Dr. Clifton Roaf of Pine Bluff died last week.
If you’re a sports fan, you probably know more about his son than you know about Dr. Roaf. After all, Willie Roaf was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
I can tell you this: Dr. Roaf was one of the most inspiring men I’ve ever met. I came to know him when I worked as the director of corporate communications for Simmons Bank. He served on the bank’s board and also on the board of the Simmons Foundation.
His prayers before foundation board luncheons at the Simmons Building in downtown Pine Bluff were legendary, as were the pep talks he would give when things weren’t going as well as he thought they should be going in southeast Arkansas.
No one ever loved Pine Bluff more than Dr. Roaf. In a town where race relations have long been an issue, he was the consistent voice of reason.
He was just one part of the amazing Roaf family.
His wife, the late Andree Layton Roaf, became the first black woman to serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court when she was appointed by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to succeed retiring Justice Steele Hays in January 1995. She wasn’t eligible to run for a full term on the high court but was appointed by Gov. Mike Huckabee to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, where she served for almost a decade. Andree Roaf died in 2009.
Sports Illustrated has had a number of talented writers through the years, and Gary Smith rates near the top of that list. In 1993, Smith wrote about the Roaf family.
“She carries a book with her,” Smith wrote of Andree Roaf. “She always does. Tonight it’s ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand. She walks to the framed photographs that cover the top of the piano. Heads. Suits. Ties. Smiles. They are the prologue to her tale. They must be revealed first.
“She points to her grandfather, who won a scholarship to Yale in the early 1900s, graduated and became a teacher and the executive director of the Norfolk, Va., YMCA. Then to her other grandfather, a college graduate, superintendent of a school for orphans and wayward children.
“There’s her mother, Phoebe. Top five in her high school class, scholarship to Talladega College, honors graduate, master’s degree from Michigan State.
“And her father, William. Master’s degree from Fisk, director of equal employment opportunity for the Federal Reserve System, local executive director in the Urban League, poet, thespian, community leader.
“Here’s her sister, Mary. Honor student, master’s degree from New York University, former assistant postmaster general, now director of communications for the Child Welfare League of America. Next, her late sister, Serena. Honor student, Michigan State grad, clarinet player, advertising copywriter.
“Over here is Andree’s husband, Cliff, co-valedictorian of his high school class, degree in dentistry from Howard, member of the school board in Pine Bluff for 21 years. … Next to him there’s Andree herself. Honor student, Michigan State grad, law review, second in her law class at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a 3.78 grade point average. … Look, there’s Andree’s oldest child, Phoebe. Presidential scholar, cum laude graduate of Harvard, master’s degree from Princeton, research officer for a nonprofit organization designing programs for disadvantaged youths. And Andree’s second child, Mary. Honor student, winner of two state oratory contests, graduate of Georgetown, seventh-grade teacher at an inner-city school in Washington, D.C.”
And then there was Willie, one of the greatest offensive tackles to ever play the game.
Willie has often told reporters that his mother would have preferred that he become a doctor or an attorney. He was attracting so little interest from college recruiters as a football player at Pine Bluff High School that he considered switching to basketball.
Finally, Willie decided to play football at Louisiana Tech University. He was 6-4, 220 pounds when he went to Tech, small for a college offensive lineman. By his sophomore season, he was 6-5, 300 pounds.
Louisiana Tech played Alabama, Baylor, South Carolina, Ole Miss and West Virginia, allowing professional scouts plenty of opportunities to watch him by his senior season. Willie was picked in the first round of the 1993 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints. He was the eighth selection overall and the first offensive lineman to be drafted that year. Willie spent the first nine years of a 13-year NFL career with the Saints. He started 131 games for New Orleans and helped the franchise to its first playoff win, a 2000 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.
A torn ligament in his right knee forced Willie to miss the second half of the 2001 season. He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons. Roaf was voted to the Pro Bowl 11 times in 13 seasons. He earned a spot on the NFL All-Decade teams for the 1990s and 2000s.
Clifton Roaf was one of nine children who grew up in a four-room house at Pine Bluff. Smith described Dr. Roaf’s father as a man who “loaded railroad freight, worked fields, sawed wood and pushed mops to survive.”
Pine Bluff was among the most segregated cities in the South in those days. Dr. Roaf would later say that one could “look at an address and tell whether the person was white or black.”
