By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’s become a regular at football practices since returning to his alma mater this month, and he still cuts an imposing figure. But Ray Roberts’ playing days are well behind him. The former NFL offensive tackle is back at the University of Virginia to help its current players better navigate the paths they follow off the field.
Roberts, 42, recently was hired to fill a new position in the UVa athletics department — director of life skills for the football program. His charge: to coordinate, develop and administer programs designed to help players in such areas as career planning, leadership training and personal development.
“Outside of buildings and weight rooms and locker rooms, our people are our strength, and having a guy like him surrounding the program, it just adds to the strength of the program,” said Mike London, the Cavaliers’ second-year coach.
Roberts has joined the growing list of former UVa players who are again part of the program. Virginia’s assistant coaches include Anthony Poindexter and Shawn Moore. Its graduate assistants include Marques Hagans, Gordie Sammis and Brennan Schmidt. Butch Jefferson is an academic coordinator for the football program.
“Coach London has done a tremendous job of bringing guys back from that old era,” said Moore, a former Virginia quarterback who now coaches the team’s wide receivers.
When Roberts was a schoolboy in Asheville, N.C., his host on his recruiting visit to UVa was Moore. They’ve remained close, and when Moore learned that Virginia was interested in creating another support position for football, he thought of his friend.
“I knew he wanted to get back East and also be involved with his program,” Moore said. “This place is important to him. So because of that, I thought it would be an ideal fit for him to come back and be part of this process, and I know he’s going to contribute a lot to the players on this team.”
UVa’s executive associate athletics director feels the same way. In April, Jon Oliver heard Roberts speak to the football team at a life skills workshop at Virginia. A week later, Roberts said, Oliver flew to Seattle to talk to him about the position of life skills director.
“To be recruited by the University twice?” Roberts said with a laugh. “That doesn’t happen to many people, so I was excited for the opportunity.”
Roberts spent four seasons with the Seahawks and five with the Lions. After his NFL career ended, he settled in Seattle, and in 2007 he earned a master’s degree in intercollegiate athletic leadership from the University of Washington. He graduated from UVa in 1992 with a bachelor’s in communications.
In Seattle, Roberts coached high school football and high school girls basketball, worked as a diversity specialist at Microsoft, did radio for the Seahawks on a local station, and ran, with his wife, the former Beth Garvey, a personal assistant/concierge service.
He and his wife, who’s also a UVa graduate, have three children: daughter Reagan, 14, and sons Slade, 12, and Pryce, 6. Roberts left Seattle and moved to Charlottesville ahead of the rest of the family, and he’s been staying with Moore, the man who, in the late ’80s, helped persuade Roberts to sign with Virginia.
“Before I took the job, I talked to Shawn a lot about what the team was like, issues on the team, some of the assistant coaches, his view of Mike London and the state of the program,” Roberts said. “He really felt like I could do some good here, and I trust him enough to believe him about that.”
Roberts ranks among the greatest players in the program’s history, and UVa retired his jersey in October 2009. As a 6-6, 300-pound tackle, Roberts twice received the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the ACC’s best blocker. He made the All-ACC first team twice and the second team once, and he was a first-team All-American in 1991.
His office is in the McCue Center, but on a recent afternoon, Roberts popped outside to the football practice field to talk to VirginiaSports.com about his new gig.
JW: How well did you know Mike London when you began talking to UVa about this position?
Roberts: “I knew [former Virginia defensive back] Paul London, Coach’s little brother. I think Paul’s first year was my last year here. But I had heard a lot of great things about Mike. Chris Slade is around a lot, and Shawn Moore is on the staff, and the three of us talk a lot. And so I had a good handle on what Mike was about, and the things that were important to him, before I came. Since then, just sitting down and talking with him and just understanding his approach, I couldn’t be in more agreement with how he wants to do it.”
JW: You struggled early as an undergraduate at UVa. What do you remember about that period of your life?
Roberts: “When I first came on campus, everything just seemed so big and grand, and I had never been in a classroom with so many people. It was kind of shock for me, so I was really reserved at first. And then even academically I struggled a little bit. Not because I couldn’t do the work; I just didn’t know how to manage it all.
“I think it was my redshirt freshman year, during the spring, that I was on academic probation. So I didn’t get to practice spring football that year, and the team gave me a lady that helped me organize my class schedule, and that’s kind of what got me on track. Because then I learned how to manage my time, when to start assignments, when to study for tests, all that kind of thing. And then the following year I made the academic All-ACC team, and then I was fine after that.”
JW: Was there anyone in the football program then who discussed life skills with the players?
