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Roaf's road to Hall of Fame paved by 13 years of honors

Tuesday, July 31, 2012 | 10:28 p.m. CDT
Former Kansas City Chiefs' offensive lineman Willie Roaf will be inducted the the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend.

NEW ORLEANS — Willie Roaf  might have missed out on a whopping 11 Pro Bowls had he been 2 inches taller.

Fortunately for the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs, Roaf, who loves basketball and says he can still dunk at age 42, stopped growing when he was 6-foot-5.

"If I had been 6-7, I probably would have kept playing basketball," Roaf said in a phone interview with The Associated Press this week. "I just didn't think I was going to be tall enough."

Roaf wound up passing on several basketball scholarship offers and instead focused on football, even though only two schools really wanted him for football: Louisiana Tech and Arkansas State.

Roaf, who grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark., headed to Ruston, La., and to the school where star quarterback Terry Bradshaw had played years earlier.

He could have done worse.

Roaf went on to an honor-filled 13-year NFL career as an offensive tackle, playing nine seasons with the Saints and four with the Chiefs, and working all but his rookie season on the left side of the line.

This Saturday in Canton, Ohio, he'll formally join Bradshaw as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I wouldn't say it's a dream come true because I never dreamt I'd be a Hall of Famer," Roaf said. "Everything progressed one step at a time."

Roaf played most of his career at around 315 pounds, but what separated him from other linemen was the natural athletic ability that had also helped him thrive on the basketball court.

"All offensive linemen are big, strong guys," former Saints coach Jim Mora said. "But Willie was an athlete. This guy had the feet and the quickness and the lateral movement. That's what made him special. There are a lot of guys who weigh 320 pounds, but none of them were athletic as Willie. He could run, he could move, he could block the Lawrence Taylor-type guys and you didn't have to help him out (with an extra blocker) because he was a good enough athlete to do it."

Roaf weighed about 225 pounds during his senior year of high school, which by major college football standards was a little light for an offensive lineman. Louisiana Tech offensive line coach Petey Perot, a former NFL player himself, said the Bulldogs weren't sure at first whether to try Roaf at defensive end or offensive line. Roaf stuck with offense, adding bulk throughout his college career to the point where he was a certain first-round pick heading into the 1993 NFL draft.

New Orleans had broken up the famed "Dome Patrol" linebacker corps, trading Pat Swilling to Detroit, in order to move up in the draft to eighth overall, and was looking closely at Roaf and Washington offensive lineman Lincoln Kennedy for that pick.

Mora said his scouts could not agree which was better, so Mora made a practical decision. He didn't know much about Kennedy's background other than he was from San Diego. Meanwhile, with Roaf having played in Louisiana, Mora had seen more of him, knew he came from a family of achievers — his father is a dentist and his mother was a judge — and figured that Roaf would be more likely than Kennedy to spend more of his offseason working out at team headquarters.

"Local, good family, terrific player, couldn't go wrong," Mora thought.

The only thing Mora was not prepared for was Roaf's gait, which looks more like a strained, hunched-over waddle.

"He walks funny," Mora said. "I'm standing back off the field during the first practice, the week after we drafted, and here comes our No. 1 draft pick and I'm like, 'We drafted some guy that's got bad knees or something.' I thought we made a mistake, but once he got out there you could tell right away there was nothing wrong with him. ... He was a terrific athlete. He had it all. He had everything you need to be a Hall of Fame offensive lineman."

Roaf started immediately at right tackle and moved to left tackle in his second season, his first of seven straight Pro Bowl campaigns. Throughout his career, Roaf was so good that if he was playing, he was starting. He started every one of the 189 games in which he played for New Orleans and Kansas City.

He wound up an All-Pro seven times, including in 2005, his final NFL season.

"I'd like to be remembered as a tough football player who had longevity and was consistent over a long period of time," Roaf said. "When you play for 13 years, you want to be consistent and I was able to walk away on my terms."

Roaf had only two down years, by his lofty standards anyway. The first was 1997 (still a Pro Bowl season), when he said New Orleans' renowned cuisine and nightlife started to get to him, and his weight surpassed 325 pounds. He had a radio talk show that season, and callers weren't shy about telling him his performance had slipped.

"That woke me up," Roaf said.

He responded by attending a weight loss clinic at Duke and came back fit in 1998. In 2000 he was part of the first Saints team to win a playoff game.

In 2001, however, a torn right knee ligament shortened his season, and he was then traded to Kansas City. Before joining the Chiefs, Roaf enrolled at the Duke clinic again and paid for it himself.

He then helped round out one of the most dominant offensive lines in the game, protecting Trent Green's blind side while blasting open holes for Priest Holmes and later Larry Johnson.

In 2003, Roaf helped Holmes set what was then a single-season NFL record with 27 touchdowns.

Roaf suggested he might not be going into the Hall of Fame had he not left New Orleans on a bad note, wanting to prove himself once more.

"I just wanted to come back and really establish myself as one of the best tackles again,"Roaf said. "I still had some football left in me. Going to Kansas City and getting another chance gave me a spark."

Roaf has chosen his father, Clifton, to present him in Canton. Although Clifton Roaf played football at Michigan State, he never pushed football on his sons, focusing more on his dental practice, community involvement and simply being a supportive father.

"He wasn't that type of dad to be out in the yard playing with you. He didn't have to," Roaf said.

Still, his father was his biggest fan, driving to nearly all of his home games in college as well as in the pros. It was about an eight-hour drive from Pine Bluff to New Orleans, or from Pine Bluff to Kansas City.

Roaf said his late mother, Andree, the first black woman appointed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, was not big on sports. She wanted Roaf to be a good student.

Still, he said, "My mother would be proud of me because I did achieve a lot in what I did. It didn't matter whether it was football or a doctor or whatever I would have been, as long as I was successful."


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