With less than half of the 1964 football season to go, it is beginning to look as if the best all-round player on the eastern seaboard (and possibly in the entire country) may finish the year alive. Archie Roberts, the Columbia quarterback, has spent most of his first two seasons and the first five games of the present one as perilously as a skiff in a typhoon, dodging mayhem-minded tacklers on Ivy League football fields. In the process he has set a new league record for pass completions, for yards gained passing and he has established one of the highest completion percentages in the nation. When he has no receivers to throw to, he runs with the ball, and that happens often enough to make him Columbia's leading rusher. He does all the punting for his team, and he plays safety on defense, making a disproportionate number of the tackles and batting down or intercepting passes. Last year, after each game was over, Archie would return to the field house, bloody and bruised but still smiling, and conduct a postgame interview over the college radio station with one of his teammates, coaches or opponents. Legend has it that he also paints the white lines on the gridiron before the contest and sweeps out the locker room afterward.
As an example of the way it usually goes for Roberts, in a recent game against Princeton he completed 19 out of 35 passes for 206 yards. Early in the game he thwarted a Princeton touchdown by recovering a fumble on his own one-yard line. He stopped another Princeton drive by intercepting a pass and returning it 54 yards. He scored his team's first touchdown with a quarterback sneak and passed 19 yards to Halfback Roger Dennis for the other. One of his six punts traveled 61 yards, but another was blocked in the end zone for a safety after a bad pass from center. Of course, Columbia lost the game, 23-13. Much the same thing happened two weeks ago against Rutgers. Roberts set all sorts of Columbia records by completing 25 of 39 passes for 320 yards and three long touchdowns, but again his team lost, 38-35.
By now Archie is used to adversity. He just smiles his friendly, boyish smile through puffed lips and goes out the following Saturday to try again. In the 2½ years since he has been on the Columbia varsity the team has won 10 and lost 11 games. It is not pleasant to think what the record might have been without one of the finest college quarterbacks of recent years.
Some people have trouble understanding why Roberts insists on submitting himself to such weekly frustrations, but they just do not understand Archie. He plays football because he thinks it is a marvelous way to spend Saturday afternoon in the autumn, and he plays gladly for Columbia because he believes the university is providing him with the best premedical education he can get. He might just as easily and far more profitably have played for any of those large middle-western or southern colleges that favor unconditional-surrender football. As the quarterback for the undefeated Holyoke (Mass.) High School, he was the most widely courted high school player of his region.
Roberts has succeeded in acquiring a kind of Frank Merriwell coloration since becoming a Columbia celebrity. Not only was he an instant star at football in his sophomore year, but that spring he was also the shortstop and leading hitter on the baseball team. Against the advice of Athletic Director Ralph Furey and his faculty advisers, Archie added basketball to his athletic portfolio as a junior, thus becoming Columbia's first three-letter man in more than a decade. "He persuaded me he could do it," says his friend and counselor, Henry Coleman, the university's young dean of admissions. "He has a way of making you believe he can do what he says he can do. Archie is a very convincing guy."
When he is not playing games or maintaining a respectable B-minus average in one of the university's most challenging curriculums, Roberts avoids idle hours by participating in such campus frivolities as the Newman Club, the Premedical Society, the Undergraduate Dormitory Council, the Undergraduate Athletic Advisory Council, the Citizenship Council and the Alpha Chi Rho fraternity. As a freshman he was given a $50 bond as the Morningside Brotherhood Award for his work as a coach and supervisor with the underprivileged children who live in the slums of Harlem adjoining the Columbia campus. As a scholarship student, Archie has had to work his way through college, and for the first three years one of his jobs was delivering The New York Times to dormitory rooms at 6 a.m.
A certain number of New York sports-writers have been sufficiently awed by Roberts' accomplishments to write of him as if he were something extraordinary. This annoys Archie's young bride, Barbara Hudson Roberts, whom he married rather impulsively last August. Barbara is a nice-looking no-nonsense girl with straight no-nonsense dark-brown hair. She met Archie while she was doing her premed work at Barnard College, the female wing of Columbia where no-nonsense girls are in the majority. With a mutual interest in medicine, among other things, they figured out they would waste a lot less time if they completed their studies as man and wife.