Roberts: “I would say assistant coaches tried to do some of that, but there’s just not enough time in their day to do that. They had to focus on why they were hired to come here. So there was no one specifically doing this type of work. It would have been great to have had someone to go to that wasn’t a coach, who didn’t really have an impact on whether I was playing or not. Even for me, that’s a fine line I gotta walk. I don’t want the guys to look at me as Coach Roberts, because then that kind of insinuates that I might have some impact on whether they play or not. I’d rather be Big Brother Roberts, someone that’s going to put an arm around them and pat them on the back, but also give them a swift kick when they need to get it going. I feel like that’s why they brought me here, because I have been through a lot of what a lot of these kids have gone through, and I’ve done a lot since I’ve left here, and since I’ve left the NFL, that I think will translate really well into this position.”
JW: How would you describe your vision for the life skills program?
Roberts: “I think a lot of the job is going to come down to my interaction with the kids, and building trust with them and making them comfortable enough to know that I’m here to help. I’m not here to expedite them being kicked out of school or anything like that. I’m here to help them succeed here on and off the field. If I can help them understand how to manage their lives away from football, then I feel like I’ve done a great service to them, and I feel like that’s why I’m here.”
JW: In what areas do you believe you can have the greatest impact?
Roberts: “One is, I want to get the guys to really, truly understand the opportunity that they have here, that they’re at one of the top universities in the world. And I need to give them more opportunities to take advantage of that and show them how to take advantage of that and coach them how to take advantage of that. The second thing is, we’re talking about what the Virginia Cavalier brand is. Mike always says, ‘Go to class, and show class.’ So what does that really mean, and how do you live that out, so that you can really, truly buy into not only the branding of this team and this program, but also your personal branding?
“There’s roughly 40,000 people on Grounds every day, and you’re going to come in touch with a lot of them. You never know who you’re walking by, who’s around you on Grounds. You could be sitting next to the next senator or president or CEO of some company, and you want to put forth a brand that’s going to be memorable, so you can take advantage of those connections. And then the greater Charlottesville area, it’s another 40,000 or so citizens. And the thing that’s interesting is that the football team makes up such a small percentage of that community, but it gets a lot of the exposure in the community. And so the kids have to understand that that exposure, whether it’s fair or unfair, is there, and that people are watching and [evaluating] every single decision that you make.”
JW: How important is it for players not to be defined solely by their participation in football?
Roberts: “When I was at the University of Washington, I did an internship with Todd Turner out there, and they had a Career Night where they would bring in all these business owners from around the city, and then the players from all the [UW] sports teams would go, and they would get few minutes with each [business owner]. You just talk to people about what they do, what you’re interested in. You can talk to them about internships. At the same time, you’re doing the whole personal branding thing again, letting them know what you’re all about. They can start seeing you as something other than the player in the football box, and that way you can start to stretch your network. You get to see what the world is like outside of football, so it’s not so insulated. That’s one of the things I really want to try to get done here, because you do get stuck into this little world where you put yourself in the box as just a football player. And it’s my job to expand those walls and incorporate more things in there that they’re capable of being, simply because I’ve done it. Quite frankly, when I retired from football, it was pretty tough, because I felt like that’s all I was. But then I started exploring these other things that I was interested in and found out that I had more to offer people than just football. I could have conversations with CEOs of companies about something other than who’s going to win the game on Sunday afternoon. By being able to express myself like that, it opened up a lot of doors for me.”
JW: Most college football players dream of playing in the NFL, but few of them actually make it. Do you need to remind UVa players of that fact?
Roberts: “The thing you have to be careful with, you don’t ever want to squash someone’s dream and desire to get there. The thing I think I have to do, whether they’re hearing it or not, is just constantly remind them that there is a life after football, no matter when that life after football starts. It can be after your first year of college, it can be after your first year in the NFL, it can be after your fourth year of college. It can be at any point. This game will end for you, and at that point these are the things that you need to fall back on and rely on.”
JW: How did you go after developing a game plan for life after football?
Roberts: “One of the great things for me was my agent, Joe Sroba. Joe played football here and graduated from here, and the thing I liked about Joe was he had a different perspective on what it meant to be a professional athlete. From Day One he had me thinking about stuff outside of football. And so my whole career, I was fortunate enough to have him, because some agents are just in it to get their check and put another notch in their belt and move on to the next guy. But Joe took his time to explain to me why this was important. It doesn’t mean, though, that when I retired that made it easy. Because when I retired, it felt like someone had died, like football was gone, and I had this grieving process I went through, and it took me a while to kind of get back on my feet and get going. But I always had this idea that there was more I had to offer and more I had to do after football.”
JW: What’s it like being back in Charlottesville after all these years?
Roberts: “Living out in Seattle for the last 20 years, our family has been exposed to a lot of resources, and I always say we kind of lived high on the hog for a little while. And I just felt like this move comes at a perfect time for my family to come here and slow the pace down a little bit, to learn how to live with less. Our kids can understand the value of an education, of smaller, tighter communities, of having a purpose: seeing their dad get up in the morning and go to work, those kinds of things. I just felt like it was perfect timing.”