Changes build from early playing days at La. Tech
“I thought he looked like a basketball player.” Hokie Gajan, former Saints scout on his first impression of William Roaf
As an aspiring young athlete growing up in Pine Bluff, Ark., William Roaf never envisioned being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.
Now, the Basketball Hall of Fame, that’s a different story.
A quarter of a century later, it’s no secret that the 6-foot-5 Roaf’s first love was basketball with an eye on playing in college and the NBA and perhaps going against the best that league had to offer.
If Roaf had grown another two or three inches, it might have happened. But when he suddenly stopped growing, his athletic career took a much different path even though he still had several scholarship offers to play college basketball.
Instead, football led him to Louisiana Tech, the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs, and eventually, a spot alongside the all-time greats in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
When Roaf is inducted Saturday night along with five other members of the Class of 2012, he’ll become only the second player to make the Hall based primarily on his Saints career — joining 2010 honoree Rickey Jackson.
But you wouldn’t have known it 24 years ago when former Saints player and scout Hokie Gajan got his first glimpse of Roaf on Tech’s practice field as a skinny redshirt freshman.
“I thought he looked like a basketball player,” Gajan said of his first impressions of the 6-5, 229-pound Roaf.
Gajan, of course, wasn’t there to see Roaf. He was making his rounds during two-a-days in August when former Saints teammate Petey Perot, Tech’s offensive line coach, pointed Roaf out.
“Petey was kind of telling me this kid right here was going to be a good one,” Gajan recalled. “Petey said, ‘He’s got some growing to do,’ and Willie just kept getting bigger and bigger.”
With basketball in his rearview mirror, Roaf grew to more than 300 pounds by the time he was a senior. He earned All-America honors and was named a finalist for the Outland Trophy that is given to the nation’s top lineman.
On the way to becoming the top-ranked offensive lineman on most NFL draft boards in 1993, Roaf put together a résumé that included a dominating performance against All-American defensive end Eric Curry of Alabama.
Using his size, agility and quickness, Roaf dominated Curry, whose stat line that day showed no tackles and no sacks.
“Hell, all you had to do was look at him and figure out that he could play,” Gajan said. “The thing about Willie was he dominated the average player … he completely dominated the great player. That was the difference.”
The thing that separated Roaf from the other offensive linemen was the athletic ability and footwork he developed playing high school basketball. Pro scouts timed him at 4.82 seconds in the 40-yard dash, a stunning time for a man that size.
“Willie was an unusually-good athlete for being such a big guy,” said former Saints coach Jim Mora. “For a 300-pounder, he was a terrific athlete. He had great feet, quick hands and long arms.”
It was everything you would want, and more, in a tackle. Even though they needed help for an aging defensive line, the Saints made Roaf the eighth overall pick — and first offensive lineman taken — in the 1993 draft.
With Curry and defensive end John Copeland already taken off the board, the Saints decided to beef up their offensive line and were left to choose between Roaf and Lincoln Kennedy.
“Did I say in my report that he was going to be a Hall of Famer one day? No,” Gajan said. “But I said barring injuries and stuff like that, he would be a good one for a long time.”
The Saints went with Roaf and never regretted it.
He started from the first day at right tackle and then was moved to the left side for his second season — the first of three consecutive seasons in which he earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors.
Roaf went on to play nine years with the Saints, earning a club-record seven Pro Bowl invitations while starting all 131 games he played in. He was the NFLPA’s Offensive Lineman of the Year in 1994 and ’95 en route to becoming arguably the greatest player in club history.
Arguably because Roaf himself said last week that quarterback Drew Brees is the best player to wear a Saints uniform considering what he’s done the past six years — including leading the franchise to its only Super Bowl victory.
“I think Drew is setting the bar real high,” Roaf said. “He’s the best Saints player to put on the jersey, even though he’s still playing.”
Roaf, however, was part of the franchise’s first playoff win against the St. Louis Rams in 2000, which he proudly lists as one of his greatest accomplishments during his time with the organization.
“The 2000 season was fun; we went 10-6 and won the playoff game and we got the monkey off our back,” he said. “Other than that, just being able to (play) close to home and having so much fun. That’s my fondest memory, all the fun I had.”
After missing the second half of the 2001 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, Roaf had a falling-out with the Saints and was traded to the Chiefs for a third-round draft pick.
Roaf bounced back, however, and played solidly for four seasons there. He was voted to four more Pro Bowls, giving him a total of 11 for his career, which probably helped punch his ticket to Canton quicker. He also was chosen to the NFL’s All-Decade teams in the 1990s and 2000s.
Saints interim coach Joe Vitt was a member of the Chiefs’ coaching for Roaf’s first two seasons there and quickly became a fan.
“He’s potentially the greatest offensive tackle to ever play our game,” said Vitt, who noted that it was an injustice Roaf didn’t get elected to the Hall in his first year of eligibility in 2011. “When you talk about his size and speed, he’s got basketball-type skills.”
And, as former Saints offensive line coach Paul Boudreau noted back then, a lot of football power.
“Paul told me one time that he didn’t believe in drafting offensive linemen in the first round,” Gajan said with a laugh. “He said, ‘I don’t think you should draft anybody that cannot score points for you.’
“Later, he said the first time Willie came off the line and hit one of those big blocking dummies, it made a different sound than he had ever heard before. Paul said, ‘So I’m wrong.’ ”