Oct. 4, 2002
By Ken Kleppel
With a 6-2 frame supporting his massive 260-pound body, Ryan Roberts fits the role – while his performance easily plays the part – of a standout defensive lineman.
Nonetheless, this first glance of the fifth-year senior is ultimately deceiving. Namely, Ryan Roberts is admittedly “different.”
A simple clubhouse prank best exemplifies such a contradiction between appearance and reality. Or perhaps explains it.
Before the start of training camp, a teammate turned the nameplate atop Roberts’ locker upside down only as a practical joke. But when Roberts finally noticed the change, he shrugged, sighed and thought in relation to the rest of the lockers, his upside down name “definitely makes a lot more sense.”
The non-conforming nature of the nameplate was fitting. From playing time to choice of pre-game music, Roberts’ Notre Dame journey ranges from most typical to most distinctive. But of all players, why Roberts?
Here is the starting right end who with 16 career starts, 64 career tackles and 14 career sacks quietly sets the pace for the Irish defense in 2002.
The end who endured major back surgery in January of 2000 to correct what in layperson’s terms can be described as a cracking spine – and months of therapy – to become the dominant pass-rusher that quickly complemented future NFL second-round pick Anthony Weaver after just two games back from surgery.
The end who as a high school senior put more thought into attending the “Ivys” than the “Floridas” before ultimately deciding upon Notre Dame.
The end who graduated in 2002 with a degree in science-business and hopes to one day market pharmaceutical products in his home state of New Jersey.
The end that lost 90 minutes of practice time each week in the fall of 2000 to attend a physics lab scheduled for Monday.
The end whose favorite classes are what he characterizes as the most difficult ones because, according to Roberts “when you get it right, it is a really good feeling.”
The end that prepares for each game by listening to British trip-hop and slow techno music rather than the lockerroom’s trademark hip-hop and heavy metal beat.
The end who is everything Notre Dame and everything football, but at the same time everything neither.
“I left [the nameplate] there all summer before it was put back in place for the recruits,” says Roberts.
“People would come up and say ‘your name is upside down’ and then look at me and say, ‘it kind of looks better with your name upside down.'”
In this case, different is definitely good for the Notre Dame nation. Roberts conducts his own state of affairs in a matter similar to the way in which he pushes around opposing lines – without much fanfare and by his own terms.
“I don’t try to be like everyone else, nor does it bother me when people say I don’t fit in,” says Roberts.
“The thing I think is most important is that at the end of the day, I am happy with what I’ve done. If we’re in the tunnel and everybody is jumping up and down then I am the one person who is just kind of staying there swaying back and forth. I get excited in different ways, I talk in different ways, and I act in different ways. But if me being myself helps our football team win more football games, then that’s what I think is the right thing to do.”
A three-year starter, Roberts has done many right things as the veteran anchor on an experienced defensive line. Roberts leads the defensive line in all major statistical categories including career starts, tackles, sacks, games played and total minutes.
“He’s the kind of the guy you would least suspect to be like a football player,” says senior safety Gerome Sapp.
“He’s more of a joke-around type of guy. He surprises us all the time when he makes plays because off the field he is so far removed from football.”
“Whenever everybody’s getting serious for the game, I like to screw around a bit because that gets people angry – when they’re angry and get on the field they start snapping around and that gets me excited,” says Roberts.
“It’s the people around me that get me excited. That’s why, before we come out of the tunnel, instead of bouncing around I just sit in the middle of it. I feed off the energy of the people bumping into me. That makes me want to pop out onto the scene and be ready to play.”
It was ironically the energy and enthusiasm of a high school teammate that made the 14-year old Roberts want to pop out onto the scene in the first place.
Only to satisfy the continual urging of a close friend, Roberts decided to give football a try as a freshman at South New Jersey’s Haddenfield Memorial High School. Roberts planned to attend the morning football practice session before the start of classes and then resume his soccer season with practice later in the day.
