Willie Roaf's road to greatness

Hall of Famer's father emotional while telling family story

Updated: August 4, 2012, 10:44 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

CANTON, Ohio -- A party swung all around Willie Roaf's dad -- John Madden holding court, Bill Parcells making a beeline for the ice cream bar, rapper Luther Campbell strolling in late asking for Bacardi Limon -- but Cliff Roaf sat on a couch in the corner of the hotel lobby. The night before his son would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he needed to "marinate," he said, just watch and soak it all in. A woman wandered past, the wife of a Hall of Famer, and when she saw Cliff, she exclaimed, simply, "You're the daddy!"

[+] EnlargeWillie Roaf
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesWillie Roaf, left, is presented by his father Cliff Roaf during the 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony Saturday in Canton, Ohio.

She'd been there. A few hours before, Cliff and Will -- that's what he calls his son -- stood on stage at the civic center for the first event of the induction, the presentation of the gold jacket. As the man who'd introduce his son, Cliff was included, and there in the packed arena, he hugged Will. Only he didn't let go, and as the hug lasted longer and longer, six or seven seconds, people around the building started to understand. More than a few Hall of Famers wiped their eyes. "Most emotional thing I've ever seen," Joe DeLamielleure said. "There wasn't a dry eye in the house."

Back at the hotel, Cliff saw Phoebe Layton, the 95-year-old mother of his late wife -- Andree Roaf died three years ago -- and he said, "I just wish … "


Earlier that morning, as the Hall of Fame weekend began, a half dozen members of the Roaf and Layton families hung around their room on the second floor of the McKinley Grand Hotel in downtown Canton. Mostly, they told stories. It was time to laugh and celebrate.

"Willie won a jacket when he left the peewee team," grandmother Phoebe is saying, cracking everyone up, "and he wanted to sleep in his jacket that night. He was gonna wear it over his pajamas."

They pull up a cell phone photo of Willie being fitted for his yellow Hall of Fame jacket, size 60 extra long, and the circular nature of life is lost on none of them, a family of overachievers: Willie's mother was an Arkansas Supreme Court justice, his dad a dentist, one of his sisters a graduate of Georgetown, another a Harvard- and Princeton-educated Episcopal minister. Phoebe, the priest, offered a prayer last night at dinner, and she mentioned all the members of the family who died, a list she repeats in the hotel room: Willie's mom, three of his grandparents, aunts, uncles.

Cliff speaks up from the corner.

"One of the things that saddens me is that his mother is not here," he says. "In person ... She's here in spirit. But she did so much for the development of the character of this child, and she put so much into all these children. Even though she was truly an academic and an intellect, she did love sports. And this would just make her heart glow."

The conversation is about to move on, but Cliff is still thinking about the names from Phoebe's prayer, remembering those people, and the ones who came before them, the long lines of invisible ghosts that trail each one of us. He thinks about all of their secret desires and struggles, and what started as a hilarious recounting of Big Willie stories is about to become something else entirely.

"I want you to get the essence of what she just said," he says. "In order for you to understand what she said, I have to go back a little bit in history."


He apologizes before he even begins, trying to stop himself from turning this into a sermon. The rest of the family sees the passion on his face and falls quiet. The floor is his.

[+] EnlargeWillie Roaf
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceThe Saints weren't a dominant team in the 1990s, but don't blame Willie Roaf. In his 13-year career, Roaf was selected to 11 Pro Bowls.

"It starts a long time ago off the west coast of Africa," he says.

He tells of slave ships, people crammed in so tight they couldn't sit up, how the "cargo" was thrown overboard if they got sick or if an anti-slave vessel approached. Sharks, he says, learned to follow the boat, and when he describes it, everyone can see the fins lurking in the wake.

The room is silent.

"When we got to America, we had absolutely nothing," he says. "We had no clothes, no food, no place to go. And now I'm gonna get into my preaching mode. … One of those slaves heard a name, and I don't know what your religious affiliations are, he heard a name called Jesus. Those people that had nothing had God."

His voice cracks for the first time when he says "Jesus."

"And because they called Jesus," he says, his voice cracking again, "we are sitting in this room and Will Roaf is gonna walk across that stage. Because of Jesus. I know there are people who feel so sophisticated and they are so … "

Cliff Roaf is crying.

"We didn't have anything but Jesus," he sobs, "and Jesus answered the prayers starting way back yonder, and when Will Roaf walks across that stage, for the Layton family and the Roaf family, he is a personification of God's majesty. For all of my people that grew up as sharecroppers and woodcutters, for all of those people, Will Roaf is the essence of their hopes, their aspirations, and thankfulness to this entity that we call Jesus. I'm gonna get up, because I get a little bit emotional."

Someone makes a joke about it being dusty in this hotel room.

"No," he says, his voice strong again, "it's not dusty. Ain't no dust in my eyes. It's an emotion of happiness. It's an emotion of thankfulness because this wonderful creator did not forget what he promised to generation after generation after generation. God promised people in our families that if we loved him, and served him, and honored him, he would bring blessings to our children and their children and their children. That is what is the essence of Will Roaf."

Phoebe Layton hugs him. He wipes his eyes with a tissue. He remembers his own father, who worked at a lumberyard, riding a bike or walking every day, making $12 a week. "From my father to me to Will Roaf," he says, "that went to over $4 million a year. Only in America will you have a grandfather making $12 a week to a grandson making millions. Only here in America."

His voice cracks again, and he seems one powerful memory away from being unable to continue. He can see his childhood in rural Arkansas, and the road from those hot fields to a hotel room in Canton.

"See, I'm a cotton chopper," he says, fighting the sobs. "That's what I am. I grew up in a four-room shack. I didn't even have a bed to sleep in. I ate out of pot tops and drank out of jelly jars."

Then he stood up straight and walked out, headed downstairs to a Hall of Fame luncheon with his son -- the grandson of a man who chopped wood for two dollars a day.


Cliff's story, followed by his swift exit, did something to the equilibrium in the room, and in the time it takes to recover, everyone stays quiet.

"I've never seen him like that," Willie's aunt says finally.

"Things changed a lot since Mom died," his sister Mary says. "He's opened up a lot. He's like that a lot."

"Willie is nervous," his aunt says, "and your dad is emotional."


The following night, the introduction video plays on huge screens, telling the story of Willie's rise from a skinny kid in Pine Bluff, Ark., to this stage.

The star of the film is Cliff.

The crowd laughs when he remembers talking Willie out of a future in basketball, guiding him toward football instead, which had been Cliff's game in college. "I knew if Will ate the way I ate," he says, smiling, "he was gonna put on weight."

Near the end, though, Cliff voice starts to change. His family knows why.

"Will played the game because he loved it," he says, fighting his emotions. "Normally the father is the hero to the son but in this case, the son is the hero to the father. When Will Roaf and I walk across that stage in Canton, Ohio, it means that I've made it. I am honored to present my son, Will Roaf, for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

They walk out together and the crowd rises. Cliff's lip quivers. For all the years Will played football, in college, then in New Orleans and Kansas City, Cliff drove to every game. When each one ended, he waited to speak to Will, then turned around and drove back home. During almost two decades, he missed only one game.

He's been there every step of the way, guiding, sacrificing, dreaming, and they have arrived here together, on a green stage, just before sundown. They hug, and like the night before, he doesn't want it to end, gripping his son, patting him on the shoulder. Cliff finally lets him go and walks toward the back of the stage.

Willie stands alone at the microphone and begins his speech.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.