By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When he came to UVa in 1987, Ray Roberts envisioned a career in which he’d earn all-ACC honors and then play in the NFL.
At defensive end.
His coach at Virginia, George Welsh, saw Roberts’ long, long arms and also envisioned an illustrious career for the big kid from Asheville, N.C.
At offensive tackle.
Guess who won that fight. Two decades later, however, Roberts concedes that the move worked out well for him.
“To say the least,” Roberts said. “It turned out to be great, and the thing that was cool was that I was able to use my athletic ability, and then some aggression that I used to play with on defense, and channel it in a way on offense that it became a strength of mine.”
Off the field, he’s as pleasant and polite a man as you’ll ever meet. On the field?
“The thing about Ray was, he had a mean streak,” said Chris Slade, a former All-American defensive end at UVa. “He was nasty … Ray would fight the whole defensive line.”
That edge served Roberts well in a historic era for UVa football. He made the all-ACC second team as a sophomore in 1989. He was a first-team selection in 1990 and ’91 and also received the Jacobs Trophy as the ACC’s best blocker in each of those two seasons.
“I remember one play in particular,” said Tyrone Lewis, a safety on those UVa teams. “You remember [all-ACC defensive lineman] Chester McGlockton from Clemson?
“Well, Ray got a hold of him — and this was Ray’s redshirt freshman year — and pushed him 13 yards down the field and pancaked him. When he pancaked Chester McGlockton, we knew he had arrived, then and there.”
Home for Roberts these days is the Seattle area, where he’s the head football coach at Lake Washington High School. But he’ll be back at his alma mater Saturday for UVa’s game with 11th-ranked Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium.
At halftime, Roberts will become the 12th former Virginia great to have his jersey retired.
“For a guy to come from a relatively small town in Asheville, N.C., and to go to a college that’s as academically challenging as UVa, and then also be able to play at such a high level athletically, I think it says a lot for the hard work I’ve put in,” Roberts said. “But more than that, it says a lot for the people that supported me and encouraged me during the whole time there.”
Those people include his parents, as well as Danny Wilmer and John Gamble and Tom O’Brien and Jim Bollman and, of course, Welsh.
Roberts credited Welsh with “having the insight to move me from defensive end to offensive tackle, even though I didn’t want to do it, and having faith that it was the best move for me and the team.”
Wilmer, a legendary recruiter, was the UVa assistant coach who landed Roberts. Gamble was the Cavaliers’ strength coach, and O’Brien oversaw the offensive line for most of Roberts’ college career. Bollman coached the Wahoos’ line in 1991.
By then, the 6-6, 300-pound Roberts was a beast. Of the linemen who arrived at UVa in 1987, however, he was the only one who could not bench-press 225 pounds that summer.
“It just crushed me,” Roberts said. “John just worked really hard with me to get my strength up, and with that strength I had more confidence in my talent and my ability.”
O’Brien, now the head coach at N.C. State, “really pushed me and didn’t let me settle for being OK,” Roberts said.
“And Jim Bollman … really elevated my confidence and my ability to do things.”
Six ‘Hoos have had their numbers retired: Shawn Moore (12), Frank Quayle (24), Bill Dudley (35), Joe Palumbo (48), Jim Dombrowski (73) and Gene Edmonds (97).
Roberts (72) is set to join a group of former stars whom UVa has honored but whose numbers remain active: Anthony Poindexter (3), Ronde Barber (19), Tiki Barber (21), Terry Kirby (42), Ray Savage (56), Tom Scott (65), Mark Dixon (66), Slade (85), Herman Moore (87), John Papit (87) and Chris Long (91).
Had Roberts’ schedule permitted, his jersey would have been retired in 2008. No list of the greatest players in school history is complete without his name.
“Ray was just a dominating force,” Lewis said.
After leaving UVa, Roberts spent nine years in the NFL: the first four with Seattle and the final five with Detroit.
Even after he became a Lion, though, Roberts spent his offseasons in Seattle. And that’s where Roberts and his wife, the former Beth Garvey, settled after his NFL career ended.
Ray and Beth, who’s also a UVa graduate, have three children: daughter Reagan (12) and sons Slade (10) and Pryce (4). Slade was named after one of Roberts’ favorite teammates at UVa.
“It’s an honor for me,” said Chris Slade, now the sideline reporter for radio broadcasts of Virginia games.
Tyrone Lewis was a safety on Roberts’ teams at UVa. The battles between Roberts and Slade in practice, Lewis said, were unforgettable.
“It was a sight to see,” Lewis said. “They just kind of beat on each other. I remember that Ray would tell people, ‘By the time I got to the game, it wasn’t anything, because I’d been going against Slade all week.'”
Likewise, Slade said, “Ray brought out the best in me every single day. By the time I played the game it was easy.”
Three years ago, Roberts earned a master’s degree in athletic leadership from the University of Washington. By then, he’d already gotten into coaching, with a nudge from Brock Huard.
Huard was a backup quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts in 2002, when Roberts was serving a coaching internship with the team.
During that season, Huard mentioned to Roberts that his brother, Luke Huard, needed assistant coaches at Interlake High near Seattle.
Roberts eventually spent four seasons at Interlake as offensive line coach, run-game coordinator and assistant head coach. Roberts took over as head coach at Lake Washington before the 2008 season.
At first, Roberts said, he didn’t see himself coaching for long.
“I felt like I was just helping out a buddy,” he said. “And then, as I got into it, I really enjoyed being around the kids, and I enjoyed the wisdom, I guess, that I could pass on to them. And I thought I had more to give them than just how to play football, and so I really kind of took that approach to it. And I kind of got addicted to it.
“I like helping kids do things that they didn’t think they could or helping them get through situations on or off the field that they thought were dead ends … I really enjoy kind of being a life coach more than just being a football coach.”
Roberts stays busy. He recently finished a one-year assignment as a diversity specialist at Microsoft, and he and Beth recently started a personal assistant/concierge service. He’s coached his daughter’s basketball team, and he does radio for the Seahawks on 710 ESPN Seattle.
It’s been four or five years since Roberts has been back to Charlottesville, and not because he’s avoiding the place. He and his wife own a lot on Lake Monticello, Roberts said, and their “dream was to develop it so it’d be just kind of a little summer place for us to come to and kind of hang out around Charlottesville. But it just hasn’t quite worked out, being so far away and trying to put that all together.”
His coaching obligations complicate things, too, this time of year. But Roberts and his wife are scheduled to arrive at UVa on Friday afternoon for what should be a memorable weekend. The Yellow Jackets haven’t won at Scott Stadium since 1990.
Roberts played in that game, and he’s not interested in seeing a repeat.
“I’m just excited to be back in Charlottesville,” he said. “Hopefully we can put it on Georgia Tech and come out with a win.”