“I never made it to soccer practice in the afternoon,” says Roberts.
Three years after trading in his turf cleats for football spikes, Roberts traded opportunities from nearby Princeton and Pennsylvania for a balanced offering of academics and athletics from Notre Dame.
“I would see those schools growing up and think that if I work hard in school, these are colleges I could go to and those are the types of jobs that I could get,” says Roberts.
“For football to enter into the picture late in high school made me think about what I want to do with my life. Football was yet another opportunity that I had. I had no choice but to try it out.”
Following a freshman season in which he did not see on-field action, Roberts made the switch from outside linebacker to the defensive line and added nearly 30 pounds before the start of his sophomore campaign.
But lingering back pain that had plagued Roberts throughout his career erupted just before the 1999 season-finale against Stanford and prevented Roberts from making the trip to northern California. An examination later revealed a congenital condition had worsened as a result of the rigors associated with the physical demands of football.
Roberts underwent surgery on Jan. 13, 2000, which successfully corrected the problem. After missing winter workouts and spring practice, Roberts chose to play full-time in 2000 instead of taking time off to allow the spine to completely heal.
“When you have a big injury, it makes you think what’s important – playing football and taking a risk or not playing football. If you love the game enough, then you are going to do what it takes to play. That’s what happened with my back surgery. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to play ever again, so I pushed, got into shape and ended up taking on a bigger role than expected. I had no choice but to play. I needed to help the team out and so I did.”
Replacing former Irish standout Grant Irons, who had injured his right shoulder early in the contest, Roberts recorded a career-high four tackles against Nebraska in just his second game back from surgery. One week later, Roberts would start against Purdue and become the first Irish player since 1996 – and first defensive end in 13 seasons – to notch a sack in each of his first four games.
“At that point, I knew I was in pretty good shape,” says Roberts.
“It’s not just when you start the season, but you have to get through all of summer conditioning first which at times was pretty painful. You just have to push through summer two-a-day practice. I wish I had something more important to say, but all I really did is what I had to do.”
“Even when you knew he was down during the spring and couldn’t get a lot of physical practice,, he was definitely there mentally,” says junior defensive end Jason Sapp. “He was always prepared and confident.”
Roberts credits head athletic trainer Jim Russ and his staff for the quick recovery. “Really, it was no secret,” says Roberts.
“A lot of athletes don’t follow their rehab regiment and don’t show up for treatment or do what their supposed to do. But I followed all my instructions and that’s what really helped me out. I was in there at least two to three times a day, every day, trying to get back in shape. Football is a hard sport. You have little things that hurt everyday. You go to the training room and you deal with it.”
Injuries again proved threatening in 2001. Roberts suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his fifth consecutive start against Tennessee that caused him to miss the remainder of his senior season and abruptly end his breakthrough campaign.
By this time, a sudden change in circumstances proved no obstacle. Roberts quickly responded in a fashion characteristic of his demeanor. He took it all in stride. “Things like that happen,” says Roberts.
“It happened to me in high school, it happened in college. You just have to be prepared to take what life gives you and turn it to something good.”
When life gives him a helpless quarterback scrambling out of the pocket, though, Roberts typically turns it into something good for the Irish and bad for that particular signalcaller. Junior linebacker Mike Goolsby testifies to what he describes as Roberts’ motivation to play football.
“He literally hates quarterbacks,” says Goolsby.
“With all the stuff that comes along with football, negative and positive, he plays ball because he hates quarterbacks.”
Purdue’s Kyle Orton and Michigan State’s Jeff Smoker are among Roberts’ latest victims in 2002. Sacking each twice, Roberts’ take-down of Smoker with less than 20 seconds remaining at East Lansing forced Michigan State into a desperation Hail Mary attempt that senior safety Gerome Sapp promptly intercepted as the game clock expired.
In his sixth-season at Notre Dame, and fifth coaching Roberts, defensive line coach Greg Mattison notes Roberts’ role among the defensive line and resulting knack for leading by example.
