Away from the bright lights of Judy Kirsch Stadium, Nick Roberts talks nothing like he runs. With a football tucked in his arm, the young man who is about to rewrite the Brunswick High record book is fast, flashy and instinctive.
When confronted by a stranger with a pen and notepad — the stranger happens to be a man, which hasn’t always been the easiest gender for the 18-year-old to trust — Roberts chooses his words slowly, carefully.
The tailback speaks eloquently about just now starting to talk with his biological father, about quitting football in the sixth and seventh grades because he couldn’t handle a male authority figure and about maturing and using the game to better his life.
His voice is quiet, soft, almost emotionless, like he wants to give outsiders a peak into his world, but doesn’t want to let them get too close.
Maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to let them down.
Maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to be let down.
Maybe it’s a combination of the two.
“If you feel sorry for yourself,” Roberts says, “you get stuck. You’ve got to move on. That’s life. Nobody gets it the same way.
“I got it better than a lot of people in the world, but you’re never going to understand it till you live in somebody else’s shoes. Even then, you won’t really know. You only know how to be you.”
Roberts was born in Detroit, but his father — Roberts didn’t want his name used — was not really in his life until they start-ed talking last year.
“As a black male not having a father, most of my father figures were on the TV screen,” Roberts says without raising his voice in the slightest. “That’s where I learned what I thought I was supposed to do and how I was supposed to act as a man.
“It gets you confused. I’ve always warned myself not to be like my father, to be able to rise above, give back and help others, especially when it comes to raising kids. My main goal, if I ever make it big, is to spread it.”
By spread it, Roberts means the wealth. And the love. And goodness and happiness and all that stuff.
While open to building some type of relationship with his father, Roberts is guarded. He is also critical of the man, and when a reporter stops taking notes long enough to point out Roberts’ father will likely read this and feel hurt, even without his name being mentioned, the quiet voice offers no apologies.
“He understands,” Roberts says evenly. “He knows.”
By contrast, the young man likely to obliterate Brunswick career records for rushing yards and attempts is extremely grateful for everything his mother, Norma, has done for him, even if he didn’t always make it easy on her.
Norma moved her family — Roberts has an older brother and younger sister — to Parma before her middle child was in kindergarten, then moved to Brunswick when Roberts, now 5-foot-9 and a ripped 185 pounds, was in grade school.
“Nick’s grown up and gotten more confidence, but he’s always been a good kid,” third-year Brunswick coach Luke Beal says. “I’ve never had a problem with Nick. He’s always respectable and he’s a good citizen in school. We don’t have to worry about that.”
Roberts always had football talent, but he wasn’t always the most coachable player, as evidenced by the fact he quit teams in the sixth and seventh grades.
“I quit a lot,” he says, the slightest trace of a wistful smile forming, then quickly disappearing — just like his father did.
“When you’re getting coached up by a man,” he adds, “that is very different when your mother has raised you. That’s hard to accept at first.”
Strong-willed, maybe even stubborn and bullheaded, Roberts stuck things out his eighth-grade year, then saw varsity action as a Brunswick freshman, a notable accomplishment for a storied Division I program that annually dresses more than 100 players.
Progress on the gridiron was fairly steady from that point, though Roberts was hindered by a sprained ankle in his sophomore year.
“Football gives him structure,” says Beal, who took over prior to Roberts’ 10th-grade year. “Having goals and something to work for has been really good for Nick. It gives him something to work toward.”
It could result in a free college education via a full athletic scholarship to a Division I school, but Roberts still has a few obstacles to overcome.
Though his grade-point average is slightly over 2.0, Roberts has not yet received the required score on the ACT. He seems resigned to spending two years at a junior college, though Beal still thinks his star running back can meet NCAA standards and be eligible to play as a freshman.
If that happens, a number of Mid-American Conference schools — and maybe some bigger programs — are prepared to give Roberts, who consistently runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and has been clocked as fast as 4.31, a scholarship.
If it doesn’t, Roberts has dealt with disappointment and personal setbacks before. He’ll do it again.
“It was a lot of stress at first, feeling like I didn’t belong here,” he says, once again in an extremely soft, level tone. “I didn’t really better myself and I got myself in a bind, but everybody has a story.”
For the record
When the final chapter of Roberts’ football story at Brunswick is written, it is likely to include a number of school records.
Currently with 2,334 yards rushing, he should break Demetrius Harris’ career record of 2,755 in the fourth or fifth week of the season, barring injury. Harris, incidentally, was Gazette MVP in 1994 and went on to play at Pitt, where he started as a true freshman.
Roberts, who rushed for 1,399 yards as a junior, the third-highest total in school history, is also a threat to break Bob Gency’s season record of 1,542, set in 1980. Gency, incidentally, was Gazette MVP that year and went on to play at Kent State.
Already with 375 carries, Roberts is on pace to smash Butch Newhouse’s career record of 472 attempts. Newhouse, incidentally, got a full ride to Northwestern before a back injury ended his career.
If any of this excites Roberts, he’s not letting on.
“It meant something to me years ago,” he says, sounding much older than 18. “To have a legacy, what I really think about is helping the team win. That’s a bigger legacy, helping the team do that. The personal stuff comes after.
“It’s very important to make the playoffs. It’s time to get back to where we were. We look forward to getting there.”
Ah, the playoffs. Brunswick made the postseason every year from 2001-09, but the last time the Blue Devils played in Week 11, Roberts was a seldom-used freshman.
When he rushed 160 times for 740 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010, Brunswick went 5-5, its worst record since going 3-7 in 2000.
Last year, when Roberts rushed for 14 TDs, the Blue Devils started 5-0 but finished 6-4, marking the first time they missed the playoffs two straight years since 1997 and ’98.
With D-III state title contender Mentor Lake Catholic coming to town tonight and the likes of Solon and Mentor on tap in the Northeast Ohio Conference Valley Division, reaching the postseason this year won’t be easy.
But almost nothing has been for Roberts, who with neither shame nor bravado says he would be “a hoodlum” without football.
“It’s only four years of your life, but it goes by fast,” he says of high school. “You’re in the moment, so it’s hard to take it all in at the time, but I’m 20 times more mature than I used to be. Thirty times. Forty times. One-thousand times.
Then the young man who runs so fast and effortlessly pauses, collects his thoughts and adds, “I was confused by life, you know? Now I know what life is about.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.