By anyone’s standards, former New Orleans Saints great and NFL Hall of Famer Willie Roaf was a remarkable talent. After all, of the millions of men that have played football, there have only been 318 people enshrined in the hall. But when you remove the gold jacket, peel away the countless awards and put down the astonishing stats, what’s left? Underneath it all is Willie, a grounded and humble man who didn’t necessarily choose the easy road from Pine Bluff, Arkansas to Canton, Ohio, but did have the talent, the support and the desire to persevere throughout his journey.
Life of a Saint: Willie Roaf
“Dad was at every game. He would sit by the sideline and if we would start messing up he would come over to the bench and start yelling at us, chewing us out, right there during the game”, Roaf offered, speaking about his father, Dr. Clifton Roaf. The words of his father were always hard to ignore for Willie Roaf. Aside from his father being an accomplished football player during his own playing days, he was also an accomplished man.
Growing Up with Remarkable Parents
Clifton Roaf was also raised in Pine Bluff and saw his parents struggle, working at one of the local lumber mills making $12 per week. Seeing the path his father took with limited education, Dr. Roaf was motivated to take a different path. He eventually found his way to Michigan State University, attaining his education and becoming one of the first African-American athletes to play for the Spartans. Eventually, he would go on to become a business owner, starting his own dental practice. The hard work and dedication displayed was not lost on a young Willie Roaf.
Willie Roaf also grew up with an extremely accomplished mother, Dr. Andree Layton Roaf. She also attended Michigan State, studying zoology and becoming a biologist. Eventually, she decided to change careers, went to law school and graduated second in her class. Dr. Roaf would go on to become the first African-American woman to serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court. Her influence was just as vital in Willie Roaf’s development.
Willie Roaf still looks upon Pine Bluff, AK very fondly. He recalled his early playing days, stating, “It was a lot of fun. We (local kids) played a lot of sports. I played football since I was about 10 years old. We were very competitive and the kids in the neighborhood loved to get after it. School was important, but sports was very important to us.”
Aside from football, Roaf also had a love for basketball. The 6’5” Roaf mentioned, “. I always tell people, if I had been about 6’7”, I would have stuck with basketball. Basketball was a challenge, but I was real long, real strong and really quick, and I could handle the ball and shoot a little bit.” While his love for the game grew, it never took a back seat to the importance of his scholastics. “My mom would always be on us about our grades. In fact, my sophomore year, my grades slipped some and my mom came in and took me off the basketball team. I didn’t get to play basketball my sophomore year because I let my grades slip. I did better after that, but she took me out of the gym,” Roaf shared.
Roaf at Louisiana Tech
Willie Roaf, despite success on the football field in high school, wasn’t getting a lot of national attention. His 6’5, 225-pound frame was not the stereotypical build of a Penn State or Nebraska offensive lineman. But one school jumped at the opportunity to score the Arkansas native. “Louisiana Tech was the only offer I had,” Roaf said. Arkansas made a play late for Roaf’s services but were only offering a walk-on opportunity. Louisiana tech would ultimately score their lineman.
When Roaf was asked about how he transformed from this long, lean lineman into the prototypical NFL-sized tackle, he answered, “I didn’t want to work out in high school. I just wanted to play basketball. When I got to college, I really hit the weights hard.” He then joked, “And also, I was in college, drinking beer and eating, doing the things as you get older that I wasn’t doing as a young kid.”
Roaf Preparing for the NFL
While the advantages of playing in a pro-style offense at Louisiana Tech certainly helped, transforming into an NFL-ready lineman had its challenges. Gaining additional weight, speed and power were only some of the obstacles Roaf faced. Most notably for Roaf, it was the adjustment to the NFL season length. “(At LA Tech) Our season was over in early November. We played 11 games, seven on the road and four at home,” Roaf stated. Aside from playing in the Independence Bowl in 1990, the season would consist of just those 11 games. Roaf also spoke about the challenge of learning the details of difference blitz packages.
