The Pride of Roswell

By Tai Anderson, December 11, 2016

Sam DiRoberto sitting on the R, still in his shoulder pads.

Sam DiRoberto sitting on the R, still in his shoulder pads.

At 2:30 this morning, Sam DiRoberto was sitting on the middle of the 'R' in the middle of Ray Manus Stadium in Roswell, Georgia. It was nearly 3 hours after the completion of Roswell High School's heartbreaking loss to Grayson at the first 7A State Championship game in the Georgia Dome. He was still wearing his shoulder pads.

The fans had long since tucked themselves in bed. Other athletes had changed into their street clothes, updated their twitter accounts, and even posted their highlight clips for potential college scouts. But there Sam remained on the R, in the middle of the football field, still wearing his pads, in a stunned and reverent silence.

If a doctor measured the sweat he had poured out on the Georgia Dome turf combined with the tears that had poured from his eyes following a final kick that drifted 3 feet too wide to continue the game, he/she would probably prescribe a Saline IV, and stat. He’d poured out everything. He gave his all. He was spent. Perhaps, he was too fatigued to take off his shoulder pads. More likely, he just couldn’t hurdle the emotional barrier. You see, Sam knew, once he took off those pads, he would never again put them back on as a Roswell Hornet.

If you’re a casual football fan, it would be easy to cast aspersion on Sam DiRoberto and mistake his tears for emotional immaturity or personal self-pity. I found myself wanting to comfort him with any number of cliches, “Suck it up young man.” “You played great.” “It was still a great season.” “Keep your head up.” “You have nothing to be ashamed of.” Perhaps, Sam was just being a poor sport. After all, the team had an amazing season. We lost in an overtime nail-biter. Someone had to lose. Sam should take off his pads and just move on with his life. I mean It’s just high school football. Right? … Wrong!

I didn’t say that to Sam. I didn’t say anything. Why? Because I know Sam.

What an incredible gift to share this season with my son.

What an incredible gift to share this season with my son.

This season I had the opportunity to be a part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) chaplain squad for the team. Every Monday night, immediately following football practice, we met with the Hornets in the pavilion. We fed the boys pizza and shared our stories with the often exhausted athletes. Then, we put our arms around each other and prayed for humility, for safety, and for favor. On game nights, our FCA squad would gather to pray privately with Coach Ford, lead the team in the “Lord’s prayer” before the game, and pray with any injured athletes should they need us. Being a part of the squad gave me a front row seat to Coach Ford’s incredible leadership, and a sideline pass to the most exciting football I’ve ever witnessed. Additionally, it has provided me with priceless memories of being able to share this season with my son, a junior on the team.

Of all the young men with whom I had the privilege of interacting this season, none made a bigger impression on me than Sam DiRoberto. Every week at FCA, our guest speakers would ask the exhausted athletes to share a personal story or ask questions. That would always be followed by averted eyes and shuffled feet. They are teenagers after all. Sam would always look around and raise his often bruised arm. He would then offer a personal anecdote or a genuinely, curious question. It wasn’t because he was a loudmouth, it was because Sam is a leader. He didn’t want the FCA’s guests to feel unwelcome or unappreciated. When I shared with the team some of my story and the values and behaviors that make up a great leader, Sam approached me afterwards and asked about the Malcolm Gladwell book I referenced so that he could learn more. 

He was born to lead.

Just this last week, our guest speaker at FCA poured out his heart and shared a personal story of how he still honors and loves his mother. He then asked the boys to share what being a Hornet meant to them. Sam looked around to see who might speak. When no one else raised his hand, as always, he raised his into the air, wincing a bit as his shoulder was wrapped in ice.

Sam spoke purposefully as tears welled in his eyes, “My grandmother has Alzheimer's. She forgets things. Sometimes, she even forgets other relatives’ names. But, she always wants to hear about our games. I love sharing about our games with my grandmother because it’s our connection. Even when she can’t remember anything else, she remembers what I share with her. I play for my team, and I’d like to play in college, but I’m playing for her too.”

Some teams are assembled for championships. Talented athletes transfer into the same district to play with one another and have a chance at competing for a state title. It’s a new reality in competitive sports, and complaining about it just sounds like crying over spilled milk. Furthermore, Roswell's team has certainly benefited from some key transfers like our incredibly talented quarterback Malik Willis.

