This article appears in the Sept. 17, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated
The plates had been cleared, the detritus of a players-and-coaches enchilada feast washed down the drain. West Virginia's cornerbacks had gone home to rest for the next day's spring practice. Daron Roberts, their 33-year-old position coach, sat at his dining-room table with graduate assistant Andrew McGee. Roberts listened as McGee ticked off the difficulties a young coach encounters. Brutal hours. Little or no pay. No health insurance.
"You sure you want to do this, man?" Roberts asked McGee. Then Roberts laughed.
If anyone is qualified to ask that question, it's Roberts. He answered it five years earlier when he passed up a $250,000 job offer and a future few could even dream of to show up at a Kansas City Chiefs' camp for a three-week internship that offered no guarantees beyond it. Consider the following:
Résumé A: B.A. in political science from Columbia; J.D. from Harvard; president of Harvard Law Review
Résumé B: B.A. in Plan II (honors interdisciplinary major) and government from Texas; student-body president at Texas; M.A. in public policy from Harvard; J.D. from Harvard
The first résumé is that of President Obama. The second belongs to Daron Roberts. "He's the overachiever of all overachievers," says West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen.
Roberts, the pride of Mount Pleasant, Texas, son of a soil scientist and a teacher and the great-great-grandson of a slave, might have become a senator. He might have become the governor of Texas. He might have become a Supreme Court justice. All were among his career goals at one time or another, and he was well on his way to any one of them.
After graduating from Texas, Roberts worked for eight months on Capitol Hill in the office of Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, before returning to school to earn his master's from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. From there it was on to Harvard Law, after which the real world would welcome him with promises of huge private-sector salaries (median starting salary for a Harvard Law grad: $160,000) or boundless public-sector possibilities.
But in 2006, during his second year of law school, Roberts took a class taught by Paul Weiler, the father of modern sports law. For his final paper Roberts wanted to examine if legal training could help a football coach. He sent interview requests to three college coaches who held law degrees: UCLA's Rick Neuheisel (USC, 1990), Louisiana Tech's Derek Dooley (Georgia, 1994) and Texas Tech's Mike Leach (Pepperdine, 1986). Neuheisel didn't respond. Dooley couldn't make time. Roberts held out hope for Leach.
Through a friend of a friend, Roberts procured a phone number with a Lubbock area code. He was told to call and let it ring. There would be no voice mail. Within two minutes he would receive a call back. So Roberts dialed the number at 9:30 one night. The phone rang. He hung up. Sure enough, at 9:32 he got a call back. Roberts barely spit out his reason for phoning before Leach began peppering him with questions. What was your favorite 1L class? Do you ever go to Harvard Square and watch the chess players? "We talked for an hour and half," Roberts says.
The perpetually inquisitive Leach found in Roberts a kindred spirit and could appreciate a man who made a childhood promise to visit all seven continents before his 30th birthday and fulfilled the task. Roberts arranged for a weeklong visit to Lubbock. "I ended up going for two weeks," Roberts says. "The most amazing two-week period of my life." Roberts shadowed Leach as he analyzed game video, hosted high school coaches and dealt with players.
The visit awakened something dormant in Roberts. Despite his achievements, he always considered his greatest accomplishment being named a first-team all-district strong safety as a high school senior. But Roberts gave up football after he was recruited only by tiny Austin College in Sherman, Texas. As he watched Texas Tech coaches work during his visit to Lubbock, he wondered if he might love coaching more than the law. He resolved to examine the possibility that summer.
Alfonso Longoria, Roberts' childhood best friend and high school teammate, had gone into coaching. Longoria had a job coaching at South Carolina's summer camp for high schoolers in 2006. After hearing Roberts rave about his time in Lubbock, Longoria invited him to come along and work the camp as well. Roberts, at the time an summer associate at the Fulbright & Jaworski law firm in Houston, called in sick and flew to South Carolina. Within hours he met Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier and sat in on a defensive meeting. Within days he was hooked. Longoria chuckled as he watched Roberts chide and encourage the defensive backs. "He was coaching his heart out," Longoria says. "He probably didn't even know what he was saying." Roberts and Longoria spent their final night of the camp in the defensive coordinator's office talking schemes, and after they left the office, the pair stayed up until 4 a.m. discussing what they'd learned.
Later that summer, on a flight to Boston, Roberts resolved that after graduation, he would become a football coach. The first thing he had to do, though, was make one difficult phone call: to his parents.
His mother, Gwen, answered. Daron told her, "So, I'm going to be a football coach." Gwen thought it was wonderful that her son might help youth players in his free time. Daron stopped her. "I'm going to do it now," he said. After nine years of higher education, after receiving a degree from one of the world's most prestigious law schools, Daron would begin his professional life as a football coach. He can still hear his mother's next words.
"Kirt!" she cried to her husband. "Get on the phone!"
Once they recovered from the shock, Roberts' parents did not get angry. They did not try to discourage their son. Kirt and Gwen had always encouraged their son to explore, to find his own path. "You can watch TV," Kirt always told Daron, "but all you'll know is what they tell you." Besides, Daron would still have a Harvard law degree. He could afford to experiment.
During his third year of law school he wrote letters to every head coach and defensive coordinator in the NFL and to the head coaches and defensive coordinators at 50 FBS programs. Longoria had advised Roberts to differentiate himself by playing up the Harvard angle, and LSU assistant coach Bradley Dale Peveto had told Roberts he'd have to offer to work for free. He did both in those 164 letters.
