(Photo by Scott Welton, Staff)
CHARLESTON -- As a probation officer, it is Gerry Roberts' job to make sure offenders don't cross certain lines.
There was a time, however, when Roberts guarded the line of scrimmage on professional football fields.
So how does a defensive lineman from California end up in the Charleston Probation and Parole office? "My wife wanted to come home," Roberts said.
He explained his wife was originally from southern Illinois. When she retired after 17 years as a police officer in Chula Vista, Calif., she wanted to be near her mother. So Roberts retired from his job with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as a parole agent and they relocated to the Midwest.
When his mother-in-law passed away, Roberts found he was bored and got a job with the Missouri Department of Corrections' Division of Probation and Parole in St. Louis.
In late September he transferred to the Charleston Probation and Parole office.
Roberts said he finds his job fulfilling as it makes the community a safer place and, on rare occasions, he may even influence a convict to make a positive change in their life.
"If you get one out of 10 or even one out of 100, that's progress," Roberts said. "We have to believe that we can make a change."
But before he began his job chasing down parole absconders, Roberts' job was chasing down quarterbacks.
"I was a defensive end, but I played anywhere on the line -- I even played defensive tackle and little bit of outside linebacker," he said.
Roberts had several football scholarship offers before graduating from Indio High School in the Palm Springs, Calif., area took a job instead.
"I did that for about a year and I was still being recruited, so I thought I better get a college education and I went to a junior college," he said.
After becoming an junior college all-American player, Roberts accepted a football scholarship offer from the University of California, Los Angeles.
"I chose UCLA over Stanford and USC," he said. "I probably could have chosen almost any Division 1 school at that time."
One of his offers was particularly memorable: "When I was in junior college, 'Bear' Bryant of Alabama personally came and recruited me," he recalled.
While picking UCLA placed him near his family, Roberts said if he had accepted the offer from Stanford University instead, he would have started in more games and could have ended up being a first-round draft pick for the National Football League.
Roberts said he only started in a half-dozen games during his two years at UCLA but still managed to lead the team in sacks.
"That was my forte: sacking the quarterback," Roberts said. "I had some games when I had three sacks per game."
Roberts did not go unnoticed.
In 1974, he was drafted to the Miami Dolphins in the 11th round by legendary talent scout Bobby Beathard, who had assembled the team's 1972 "No-Name Defense," and signed a three-year contract.
The Dolphins were at the time the best team in the league -- some would argue one of the best teams ever -- having completed the NFL's first perfect season in 1972 by going undefeated for 14 season games, two playoff games and in Superbowl VII. The team followed that season with another Superbowl win in '73.
As the Dolphins wanted to keep their Superbowl-winning defensive unit intact, they asked Roberts to play in the Canadian league his first year, but as he had no-cut status, "I just made a decision not to go," he said.
The next year he was called by the New York Jets but was unable to pass the physical. "They said my knee was 'loose,'" Roberts said.
The third year, he was offered a contract by Dick Vermeil of the Philadelphia Eagles.
"In the last pre-season game I injured my foot," Roberts said.
Beathard called him the next year with a spot on a Canadian team. "I went to Winnipeg and had some great games," Roberts said.
In '77 he was signed again by the Dolphins. "It looked like I had made the team," Roberts said. But then the Dolphins made a trade and put him on a waiver.
So Roberts took a job with Pacific Southwest Airlines in L.A.
"I was in the belly of a plane," Roberts said. "Bobby Beathard shows up and he says, 'Hey Gerry -- I took over the Washington Redskins. I talked to your manager and I'm going to give you a free-agent contract."
Having started a family and "tired of being bounced around the league," Roberts almost passed on the offer but in the end decided to give pro football one more shot.
He went to Washington, D.C., passed the physical and was issued a uniform.
The Redskins played the Baltimore Colts in their first pre-season game. "I sacked Bert Jones three times," he recalled. "The first cut they let me go and that was the end of it."
One might think a lineman's size and skills would be an asset for a parole officer -- and Roberts has had to chase down his share of parole absconders.
"In this type of work, physical presence sometimes helps," he said -- but not as much as people skills.
"It's about communication," Roberts said. "A lot of times I got more done with communication skills than with the physical presence."
Roberts said he still loves team sports and the camaraderie they create.
"The beauty of sports is that you are working toward a common goal," he said. "For anyone to be successful, you all have to work together. ... I love team sports. It creates family, it creates friendships for years."
And lessons and discipline learned on the gridiron have proved useful, whether passing them along as a coach for youth, providing guidance as a probation officer, or just as a person making their way.
"You have a set of rules to follow. ... All games are played between lines," Roberts said. "Life is the same way."