trophy Award finalist. The season included a play against Alabama that would have gone viral, but 1992 pre-dated the social media era.
Alabama was on its way to an unbeaten national championship under Gene Stallings when Louisiana Tech traveled at midseason to face the Crimson Tide at Legion Field in Birmingham. Alabama managed only a 13-0 win on a day Roaf was lined up opposite defensive end Eric Curry, the fifth pick of the 1993 draft.
Roaf delivered a block that knocked off Curry’s helmet. The helmet bounced on the turf, but the game wasn’t televised. In a later time, think of ESPN showing the play on a loop similar to how the cable network replayed South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney knocking the helmet from Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl.
But there was another reason Roaf was off the recruiting radar coming out of high school despite his prodigious potential: His heart wasn’t in football. His first love was basketball.
“I could put the ball on the floor and I was a good rebounder,” Roaf said. “I was athletic and quick; I ran a 4.9 (40 for football). I would have had to develop a jump shot, but I think I could have gone to the next level.”
A recruiting letter from Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, a Basketball Hall of Famer, bolstered Roaf’s belief his future was on the hardwood. Calhoun must have pictured Roaf as a burly Wes Unseld.
Roaf also heard from University of Central Arkansas coach Don Dyer, who is known for turning out NBA star Scottie Pippen when it was an NAIA school. Dyer wanted Roaf to play for him.
“When I went into the Arkansas Hall of Fame,” Roaf said, “Don Dyer told me if I had come to UCA and played basketball for him, I’d have still have gotten into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.”
But as Roaf played his high school senior year, interest from college coaches mysteriously dried up. Later, he learned his father instructed his high school coach to screen his basketball recruiting mail. The late 1980s wasn’t that long ago, but it was a primitive era compared to today’s Internet and social media connections.
“If I had known about other schools recruiting me, I probably would have taken a basketball scholarship,” Roaf said. “But my dad knew my future was in football. My dad was right.”
The message started to sink after his first academic quarter at Louisiana Tech.
“At first they told me at Tech I could play both sports,” Roaf said. “But after that first quarter, I didn’t go to class the way I should have. I realized I couldn’t go to school and play two sports. It definitely wasn’t going to happen.”
But it didn’t hurt his future being a multi-sport athlete in high school.
“Basketball really helped me with my footwork and athleticism,” he said. “It translated well over to football.”
Clifton Roaf knew more than his son, not to mention Michigan State’s coaches.
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Upon retiring following the 2005 season, Roaf flirted with the real estate business. He also tried coaching at Santa Monica Junior College until he needed back surgery.
But in the last couple years Roaf, 48, and a partner started an NFL-related business, Frame Your Game (@frame_your_game). They specialize in novelty license plate frames.
“We’re making progress,” he said. “People like it. We can put players’ images on your plates or you can put a selfie on the plate. We’re the first company to do that. Or you can put it on your wall at home. There are multiple uses.”
The key is the business has NFL approval to use logos.
“This keeps me involved with the game and going back to the stadium,” Roaf said. “I enjoy seeing the fans and interacting. I’m on social media now.”
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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055
Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.