"The tripe that gets written about Archie!" Barbara says vehemently. "None of it is exactly untrue, but it just isn't like him."
"What is he like?" Barbara was asked.
"Of course, he's a very good athlete," she replied, "but that comes easily to him. Also he is basically very thoughtful about other people's feelings, but he is careless, too. He has absolutely no sense of time. You will be walking along with him through the campus or down the street, and he will stop here and stop there when people speak to him, because everyone wants to say something to him about a game or something, and he doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. He is friendly with absolutely everyone. I remember one time when I was still at Barnard [now in her fourth year of college, Barbara has moved on to New York University Medical School], Archie was two and a half hours late picking me up. He didn't do that again."
Archie was almost late to his wedding, however. The night before he had been in Chicago working on the broadcast of the Ail-Star football game for the ABC network, with whom he had a summer job, and he caught an early plane back to New York in the morning. "The wedding was supposed to be held at 11 o'clock up in Pearl River, where Barbara lives," recalls Archie. "That's about an hour's drive north of New York on the other side of the Hudson. I didn't get into Kennedy Airport until 9, and I had to rent a car and then go into the city to pick up Pat Sheehan, my best man. We stopped at a gas station along the way to change into our wedding clothes and arrived at 10 minutes to 11. Barbara swore I wasn't going to make it."
As Barbara Roberts says, it is Archie's utter normality that confounds people. Roberts is simply a friendly, easygoing young man whose fresh-faced good looks would make him the ideal model for a Norman Rockwell painting of the boy next door. He was born and raised in the tidy New England factory town of Holyoke, where his mother and father and their families grew up before him. Mary Roberts, his mother, is a large, cheerful lady with white hair who comes from Irish baseball lineage that includes Jack Doyle, a first baseman and manager of the New York Giants in the trolley-car era. Arthur Henry Roberts, Archie's father, is the peppery and popular director of athletics and assistant principal at Holyoke High. In the late '20s, Art Roberts was a star, if pocket-sized, quarterback for NYU, and afterward he coached there before taking his family back to New England.
Despite his own athletic background, Art Roberts avoided pushing his son into sports. Archie wasted the first six or seven years of his life horsing around with tomahawks and bows and arrows and other tools of the cowboys-and-Indians trade. In 1950, when the Holyoke football team coached by Art Roberts went to the Peanut Bowl game in Georgia, 7-year-old Archie insisted on staying home so he could watch a Gene Autry movie at the local movie palace on Saturday afternoon.
By junior high school time Archie had worked the tomahawk out of his system and was in sports to stay. He fell naturally into the quarterback's job on the football team and played shortstop and pitched for his baseball team in the local peewee league. As a 115-120-pound sophomore in high school he became first-string quarterback for a team of much bigger boys, and everyone swears there was not a smidgin of father-son favoritism involved. "Mr. Roberts treated Arch just like everyone else," says Pat Sheehan, who then, as now, was playing center in front of Archie. "You wouldn't even know they were related." By his senior year, Archie led Holyoke through an undefeated season in football and had been named on the All-America high school basketball team.
It was in these adolescent years that the pattern of Archie's character was drawn. "Arthur," as Archie's mother calls him, for his true name is Arthur James Roberts, "was always such a good boy. His father used to say he wished Arthur would throw a rock through a window or something, just so we would know he was around."
Once Archie opted for sports, his father proved a willing collaborator. They spent long afternoons watching football and baseball on television, and together they went to the University of Massachusetts games in nearby Amherst or the Holy Cross games in Worcester. Often they drove down to New York City to watch the football Giants or the baseball Yankees. They would discuss the subtleties of strategy, and the father taught the son everything he knew about the technique of the game. He drilled him in the fine points of broken-field running—how to feint with a hip or the head and not to commit oneself too soon to either side of the tackler. How to pivot, how to stay in the pocket—all the small but important moves that a truly first-rate quarterback must perform by instinct. "Passing is a kind of natural thing, I guess," Archie says, "but my father would correct small errors, such as not following through enough or not bringing the ball back quite right."