Time was not a luxury for Roaf as he headed into the draft. He was forecast to be a top-10 pick in the NFL draft which meant that he’d most likely walk directly into a starting role.
Roaf in the Big Easy
The New Orleans Saints traded up to the eighth pick in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft to grab Willie Roaf. They traded away legend Pat Swilling to attain the pick from the Detroit Lions. The pressure of being a first round pick, being a day-1 starter and essentially being “the guy they traded Pat Swilling for” didn’t seem to faze Roaf. He was just excited to being in the NFL and staying local. “I was very happy I ended up going to the New Orleans Saints, being from Louisiana Tech and being from Arkansas. I was very happy about that.”
Roaf’s ties to the legendary Dome Patrol didn’t stop there. Roaf laughed as he shared, “At that time I was neighbors with Vaughan Johnson. Vaughan would say, ‘Come here rookie and take me places’, and I’d have to go pick him up and take him where he wanted me to take him.” Roaf had a ton of respect for the veterans on the defensive side of the ball, mentioning Vaughan Johnson, Wayne Martin, Sam Mills, Jim Wilks, Rickey Jackson and Frank Warren as guys he looked up to. While he also mentioned Eric Martin and Hoby Brenner as additional players he admired, he stressed how impressive those defensive players were to be around.
Facing Mora’s Defense Every Day
The good news for Willie Roaf is that he didn’t have to deal with a young, lean Reynaldo Turnbull at practice every day on his side of the line. The tradeoff? Wayne Martin and Rickey Jackson. Roaf recalled, “Going against Rickey Jackson and Wayne Martin every day, that’s who I practiced against and they were two of the best football players on our team. That’s what really helped me get ready. And when the coaches saw me practicing and holding my own against those guys, that’s when they knew I was going to be able to play at a high level my rookie year.”
Roaf would hold his own and wouldn’t miss a snap his rookie season. Aside from practicing against some of the best defenders in the league every day, Roaf also gives credit to one of his coaches for his development into an elite tackle. “I had a real good relationship with John Matsko. He knew how to talk to me and I really blossomed under Matsko. He was really good for me my second and third year before Mora left. Then he went to the Rams and coached Orlando Pace and ended up getting a Super Bowl ring. John Matsko was very detail-oriented on my assignments. He knew how to push my buttons to get me going. He was just a really good coach for me.”
The Highs and Lows of New Orleans
Following the departure of Jim Mora and a few disappointing seasons under Mike Ditka, the Saints players found themselves under the tutelage of head coach Jim Haslett. Haslett brought immediate success to the Saints with a 10-6 record and notching the franchise’s first ever playoff victory. Roaf remembered, “That was great. I was happy for the fans because the Saints had been there a few times but hadn’t got that win. It was great beating the Rams because they had won a Super Bowl the year before that.” He then added, “What happened was, in ’99 Atlanta went to the Super Bowl. Then in 2000, the Rams went. We were in the same division as these teams. We thought, ‘Well, everyone else is doing it. We need to step up.’”
That playoff win would end up being the high-water mark for the Saints under Jim Haslett’s leadership. And as things began to unravel a bit for the Saints in 2001, they also did for Roaf. “I had been in New Orleans for a while. I had gone through some stuff down there. It was time for me to make a change. A lot of people know that my personal life had been put on display and things weren’t in the best place. Some of that got brought out in New Orleans and I wasn’t happy about that.”
Roaf also cited the New Orleans Saints being unable to accurately diagnose a knee issue as another reason to leave. “You couldn’t tell by the way my MRI looked, but I was playing with a torn ACL. When I went to see Dr. Andrews after Thanksgiving, he saw it was torn at the top, not in the middle. So, I was kind of mad that I was playing with my knee torn up. That was the deciding factor in me saying that I didn’t want to go back there. After the surgery, I told them I wasn’t going to play there anymore, and they worked out the trade at the last minute.”
Roaf was headed to Kansas City.
