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Like many Kennedy School graduates early in their careers, Daron Roberts MPP 2004 works 18-hour days, sleeps at the office a few nights a week, and wouldn't dream of doing anything else. For Roberts, though, the climax of the week comes on Sunday afternoon. As the assistant secondary coach for the Detroit Lions, his work demands constant preparation for the next game. "Every year we're guaranteed to have at a minimum 16 case studies just with our schedule," he says, referring to the regular season of the National Football League.
His journey to the sidelines of pro football has been anything but traditional. A native of an East Texas town where high school football was an obsession à la Friday Night Lights, Roberts made first-team all-district in his senior year but only received one offer to play at the college level. He put football behind him and headed to the University of Texas, where he majored in government. After graduation, he deferred admission to the Kennedy School for a year to work as an aide to Senator Joseph Lieberman. Upon finishing the Kennedy School, he enrolled at Harvard Law School. "I had envisioned myself going into government at some point," he says.
The summer before his final year in law school, a friend from his high school football days invited Roberts to join him at a weekend-long football camp run by legendary coach Steve Spurrier. "For those three days, I was like a kid in a candy store. It was non-stop stimulation for me, and it really changed the way I view myself as a public service agent," he says. "I realized that football was the best conduit for reaching the population that I want to help most, which is 13-to-21 year-old men in America."
Roberts declined his law firm offers and wrote 164 letters—one to the head coach and one to the defensive coordinator of all 32 NFL teams and the top 50 college football programs. He received one reply, from Herm Edwards, then-head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, inviting him to serve as an unpaid training camp intern. He leapt at the opening. At the end of training camp, he convinced Edwards to keep him on as a volunteer during the regular season, and he eventually became the Chiefs' defensive quality control assistant. After the 2008 season, Roberts moved with defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham to the Detroit Lions.
Roberts says his Kennedy School training serves him well in the NFL. "In PAL-101, Dean Williams always talked about the work. Whenever we would analyze a leadership deficit or a social problem, he would always ask, 'What's the difficult work that's not getting done to reach a solution?'" he recalls. "That comes into play every single day, whether a player is having family problems and having hard time concentrating on football, or whether we're preparing for an opponent and figuring out which of our defensive coverages and schemes would work best."
Has his Harvard pedigree been a liability in the rough-and-tumble world of professional football? "When I started working, I was surprised at the level of respect the players had for my educational background," he says. "I've been kidded more by coaches than I have by players. It was the opposite of what I expected going in."
Roberts has redoubled his commitment to public service by founding 4th and 1, a free football camp for at-risk student-athletes. The camp focuses on football, SAT preparation, and life skills. "The mission is to propel first-generation students through high school and college. We try to address their needs on the field, in the classroom, and out in the wider world," he says. "Our 45 campers come from broken homes, so we want to provide this camp to them for free. Leading 4th and 1’s fundraising campaign has taken me back to my network at the Kennedy School. There’s a lot of outreach involved, and it’s all about commitment to the mission.”