In at least one respect, Pro Football Hall of Famer and New Orleans Saints legend Willie Roaf is just like everyone else right now.
As the world around him creeps back toward something that feels normal, Roaf has turned to outdoors exercise as a way to escape the house. And, when his grandson Elijah recently turned 1, he got in the car and made the nearly 20-hour round trip drive to and from Gulfport, Mississippi, to see him.
He is a proud family man. Before launching into a conversation centered on himself, Roaf brought up all his children -- Jordan Simmons, the mother of his two grandchildren, Elijah and Grace; his two children who live in New Orleans; his youngest, Carrington Roaf, who is getting ready to go to LSU; Dillon Roaf, who is at UNO; and Alexis Roaf, who is attending school in California. His step daughter, Raven Gray, lives near him in Florida.
A family man who just wants to get some exercise in retirement -- a story many people can relate to.
Then again, Roaf isn't like most people most of the time. He has earned Hall of Fame status essentially everywhere he's been. He is one of the best to ever play offensive tackle in the NFL, and he squared off against some of the best to ever play defensive line.
The New Orleans Advocate -- Times-Picayune caught up with Roaf and asked him to share some stories from the past and present. Oddly enough, after exchanging pleasantries, it was Roaf who led off this week's Q&A with the first question.
Willie Roaf: Where you from? Where'd you grow up?
TP: I'm from Wisconsin originally, but I went to college here in Louisiana.
Wisconsin? What part? We used to do training camp up there in La Crosse, then when I went to the Chiefs we were in River Falls.
I remember that!
We used to call it the Cheese Factory. The good ole days.
So how have you been staying busy during this pandemic?
I'm out there riding my bike a lot more, getting outside more. A lot of people have been trying to get outside. I've been trying to stay active, so I get on my bike or walk around for long periods of time. Today was the first day I got to go back to the gym in a couple months. Yesterday, I got to go to the dog park. I have three dogs, but one of them my stepdaughter has, so we have two little dogs (at the house). I've been tired of staying around the house.
I understand the need to get outside and ride a bike. I've been doing a lot of that, and I feel like a lot of other people are too.
Things are opening up. I'm on the highway now, and I see a lot more cars. There's a lot more people out here. The restaurants have all been doing takeout, and I see the mayor of New Orleans on CNN -- I've been watching some of the news channels, and I see her talking about the reopening. I lost a good friend of mine in New Orleans. His name was Ed West. He was a diabetic, but he was in good shape. I think he probably got it (COVID-19) during Mardi Gras, and by the time he went to the hospital, it was in his lungs. He went to the hospital on Monday, was on a ventilator by Tuesday and by Friday he passed away.
These are really tough times we're going through as a country, but especially tough when it starts hitting close to home.
Let's shift gears. I read that you were deciding between basketball and football as a kid. You ever think about how things would have changed if you chose basketball?
I don't know if I would've made it to the Hall of Fame, I don't know if I would have made it to the NBA. That would've been different. But you go on your journey, and you never know where life is going to take you. It took me to Louisiana Tech and it took me to New Orleans, and I became one of the best players to play down there. In the mid- to late-90s I was probably the man on the team, and I cherished those times even though we weren't winning as much. But I think I made the best of it.
If I'd have been a little taller, if I'd have been about 6-7 -- right now, I'm about 6-4, 6-5 -- if I'd have been a little taller I probably would've kept on playing basketball, to be honest. I was kind of raw at both sports; I was just learning. But I'd played football all my life. My dad (Clifton Roaf) was all-state football and basketball, went to Michigan State on a football scholarship, so I think he was kind of leaning toward me playing football. I had more fun playing football and all that, so that's what happened. I kept on playing, and the rest was history.
What do you remember about the day you were picked in the draft?
I just remember walking on (Louisiana Tech's) campus at 225 pounds, going from that to being redshirted and starting about 250 (pounds) my redshirt freshman year, every year getting bigger but still real quick. For me to go from having only two scholarship offers. Really, La Tech came to see other guys when they saw me. They offered them, and they both committed, and they both ended up going to Arkansas State. They weren't coming to see me at Pine Bluff High. I went from probably a two-star recruit -- I wasn't even all-state -- to being the first offensive lineman taken in the draft. It was special.