Roaf Finishes Out his Career
Following knee surgery, Roaf would go on to have four incredible years with the Kansas City Chiefs. As he retired from the game in 2005, he left a staggering amount of accomplishments in his wake. Over the 200 starts (189 regular season, 8 Pro Bowls, 3 playoff games) in his 13-year career, Roaf accumulated 11 Pro Bowls, nine All-Pro nominations (6 first-team), is a member of countless Halls of Fame, Saints Ring of Honor member and a member of two different NFL All-Decade teams (90’s, 2000’s). In 2012, he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
Regarding the Hall of Fame, Roaf stated that the best part about being in that fraternity is hearing the stories from the fellow inductees every year. “I love talking to guys like Earl Campbell and Fred Bilentikoff. You hear those stories. Dick Butkus doesn’t come back every year, so sitting with Dick Butkus was great. I just like sitting with those old guys, hearing what they went through. The Hall of Fame is a great bonding experience”
Roaf also spoke about how special each year is to him, citing, “Two of my classmates from the 2012 class passed away in Cortez Kennedy and Jack Butler, and Chris Doleman had brain surgery. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so you have to appreciate every year.”
Like many other football legends, Willie Roaf accumulated some nicknames throughout his career. “It was ‘The Duke’ in college,” Roaf said. When asked to explain where that nickname came from, Roaf offered, “When I got tired, I’d walk sideways and lean to the side. So, the team and coaches would call me John Wayne or Duke. When I got drafted by the Saints, Coach Mora comes out to practice and sees me at mini-camp. Well, it’s hot out there. When I get tired, I start walking funny, limping or whatever. So, Mora thought I was injured. He said, ‘Damn. We just drafted this kid from LA Tech and he’s injured.’ He didn’t know.”
“The nickname ‘Nasty’ came toward the end of my career in Kansas City. During the game or practice, I would have to use the bathroom. I would just take a knee with a pee bottle or something. So, the guys would just tease me and call me ‘Nasty’ because of some of the things I did,” Roaf added.
These days, the 49-year old Roaf has traded in those nicknames in favor of ‘Grandpa” to his granddaughter, Grace Michelle. Willie and his wife, Angela Hernandez Roaf, are also expecting their first grandson, Elijah Michael, on May 1st.
Willie Roaf’s parents stressed the importance of education throughout his life. After all, it was education that allowed his family to prosper and help so many others. Roaf would be the first to tell you that he didn’t always put education first, but that didn’t deter his father from being there for Willie every step of the way. “My dad was at every game. My dad missed one home game in my career. One. He was at all my high school games. When I was at Louisiana Tech, he would drive two hours and come to every game. When I got to the New Orleans Saints, my dad was at every game. He only missed one game because my brother was playing in Arkansas. When I got to Kansas City, he would go up through Fayetteville on an 8-hour drive and never missed one game. So, my dad only missed one home game the whole time I played. Then he would get in the car and drive home and go to work on Monday at the dentist office. He was very dedicated to it.”
Roaf then jested, “He would come to the games and wear my jersey to every game. My friends didn’t want to sit beside him at the games in New Orleans because he be yelling, hitting the chair, hitting people and getting really wrapped up.“
Roaf then went on to describe how his father was hurt in college and never got the opportunity he got, despite being a gifted football player. “He would always say to me that God sent me here to finish what he started.”
Willie Roaf unfortunately lost his mother three years prior to being enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame, but it was fitting that his father was standing right by his side for the ceremony. In fact, Roaf was enshrined by his father. “We went on that journey together. That’s why he enshrined me.”
Dr. Clifton Roaf passed away in September of 2017. While going through such tragedies are never easy, Willie Roaf was comforted by the message his father had given him before he parted. “My dad was so happy with me because I got married and have two daughters here living with me. He was so happy I had a God-fearing wife in my life and that my life was coming closer to God as I got older. My dad was happier about the direction my life is going now, before he died, than whatever I did on the football field.”