Football great Willie Roaf was not heavily recruited coming out of Pine Bluff (Arkansas) high school in the late eighties, so much so that he considered pursuing basketball instead of football at the college level.
The choice to pursue a career on the gridiron was a very wise one, as Roaf became a consensus First Team All-American at Louisiana Tech and a finalist for the Outland Trophy his senior season. He made such an impact at the collegiate level that he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
“Nasty” was drafted in first round of the 1993 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints. He went on to forge a 13-year NFL career and garner awards and accolades that few lineman could match. Suiting up for nine seasons with the Saints and four with the Kansas City Chiefs, Roaf was selected to 11 Pro Bowls, was a six time NFL First Team All-Pro and a three time NFL Second Team All-Pro. He was named to the NFL’s All- Decade Team for the 1990’s and the 2000’s.
Now making his home in Jupiter, FL, he talked with us about his experience at the Upper Deck rookie photo shoot, his special relationship with fans and the construction of his massive mancave.
Tony Reid- As a high level athlete, you have signed your name countless times for fans. When was the first time you were asked for your autograph?
Willie Roaf-I think it was my senior year in college. I just remember thinking ‘Wow, people want my autograph!’ I am a lineman. I wasn’t a running back or anything like that. People didn’t know me as much. I started getting attention after my senior year. I went to an all-star game. We went to the Hula Bowl. Man, going to Hawaii and spending time with the guys and being on vacation was a lot of fun. We were getting ready for the pros and it was nice to have some money in your pocket. That’s never a bad thing. I just remember being so excited to be in the Hula Bowl and getting some notoriety. I was barely recruited going into college and now I am looking at the chance of being a high first round pick. It was really fun.
TR–What is your most memorable fan interaction over the course of your playing days?
WR-When we went to training camp in La Crosse (Wisconsin), I had a bunch of guys that I became really good friends with. They were there when I started camp in 1993. When I went to Kansas City we were in River Falls (Wisconsin). All those guys I knew from training camp came there to see me! They went from being little kids to being grown men. They went from being like 10 years old to 20-something years old.
These guys were such good friends that they would come see me in training camp. Whenever we played the Vikings they would come see me. We just had a great friendship. I see fans now that will bring me pictures from when I was in the league and now they are grown up. These fans are really loyal. The guys I was talking about, I would get them tickets to games. There is a guy named Ryan that I became friends with in Kansas City. He is one of the biggest Chiefs fans ever. He’s at all the games. When we are in Kansas City my wife and I go to dinner with him and his wife. He just had a baby. Now Ryan is a really good friend. It’s when you and the fans develop some relationship that goes past the game and then those people are really your fans on and off the field. It’s special. I consider some of the fans I encounter during my career very good friends now.
TR–Your rookie cards appeared in 1993 included in products like Upper Deck, Topps, Bowman and Stadium Club, among others. How special was it the first time you saw yourself on a trading card?
WR-I am coming from Tech and Upper Deck brought us to California for a rookie photo shoot. We are staying at the Lowes Hotel on the water in Santa Monica. We had to go get dressed for the shoot. I am in the same room with all of the first round draft picks. I’m in there with all of the guys I played against. Rick Mirer, Jerome Bettis, all of those guys. I’m in the room with all of these guys. We put on our new uniforms. We went and did the photo shoot at a local football stadium. It was the Upper Deck card you see today. I have my Saints uniform on and I am taking a knee.
I think we got 30 or 40 grand to do this thing. I thought I’d made it. It was a lot of fun. The picture on the back of the card we took at the hotel. I had my multi colored shirt on. I had my chain and my pinky ring on. I thought I was cute. I did that Upper Deck deal and it was a lot of fun.
TR–Did you manage to hold on to cards of yourself over the years?
WR– I have some stuff boxed up. I have them in sleeves. It’s probably about a hundred different cards. My rookie year, if you remember, they had the McDonalds deal. If you got a meal you would get a card. I remember being on those cards at McDonalds.
In Denver, they had me sitting on blocks of ice for the photo shoot. I remember all of those different shoots. Some of the shots on my rookie cards were from training camp and stuff like that. It was a lot of fun to see. When people would bring me cards it seemed like a new one every time. In fact, I just signed a bunch of stickers last week for Panini. I signed about 1,500 stickers for them last week.
TR– You are a Pro Football Hall of Famer, a College Football Hall of Famer and All Decade Team in multiple decades. Do you have a collection of your own memorabilia today?
WR-We are building a house and the third floor will be the man cave. It’s a good view. I will have all my trophies displayed. I will have all of my cards and footballs and all of that. This is it. We aren’t going to move any more. It will be the man cave but the man cave will be on the third floor.
WR-Making it to the Hall, man. It would have been great to get a Super Bowl ring but there are only 300 of us in the hall. My family was there. When I made it to the Hall then the Roaf name is in there forever. Everybody for generations will be able to go there and see Willie Roaf. My kids and grandkids and everybody down the line will be able to be a part of that. That is never going away.