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Meet the most unlikely starter in this Super Bowl

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – The most unlikely starter in the Super Bowl on Sunday looks more like a walk-on point guard than a middle linebacker. New England Patriots second-year stalwart Elandon Roberts is shorter than his listed height of 6-foot, far outside the paradigm for starters in his position in the league.

Roberts’ ultimate Super Bowl underdog story began as a senior at Port Arthur (Texas) Memorial High School, when his best college offer came as a greyshirt at Louisiana-Lafayette. Roberts declined, accepted a scholarship at FCS Morgan State and began a meandering journey where he’s bullied his way to an NFL career.

Too short? Too small? Too bad. Roberts emerged as so valuable and violent, so reliable and productive, that teams at every level along the way couldn’t ignore him. It started at Morgan State, when he led the team in tackles and earned All-American honors. He then essentially recruited Houston to recruit him, transferring there after one semester at Morgan and led major college football in solo tackles as a senior.

Elandon Roberts learned early that hitting hard and often was the key for him making it in football. (AP)
Elandon Roberts learned early that hitting hard and often was the key for him making it in football. (AP)

Picked in the sixth round by the Patriots, it was the same story unfolding in a new setting. Roberts made a point to remember the names of reporters who predicted he’d be cut in training camp and stuck around to playfully remind them of their mistakes. “Being a kid and always looked over, you become hard-nosed,” Roberts told Yahoo Sports. “You get to the point where you realize you need to be the most aggressive guy, hit harder and run faster than anyone else.”

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During the 2015 season at Houston, the team’s weekly hype video often interspersed a fitting video clip. In “The Town,” a movie about bank robbers in Boston, there’s a scene when the character played by Ben Affleck comes home with a pithy request for his lifelong friend: “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we’re gonna hurt some people.”

The friend, played by Jeremy Renner, responds without flinching: “Whose car are we gonna take?” (With the requisite Boston accent, it came out lyrically as cahhhr). The friends, clad in hockey masks, proceed to bludgeon some thugs who’d been harassing Affleck’s love interest.

New England Patriots outside linebacker Elandon Roberts will start in the Super Bowl on Sunday. (AP)
New England Patriots outside linebacker Elandon Roberts will start in the Super Bowl on Sunday. (AP)

The clip became a bit of a mantra for an overachieving Houston team that won the American Athletic Conference. The lessons – blind faith, hard hits and loyalty – carried over to Roberts. Houston dominated Florida State, 38-24, in the Peach Bowl that year and Roberts’ eight tackles almost single-handedly bottled up star FSU tailback Dalvin Cook. But in the fourth quarter, FSU swung some momentum and showed the glimmer of a comeback. Then-Houston coach Tom Herman made a rare cameo in the defensive huddle to provide some motivation. “I was probably a little incoherent and rambling,” Herman, now the coach at Texas, recalled in a phone interview this week. “E-Rob starts laughing. He said, ‘Coach we got this!”

Roberts grinned on Wednesday ahead of the Super Bowl when asked what he said: “Hey coach, we’re going to take my cahhhr this time!” Herman chuckles and admits he walked away at that point, declaring, “We’re good! E-Rob says we’re good!” He adds, in a more serious tone: “There are two leaders I’ve had that I’d put in a class above all others: [Ohio State quarterback] J.T. Barrett and Elandon Roberts. That’s how much I think of him as a leader and teammate.”

Roberts showed that confidence and leadership at every step of his journey. In his home visit with then-Morgan State head coach Donald Hill-Eley, he offered a simple promise: “Coach, if you give me this chance, I’m going to show you.” He delivered, winning a starting job in camp by such a large margin that the upperclassmen he beat out didn’t even grumble. “No one called him a coach’s pet or any of that,” Hill-Eley said. “They knew he was the best player in that corps.”

Roberts ended up at Houston by pitching Cougar defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant, showing him film while Bryant visited his high school, Port Arthur (Texas) Memorial. Bryant told Roberts he’d get back to him in two days with an answer, and he called the next day with a scholarship offer. The day after Roberts arrived at Houston, Bryant got fired and a struggle to emerge on the depth chart ensued for the 2013 and 2014 seasons until Herman’s staff arrived for his senior year. “He was probably written off by the other staff,” said former Houston strength coach Yancy McKnight. “But the one thing that stuck out was that he was an enthusiastic cat.”

Under former Houston coach Tony Levine’s staff, Roberts developed a reputation as a player who practiced so hard that it annoyed his teammates. Star Houston quarterback Greg Ward, now on the Eagles practice squad, recalled Roberts “making practice miserable for some guys.” But his style, which was enthusiastic bordering on reckless, was embraced by Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.

Roberts credits Orlando for giving him a concise blueprint on how to channel that energy into his middle linebacker spot. He started all 14 games in 2015, earned a unanimous vote for team captain and led the nation with 88 solo tackles. He boldly declared at his pro day that he was the best middle linebacker in the country and said he still believes he’s the best linebacker in that draft class.

Roberts ending up in New England as a sixth-round pick can be traced back to Houston’s game against Navy in 2015. Roberts registered 4.5 tackles for loss in that game, which caught the eye of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. (It was no secret that Belichick was a huge fan of Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds). Consider that Belichick has watched hundreds and hundreds of Navy games in his life, as he grew up the son of a Navy assistant, but Roberts’ instincts and ability to snuff out the triple-option stood out. (Roberts is aware of this, but said he and Belichick have never talked about the game.)

He’s kept making plays since arriving in New England, starting five games as a rookie and 14 this season, still trying to hit harder and run faster – the same formula that’s given him a keen appreciation of his journey. “Going through what I went through built me into a better person, better football player,” he said Wednesday.

As he starts in the Super Bowl on Sunday, Roberts continues on his improbable path. And if anyone asks, he’ll be happy to drive.

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