Any coach whose teams have lunged and stumbled after Archie Roberts will testify to the success of Art Roberts' paternal assistance. Tom Harp, of Cornell, is one. When he speaks of quarterbacks, Harp is not flying blind, for it was he who groomed young Gary Wood, the heir designate to Y.A. Tittle on the New York Giants. "As a T quarterback," says Harp, "I can't think of anyone who can do the job better than Roberts. It's Roberts who keeps that offense moving, and there isn't a person I know in college ball in the country who can pass any better than Roberts. I would rate him with Roger Staubach, Gary Wood and George Mira as the top quarterbacks I've seen in college football."
John Yovicsin, whose Harvard team squeaked past Columbia 3-0, says, "Archie Roberts is as fine a quarterback as I've ever seen in 24 years of coaching at the secondary and college level."
Dick Colman of Princeton says, "I've never seen a better passer."
Buff Donelli, Archie's own coach, has to fight back the superlatives when he discusses the young man who has made his life considerably happier these past three seasons. "I could tell the first day he walked on the field," says the soft-spoken, low-pressure Columbia coach, "that Art had it. He's a well-set-up boy. When he steps on the scale ready to be taped, he'll weigh just over 190. He's six feet tall, but he looks smaller on the field, because those boys you see him next to are well over six feet. And another thing—although I hate to mention it—he never gets hurt. He's very strong, and he's always in top condition."
Donelli stood watching Archie throwing passes to the ends and halfbacks at practice one recent afternoon, and it was all he could do to keep his enthusiasm within bounds. "See that pass he just threw?" Buff asked a bystander. "That pass led the man just right, and there was no way the defender could play the man and stop it. Some passes anyone can throw. That pass has to be perfect. Art can throw any kind of pass."
Football players of Archie's stature do not naturally gravitate toward Columbia, although through the years some fine ones like Cliff Montgomery, Sid Luckman and Claude Benham have played there. Archie made his decision all by himself but only after several years of soul-searching. He was only 16½ when he received his diploma at Holyoke, and the contest for his enrollment was keen among both the football and the academic institutions. At his father's suggestion, Archie decided to take a year of prep school at Deerfield Academy, where he would spend some time under the guidance of Dr. Frank Boyden, its distinguished Mr. Chipsian headmaster.
"By that time," Archie recalls, "I decided I should go to an institution with a really good medical school. I leaned toward the Ivy League colleges because of the academic reputations they have. I thought a lot about Harvard, but I liked Columbia better after visiting both schools. I particularly liked their pre-medical program and the people I met there, such as Coach Donelli. Maybe I could have made a bigger football reputation somewhere else, but that's not the important thing."
One thing that is important to Archie Roberts right now is whether after graduation he will continue football as a professional. He has had feelers, and he would like to try it. But most of the people close to him deplore the idea; his father is against it, Coach Donelli is against it, Athletic Director Furey is against it. "We don't think we're in the business of getting fellows ready to play for the New York Giants or the New York Yankees," explains Furey, himself a former player of note. "I'm very hopeful that Archie will turn down pro offers and go right into medical school. After all, what kind of money can the pros pay a young man like Archie that would make it worth his while to delay the sort of medical career that he has ahead of him? It would just be peanuts compared to what he will be making in medicine before long."
Archie looks at pro football another way. He thinks he could do it and study medicine at the same time. He cites the cases of Dr. Bill McColl, the onetime end for the Chicago Bears, and Dr. Bobby Brown, the former Yankee third baseman. "I'll just have to wait and see what kind of offers I get," he says, but the pro glint is clearly in his eye.
"It's not the money but the challenge of football," says Barbara Roberts. "I think Archie would play for the pros for nothing just to prove to himself that he could do it. He is one of those people who believe that the busier you are, the better you perform." And there is no doubt that Archie Roberts is a busy young man.