I remember being in New York. It was one of the first drafts they had on TV. I remember before that year I was (projected) to be a second- or third-round pick. ... But I did well at the combine and at the Shrine game and the Hula Bowl. Lo and behold, I'm a top-10 pick. I was happy. You pinch yourself. You're going top 10, and you barely were recruited from a small school.
It was a special moment for all of us. We went out in New York, and that was a fun night. You get drafted and you're able to go out and take your friends out, your family out, and you have a nice dinner, and being able to have money in your pocket to pay for everything makes you feel a lot better, too.
So you get into the league in 1993, and you spent 13 seasons playing in the NFL. Who was the toughest guy you ever went against?
My rookie year, I played Reggie White. I actually met him before the season. ... He came down to Little Rock (Arkansas) to do a benefit basketball game that I played in. So I'd met him before. My rookie year was a lot of fun, but they came back and beat us. The Green Bay Packers threw a touchdown to Sterling Sharpe to beat us. We were up on them; that was a good game.
(Editor's note: Roaf's memory about this 26-year-old game was pretty close. Sharpe never found the end zone that day, but he did catch a 54-yard pass on the final possession to set up a game-winning field goal with three seconds remaining in a 19-17 Saints loss in the Superdome. White had two sacks.)
(White) gave me some praise after the game and said I did a good job. Playing against Reggie and getting him to say I did a good job after the game was very special to me."
I believe it.
He was a strong man. Very strong.
I bet it was validating to have a player like that praise you after the game.
One of the best football players ever. For him to say that I did a good job and that I was a good player, coming from Reggie White, it was very special for him to say that.
You mentioned meeting him on the basketball court. Was he any good at that sport?
(Editor's note: White's signature pass rushing move was called the hump move, in which he'd club an offensive lineman with his right arm to get them off-balance.)
He was okay. Reggie was not as quick. If you watch Reggie (play football), they never did a twist with Reggie. He would just come up and hump you. He was strong. One of the strongest guys I ever went against in the NFL. That hump move, I don't care if you were set properly, you were going to get humped. What I did was, I short-setted him most of the time. I wasn't going to set back and let him get a head of steam and use that hump move, You had to get your hands on him quicker. But he's going to toss you a little bit sooner or later.
So you spent nine years as a player in New Orleans with a lot of success here individually, but not as much as a team. What's your best memory of your time in New Orleans -- that first playoff win against the Rams?
Oh yeah, by far. That 2000 season, after the tough stretch we had the year before and in the mid-90s we were struggling some. For us to get that playoff win, especially when we got it done with the quarterback (Aaron Brooks) getting hurt and Ricky Williams getting hurt, and in the playoff game Joe Horn getting hurt and then Willie Jackson catching three touchdowns.
The way the defense stepped up, the way the offensive line and defensive line set the tone. I always have good memories of that. The Saints had been knocking on the door but couldn't get a playoff win. We finally got that one.
And it was the defending Super Bowl champs who we knocked off, and then they ended up going back to the Super Bowl the next year. That means we did something pretty special.
Knowing what it was like in that moment for the team and the city to get its first playoff win, what's it like for you to see the franchise contending for a Super Bowl every year now?
I'm so happy to see how far the organization has come. To have Drew Brees, one of the best players in NFL history, the most accurate quarterback in NFL history, what he's been able to put together with coach Payton -- being one of the winningest duos in the NFL with all the wins the last 15 years -- it's been fun to watch them play. It's been fun to see them win. It's been heartbreaking to see what has happened these last couple years, especially the year they should've been in the Super Bowl. But it's been a lot of fun to watch them.
Drew and I go back. When he was in San Diego, I was in Kansas City. He was a really good player back then too, even though he was just learning. He got to New Orleans, and him and coach Payton, they'll go down as one of the best coach-quarterback combos in NFL history.