“Sure he had been his high school’s co-valedictorian, but sports had always been his true love,” Smith wrote. “He had spent Friday nights playing football and Saturday mornings picking cotton, and he had become an all-state defensive lineman talented enough to do what was virtually unheard of for a black teenager in Arkansas in the 1950s — win a scholarship to a Big Ten school. But here he was (at Michigan State), hobbling through his senior year on a kneeful of mush, teaching freshman lineman how to pass rush, no longer even on the roster.”
Dr. Roaf had attended all-black Merrill High School at Pine Bluff.
In 1958, one of the city’s largest employers, International Paper Co., paid a Michigan State education professor named Raymond Hatch to evaluate the city’s schools. Dr. Roaf told the Pine Bluff Commercial years later: “What he found, of course, was a big discrepancy between the educational facilities at Pine Bluff High School and those at Merrill. They told him that they perhaps had someone who could go from this small segregated school in Pine Bluff and matriculate through a major white university, and that someone was I. Dr. Hatch was instrumental in me getting the scholarship to go there.”
Dr. Roaf boarded a train in 1959 and vowed that he would never return to the South. He had his train ticket, a copy of his financial aid agreement with Michigan State, a bag of clothes and $30.
Clifton Roaf was the first of several dozen black players from the South who were recruited during the tenure of legendary Coach Duffy Daugherty. Football success eluded Dr. Roaf at Michigan State, though.
“When I got hurt again in the Green and White game my second year, it ended for all practical purposes my athletic career,” he told the Commercial.
He met Andree, however.
She had been born in Nashville, Tenn., in a family where academics were stressed.
“To think how innocent it all seemed,” Smith wrote. “How benignly it began. A lovely spring Saturday in 1961 at Michigan State. A blind date for Cliff Roaf and Andree Layton, arranged by the girlfriend of Cliff’s teammate, Herb Adderly. Andree, a knockout — that was the scouting report. A little quirky perhaps. Rarely went to parties. Never had a boyfriend. Burned a hole clean through her sheet and mattress pad at age 11 with a hot light bulb while reading under the blanket at midnight so her parents wouldn’t know.
“A knockout bookworm, a wonderful anomaly. Cliff was intrigued. Never mind his right knee, which burned like dripping candle wax from his collision with another player that afternoon in the annual Green-White intrasquad game. Never mind the assistant coach’s order that Cliff, a sophomore backup defensive lineman for the Spartans, go to the campus hospital that night. A knockout bookworm. Besides, if they said the knee needed surgery, it would mean weeks of missed classes, certain failure in physics and chemistry, no college degree for a young man whose family had no money, none, to pay for an extra semester once his four-year academic-athletic scholarship ran out. Cliff was going to get a college degree. He found a cane. He hobbled through the date with Andree. They talked ideas. They talked books. His eyes kept growing bigger. So did his knee. It was a mango in the morning.
“The knee would never recover. Duffy Daugherty made the pain worse, burying Cliff in the depth chart for insubordination. All in one day Cliff lost a football career and gained a wife.
“‘They went into my living room at home and read — that’s how they dated,’ recalls Andree’s father, William Layton, a Renaissance man who loved writing and reading and acting and dancing and singing.”
Though she was born in Nashville, Andree later grew up in Ohio and Michigan. She wanted to pursue a career in biological sciences and graduated in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology. Cliff and Andree were married in July 1963. She was a bacteriologist for the Michigan Department of Health in Lansing from 1963-65. Andree then worked as a research biologist for the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in Washington, D.C., while her husband was training at Howard to be a dentist.
The couple moved to Pine Bluff in 1969 so Dr. Roaf could begin his practice. Andree was a staff assistant for the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency from 1971-75 and then worked as a biologist with the National Center for Toxicological Research. She began driving to Little Rock for law school in 1975 and graduated in 1978. She taught at the law school for a year before joining the Pine Bluff firm Walker Roaf Campbell Ivory & Dunklin in 1979.
“I had to get another degree of some kind,” Andree Roaf said of her decision to attend law school. “In my family, if you only have a B.A., you feel like a dropout.”
In addition to being in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame, Willie Roaf was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
“It’s amazing to think a kid like me from Pine Bluff, barely recruited to college and signing with a program just entering NCAA Division I, could end up one of the best to play the game at my position,” he said. “It shows young football players from Arkansas that with a lot of hard work and great character you can achieve anything. I had great coaches and teammates along the way to help guide me. I always competed hard and strived to be the best.”
It didn’t hurt a bit to have Clifton Roaf and Andree Layton Roaf as parents.
They were a remarkable Arkansas couple.
Rex, it is interesting that just days after you published this piece, the obituary of Dr. Clifton Roaf is in this morning’s newspaper. My sympathy to his remarkable family.