- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It was cloudy and Roy Roundtree wanted to get out of Michigan. He'd been around for too long, had no break between semesters and like most football players, couldn't wait to get back home for a weekend.
Before he could, Roundtree had to do something in front of his family and thousands of others. He had to graduate.
It might have been just some pomp and circumstance, but the circumstance meant so much more for Roundtree. There was a time when reaching college, let alone graduating and now working on his master's degree, seemed tenuous.
Throughout all of middle school, two high schools and college, this was Roundtree's goal and when he reached it, he beat an opponent more difficult than a defensive back, one he is finally ready to share.
Roy Roundtree had to overcome a learning disability.
"I saw how far he's come," said Sean Walton, Roy's cousin. "Overall he has blossomed or sprouted to the man he is at this point. We all knew he was a great kid. Just his success both on and off the field, just his dedication … it was inspiring to me.
"He's in grad school. He's a far cry from where he started, where we were just trying to make sure he wasn't held back."
The first major change in Roundtree's life might have set everything else in motion. When he was starting school, his maternal grandmother died and his mom, Sheila, took the Roundtrees from Pahokee, Fla., to her hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
Pushed into first grade before he might have been ready academically, Roundtree wouldn't pay attention in class and talked constantly. Once, after a classmate stole his cookies, he got into a fight and was suspended.
"It was more of I got bored real fast," Roundtree said. "The teacher would talk and I'd just get up or start talking to a classmate. It was just so many things that I did. I look back to it now and I was wild. First through fifth grade, it was crazy."
His elementary school grades were satisfactory. When he reached Fairview Middle School, things changed. His grades dropped. His parents and teachers decided to have Roundtree tested.
Results showed he was behind in reading and overall comprehension of what he read. Sheila said she figures when he was in fifth grade, he was reading at a third-grade level.
She and Walton started to help.
"I applied some of the football stuff into reading," Sheila said. "Like the sentence, 'Jack jumped over the broomstick.' I want you to physically show me how he jumped over the broomstick. So he'd physically do it and be like, 'Oh, jump is leap. Oh, OK, mom, I got it.'"
He also had another motivation: Football. His father, Willie, said if he didn't improve in school, he wouldn't be able to play sports.
"That was the turning point. I was like, 'Yeah, I'm trying to play sports because I like it so much. I love it,'" Roy said. "I turned around completely as a person from sixth grade to now. I turned my life around because I didn't want to go that route, not being able to play a sport that I always played.
"For me to have bad grades, that probably implied I wouldn't be able to play."
Walton became a role model. Three years older, he skipped a couple of grades in elementary school and graduated high school at 16, got a bachelor's degree from the University of Cincinnati and recently finished law school at age 26.
After Walton was done with his work, he tutored and pushed Roundtree.
"I remember the first time he made honor roll in seventh grade, he called me up and was like, 'Sean, I made honor roll,'" Walton said. "When he got frustrated, I would push him that he really is that smart.
"His issues were with how to study and process information. Once he processed it, he was good to go."
In seventh grade, Roundtree also began working with an in-school tutor. Their guidance would help him as he had one more thing to overcome.
Some of Dayton's public schools were in trouble. An Ohio Education Association article called Roundtree's initial high school, Belmont, "a school run by the students."
By the time Belmont would start to turn around after being named a priority school by the National Education Association, Roundtree would be in college.
For someone with a learning disability, Belmont was not the ideal place. Yet he spent two years there, playing football and still trying to survive academically before he had enough after his sophomore year.
Roundtree transferred to Trotwood-Madison, a stronger school academically and athletically.
"Roy really took that initiative and that let's you know the type of guy he is. He's eager to succeed and put himself in the best position," Walton said. "He kind of gave Belmont all he had those first two years but did Belmont give him all they had? If they did, was that enough?
"He looked at that and that he wanted to go to college and be successful."
Roundtree turned around academically and was more comfortable understanding how he needed to learn, and one tutor made a final difference.
When Mary Van Leeuwen introduced herself, it didn't take long for Roundtree to show up in Room 106.
"He can be really determined and disciplined and has the heart to accomplish just about anything he wants to," Van Leeuwen said. "I was just one of many people who supported him, but he really did most of the work.
"I maybe advised him a little bit or if there was a rough edge or some kind of issue I may have helped him with it. He really did everything."
In high school, Roundtree spent at least a half hour a day with Van Leeuwen. On testing days, he'd take his exams in her room.
"I could go in there after school before I went to practice, for like 30 minutes," Roy said. "Just to go over some of my homework to make sure I was on the right track before I went home."
One of her lasting lessons came from how he would process information -- part of the problem all along. While Roundtree had already been writing things down to remember them, she stressed it as a learning mechanism.
She also emphasized despite the learning disability he was smart. He needed to prepare differently than others.
"The biggest thing I did for Roy was I tell my kids that when you're labeled with a learning disability it doesn't mean you're stupid or you can't learn," Van Leeuwen said. "It just means you're in a different way than everybody else and you have to find the way that you learn best. It's not going to be like everybody else. It's going to be your own way. That's something that really made an impact on him."
It would be a lesson he carried to college.
Inside the Michigan wide receiver rooms and classrooms around the school's vast campus, Roundtree has his notebook wide open. He'll see others just listening or not paying attention at all. In school, he used to be teased for it, but he paid it little mind. He already knew he had to handle school this way in order to reach college and then to graduate.
"I basically realized that, yeah, it does take time for me to understand things. I'm not visual, not a visual learner," Roundtree said. "I basically listened to my tutor and she did different types of tests on me. I was more of a hands-on type of learner.
"I just started writing down everything I was learning. It helped me get to where I'm at today."
It was a lesson learned from his parents, reinforced in high school and one he took to college. Football might have helped get Roundtree to Michigan and set him up with everything he needed to succeed, but once at Michigan, he did it all on his own.
Now he has the platform to share what he accomplished and help the next person to come along.
"Just to even go from where he was to having a degree, I'm just amazed how awesome he is. I told [Roy] he's a walking testimony," Sheila said. "You can tell people about your struggle, how you were able to overcome your struggle and still graduate from a major college.
"You're an inspiration to a child that's walking in your old shoes."
Senior wide receiver Roy Roundtree marvels at how far he has come from his day in elementary school with a learning disability to working on his master's at Michigan.