“Ryan Roberts has been just what you’re looking for out of a fifth-year football player who has played a lot of football,” says Mattison.
“He comes out, he works hard and he leads by example. If it is necessary for him to be vocal, he’ll be vocal. If it is necessary to help a younger guy and make sure that he’s lined up correctly or does the right things, he’ll do it. He can do those things because of how hard he practices and how hard he plays.”
Roberts praises Mattison as the crucial factor in Roberts’ development.
“The fact that he’s been here all my five seasons is great,” says Roberts.
“I would not be the player I am today without him. I have not always been in his best favor, but that’s helped push me to get better so I would be. I think he really trusts me as a player.”
Jason Sapp, who replaced Roberts during spring drills while Roberts was recovering from the MCL tear, places a similar trust in Roberts.
“He is definitely an individual who is very outspoken and very honest,” says Sapp.
“I personally like to talk to him because I know that he would be up front with me. Sometimes people kind of go around things and don’t talk to you one-on-one about what you are doing wrong and what you have to do to get better. But Ryan is not like that. He makes sure everyone is on top of their game and knows exactly what to do.”
Roberts concurs with the assessment.
“I am a leader, but not in the most polite of ways,” says Roberts.
“I am not too anxious to slap guys on their butt as much as I am to tell them they’re not getting the job done. I am the first guy to jump on you when you are not doing things right. I am the first guy to jump on myself when I am not playing up to my level because I expect more out of myself as a senior and a leader.”
“Since I’ve been a freshman, Ryan’s always been hard-working,” says senior offensive tackle Jim Molinaro.
“When I came here on the defense, he took me under his wing and helped me out in getting accustomed to the system. I now try to model myself after the way he plays on defense.”
Yet one may also model themselves on Roberts’ basic principles. With a small dose of reality rippling through his mature approach to life, Roberts finds success in simply being himself.
“The only thing I want to get across is I believe people have to be driven by themselves,” says Roberts. “It is good to have goals and it is good to have people they want to impress, but you really have to put yourself above all in life – and what you think is right and what you think to do is right. It should be what drives you each day. You’re not successful unless you think that you’re successful.”
Junior defensive end Kyle Budinscak has a grasp on Roberts, unique frame of mind.
“He is just a realist,” says Budinscak.
“He isn’t much of a dreamer kind of guy. He doesn’t talk too big. He just goes out there and plays hard.”
“When people work hard for the wrong reasons it is really empty,” says Roberts.
“I’ve had a bunch of friends and been a real popular guy, but when I sat back and thought about it I really wasn’t having too much fun. Now that I am older, I have fewer friends and fewer parties to go to, but I definitely feel more at peace with myself.”
From that first night in Morrissey Manor to his last night at Siegfried Hall, Roberts stands today as the defensive line’s most distinguished contributor. Yet, through all his documented perseverance, the New Jersey-native would have it no other way.
That is, behind Roberts-the-battler is also Roberts-the-individual.
The apparent contradiction struck at first glance now serves as a bridge between the two personalities and as foundation to his character.
“In his dress, and in his attitude, he is not your typical football guy,” says Goolsby.
“He doesn’t fill the meathead-type role. He is serious about his schoolwork and everything else. In that sense he doesn’t necessarily conform. He has his own way of doing things, but by that he leads with example.”
“I hope people will say that Ryan Roberts is his own man,” says Roberts.
“He wasn’t part of some group. He never led some group. He only had one thought between him. He could talk to anybody and he could hang out with anyone. He didn’t worry about what anyone else was thinking as long as he enjoyed what he was doing.”
Today, the Ryan Roberts’ nameplate sits comfortably in its natural, upright position. So does its namesake.
Ken Kleppel, from Concord Township, Ohio, is a second-year law student at Notre Dame after serving as a four-year student assistant in the Irish sports information office during his undergraduate years at Notre Dame.