However, Roswell’s team has not been assembled. It has been grown. Right here in Roswell.

The core of the 2016 and 2017 teams have been playing with one another since 2nd and 3rd grade at Roswell Area Park, as Hornets. It was before the park had a turf field of its own. So, the boys would get a special treat of playing at Ray Manus stadium for one game a year. (The Hornets had to replace its own turf prior to this season, largely because it had become waterlogged with the blood, sweat, and tears of these Hornet athletes.)

Class of 2017 after winning the 4th grade championship.

Sam DiRoberto, 4th Grade, #31, Roswell Hornet

The class of 2017, this year's seniors, in 6th grade Jr. Hornets, already gelling as a team.

Then, multiple "rec" teams merged together in middle school as Roswell Jr. Hornets, practicing and playing together at Ray Manus Stadium. While the Varsity Hornets were in the middle of the worst losing streak in Roswell’s history, winning only 2 games in 2 seasons, Coach Ford accepted a position as head coach. Sure, it was a great opportunity for his career, but he also saw the talent in the pipeline in the 2016 and 2017 class and knew great things were coming for Roswell. This current class of Seniors won the GMSAA Championship in 7th grade. Of course, Ford saw the standouts of the last 2 years like Tre Lamar, Marcelino Ball, Jordan Tucker, and Xavier McKinney. But, he saw something else. He saw the leadership of a young man that would someday be a captain for the team, Sam DiRoberto.

Ray Manus Stadium on Friday Night Lights.

Sam sitting on the R in the wee hours of this morning wasn’t about a boy feeling sorry for himself. Even if we had been victorious, Sam would have still shed tears and found it just as difficult to take off his pads. Sam taking his time was about the calm reflection of a young man recognizing the significance of the moment. He has given everything he has to this team for his entire life. It’s all he’s ever known. He’s sweated, and bled, and played through injuries with his teammates, black, white, and brown. Race is irrelevant when you’re wearing the R. The color that matters is green. He has skipped vacations to be with his team. He’s led, vocally when needed, and by example, always. He is a leader worth following.

Will he play in college? Probably, but there is no guarantee. College scouts often measure vertical leaps before they measure character. Sam DiRoberto has impressive statistics. He’s a playmaker, but he could easily fall through the recruitment cracks. If, and wherever he plays again, I have no doubt that he will give his all, but it will never equal what he has given to Roswell. He’s given his youth. All these young men have. Football demands everything you have.

Even as Sam took a bit of extra time to mark the moment of the end of this chapter, perhaps all of us should as well. The GHSA program in the Georgia Dome described the Roswell Hornets and Fellowship Paladins teams as “The Pride of Roswell” last night. Some might look to the number on the scoreboard at the end of the overtime losses for both teams and feel a sense of failure for our community. I’ve shed some tears of my own today, but my pride in Roswell is not diminished. You see, my pride in Roswell is not based on any score, data, or numeric metric. My pride in Roswell is not based on the accomplishments of any team or business.  

My pride in Roswell is in its people … people like Sam DiRoberto.

The sign that the players slap as they leave the field house for the field.

The sign that the players slap as they leave the field house for the field.

In the coming months, our city will need to elect new leadership. There will be City Council vacancies and the opportunity to elect Mayor Jere Wood’s successor. This last year has marked a time of a leadership vacuum for our city as many of our Councilmen have abdicated their role to unify our community to the politics of division and obstruction. With the arrest of Kent Igleheart, their true character has been revealed. However, we will soon have an opportunity to course correct the situation.

What I’m looking for in a leader is someone like Sam DiRoberto. I want a leader who raises his/her hand and speaks from the heart while others shuffle their feet. I want a leader who doesn’t divide people by black and white, but will go to battle for anyone as long as they are fighting for the R. I don’t want a leader who criticizes our schools when they have never attended them or taken the time to meet with our incredible principal Jerome Huff, or the other incredible educators who serve our students. I want leaders who refuse the cowardly path of silence and abstention when it is time to raise their hands for the less fortunate in our community.

I want leaders that we can all admire as much as I admire Sam DiRoberto.