Roberts received his share of thank-you-for-your-interest form letters, but not from Herm Edwards, coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, who'd learned from Tony Dungy to look for something unusual in aspiring coaches. As Edwards lined up interns for the Chiefs' 2007 training camp, he came across Roberts' letter. When the phone rang in Cambridge, Mass., in March 2007, Roberts heard the voice on the other end and assumed he was getting pranked. "You're too smart to be a football coach," Edwards remembers saying. "You've got better sense than that. Why do you want to be a football coach? Why do you want to suffer?" Once Roberts realized he was actually on the phone with the coach of the Chiefs, he convinced Edwards he wasn't some sort of sports voyeur or wannabe general manager. Edwards rewarded him with a training camp internship that paid a $2,500 stipend.
Roberts received his law degree on June 7, 2007. He was scheduled to report to Chiefs camp in River Falls, Wis., on July 26, but the first day of camp fell on the final day of the Texas Bar exam, which he had vowed to take. He asked his father if he should request permission to report late. No, Kirt said, the coaches would never take him seriously if he blew off the first day of camp. "You've crossed the Rubicon, son," Kirt said.
Still, Roberts arrived to an icy reception. Chiefs coaches knew his story, and they didn't believe he wanted to put in the work required to reach their level. He showed them otherwise. Edwards exercised at 4:30 a.m., so Roberts exercised at 4:30 a.m. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham watched practice video in the predawn hours, so Roberts joined him-and made certain to brew coffee and have the projector warmed up before Cunningham entered the room. Roberts didn't talk much. He listened.
In mid-August, the internship over, Roberts received the one-way plane ticket he had dreaded. He would have to continue his coaching dream elsewhere. But rather than accept his fate, he went to Edwards and pleaded: He would require no salary, no team clothing, no computer-only a chance. Edwards said yes, but with conditions. Roberts would work (for nothing) from before dawn until early afternoon. Then he would assist (for nothing) at Bishop Miege High, in nearby Roeland Park, Kans., to gain on-field experience. After that he would return to Arrowhead Stadium and work (for nothing) deep into the night. Roberts didn't even pause. He said thank you and went back to work.
Roberts rented a basement unit in downtown Kansas City, but he doubts he slept there more than a handful of times. He spent most nights on an air mattress at Arrowhead. Several nights a week he taught online government and economics classes to students at a community college in Texas. The meager income from those classes kept him afloat.
As Kansas City's 2007 season opener at Houston approached, Roberts realized he wouldn't travel with the team, so he bought a plane ticket on his own. When he greeted Edwards and the coaching staff at the hotel, Roberts wasn't even sure if the coaches would let him sit in on last-minute game preparations, much less accompany them to the stadium. "I was almost embarrassed," Edwards says. "I was like, 'Really? Come on, man. We can do better than that. We've got to help this guy.'" For the rest of the season Roberts flew on the team charter.
Shortly after the season ended, Edwards called Roberts into his office. The offensive staff had been let go, and Roberts feared the worst, but instead of firing him, Edwards gave Roberts a quality-control position. His duties wouldn't change much, but he would get paid $50,000.
A year later, Scott Pioli took over as the Chiefs' G.M. and all the coaches expected a housecleaning. As Roberts waited for news of his fate, he got a phone call from Cunningham, who offered two instructions: Don't go to work; catch a plane to Detroit. Cunningham had just been hired as the defensive coordinator of the Lions, and he had a job for Roberts: assistant secondary coach.
On the practice field Roberts was surprised at how little the players cared that he hadn't played college ball. But he learned that as long as he could teach players techniques that would allow them to stay in the league longer, they would respect him. Plus, the players appreciated him for another reason: He could provide free legal advice.
After two seasons with the Lions, Roberts wondered if the NFL was the right place for him. He'd spent much of his life on college campuses, and he thought his experience in law and politics might help him as a recruiter. At the BCS title game between Auburn and Oregon, Roberts ran into Holgorsen, the former Leach assistant who'd just been named offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting at West Virginia. Leach's recommendation and Roberts' unusual résumé intrigued Holgorsen. Like Edwards four years earlier, Holgorsen took a chance. In March 2011 he hired Roberts to be West Virginia's inside receivers coach-even though Roberts had never coached offense. "I didn't need him," Holgorsen says. "I brought him in on offense, but I already had my offensive staff. So Daron just sat there and learned football for a year."
Holgorsen took over as West Virginia's head coach in June 2011 and eventually moved Roberts back to defense. He also turned the former student-body president loose on the recruiting trail. For Roberts, it felt as if he were campaigning all over again. "It's the same exercise," Roberts says. He learned from politics to adjust his pitch to his constituents, and now he had to decide what mattered most to recruits. Should he sell playing time? Development for the NFL? The competition in the Big 12? Should he sell the fact that a Harvard law grad would help shepherd the player toward a college degree? Roberts won plenty of votes this past off-season; in February he and Mountaineers running backs coach Robert Gillespie were named co-recruiters of the year in the Big East by Scout.com.
Roberts has a job that would fulfill the career goals of hundreds of interns and graduate assistants working the same menial jobs he once did, but he wants more. "The way he goes about his business," Edwards says, "it won't be long until he's a head coach." On the August day on which West Virginia began preseason practice, Roberts pulled up his hoodie in the Mountaineers' weight room shortly before 5 a.m. Yes, Roberts is sure he wants to do this. So sure that he no longer needs an alarm to rise in the wee hours. Those mornings, a simple mantra is all he requires. "I get to coach football today," he says, cracking his knuckles and flashing a smile that would have killed on a campaign poster.