When most of his college teammates were headed to business, communications or physical education classes, Bears linebacker Nick Roach was headed to the studio. A major in art theory and practice at Northwestern, he spent most of his time at Kresge Centennial Hall on the south end of campus, perched on a small stool, drawing, painting or sculpting.
Balancing football and fine arts isn't a common practice, but it came naturally to Roach, who grew up in Milwaukee gripping a pencil, not a football.
"As a kid, I always filled up notebooks with drawings," he said. "I watched all the little Saturday morning teach-you-how-to-draw shows and always asked for drawing books. I always had a sketch in mind."
As a freshman at Milwaukee Lutheran High, Roach had dreams of playing college basketball. His aunt, Jennifer Rhodes, played at Wisconsin, and his uncle, John Rhodes, played at Ohio University before becoming a collegiate coach.
Roach was content to follow in their footsteps until the football coaches at Milwaukee Lutheran spotted him on the court and convinced him to give the gridiron a shot. He'd later lead his AAU hoops team to two state championships, but football became his best chance at a scholarship. After joining the team his sophomore year, Roach excelled on both sides of the ball, playing linebacker, wide receiver and running back and earning all-state honors and a scholarship to Northwestern.
Working toward his collegiate dream meant Roach's focus was most often on the field, but he never forgot his love of drawing. When he arrived at Northwestern, he found he could pursue both, pairing hours of football practice with hours of studio time.
"Every intro class we took was a three-hour studio course," said Roach of his required courses in different media. "We had to learn everything: drawing, design, painting, photography, sculpture."
Some things came easier than others. He loved drawing and photography, but admits he never could master painting; he just didn't have the patience.
"First you have to mix the right color you want," he explained, sounding annoyed at the mere memory of the process. "And you have to mix enough of it so you don't run out. Then it starts drying out and you gotta add water. Your brush starts getting all dirty and you gotta wash it. It's a really tedious process, painting."
Flying around the football field and delivering crushing hits was more Roach's speed.
After starting 32 games with the Wildcats and earning team co-MVP honors his senior year, Roach signed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2007. The Bears grabbed him off San Diego's practice squad a few months later, and he's been in Chicago ever since, playing a pivotal role alongside the likes of Pro Bowlers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
Pro football has a way of taking over one's life, but Roach hasn't entirely abandoned his artistic pursuits. In 2010, when Northwestern faced Illinois at Wrigley Field, he designed the cover art for the game program. He sketched the two teams' helmets, the Land of Lincoln trophy they were battling for and the Wrigley Field marquee, which had been painted purple in honor of the Wildcats.
Roach admits he's also used his talents to woo the fairer sex, namely his longtime love, Anna-Marie, whom he married in February.
"Our first Valentine's Day, I drew a portrait of her from a picture," Roach said. "I framed it and gave it to her and her mom ended up putting it up in her house back home."
Roach said his wife must have fallen for him in part because of his artistic side.
"She definitely was not in it for the sports," he said with a laugh. "I was on the practice squad when we met. You know it's true love when she dates you on the scout team."
Roach doesn't do as much drawing these days, preferring instead to grab his camera and snap photographs of Anna-Marie on vacation; of his dogs Tahoe, Bella and Dr. Hooligan; or of the trees at the forest preserves near his home.
"I think of all the art I've done, I'm most proud of the pictures I take when we go on road trips," Roach said. "They're nice to look at, but it's also the memory tied to it. I don't develop the film myself, though. I did that in college and I'm over it."
For Roach, the time spent sketching or behind the lens is a rare chance to leave the stresses of football behind.
"When I'm out taking pictures or making a drawing, I can lose track of time and not think about anything else," he said. "There aren't a lot of things I can do outside of football where I'm totally focused on whatever it is."
And when he can't escape the stresses of the NFL, Roach said he faces them head on using lessons learned from a 300-level art criticism class at Northwestern.
"Every assignment was completely up to you," he explained. "Whatever you wanted to make, whatever medium. Basically you produce your piece and then the whole class gets to spend an hour at a time just shredding it. Telling you, 'Why you'd do that? This doesn't make sense. For what reason did you use blue? Why did you use pencil?' You're making something for the purpose of getting it ripped up."
"It helped me learn to not take things personally and how to take criticism, which is healthy."