THE RELATIONSHIP between a coach and an athlete is a special one. Daron Roberts MPP 2004 believes that it can also be a crucial one, especially for high school athletes. “In study after study, student athletes point overwhelmingly to their coaches as the most influential people in their lives,” says Roberts, a former first-team All-District strong safety for the Mt. Pleasant High School Tigers in Texas. “It’s not surprising, with so many players coming from single-parent households or homes in distress.”
With seven years spent coaching in the NFL and the NCAA, Roberts knows what coaches can accomplish. And he knows the obstacles they encounter. To help them help their athletes, Roberts founded the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin in January 2015. The center teaches high school coaches how to shape their athletes into responsible citizens, role models, and leaders. “The men and women who coach in high school can have enormous influence on the young people they coach,” says Roberts. “At the center, we work to help them cultivate character and leadership in their athletes.”
Although Roberts always enjoyed athletics, his true passion was the classroom. His mother, an elementary school principal in Mt. Pleasant, taught him the first-grade curriculum when he was still in kindergarten. When he entered first grade, she taught him second-grade math and reading. He tracked in advanced classes throughout his school years and went on to earn degrees at the University of Texas, then at HKS, and finally at Harvard Law School.
But there was a problem. “There weren’t a lot of kids who looked like me in my high school classes,” he recalls. “As I got older, I began to see there was a large part of the school and town I didn’t have a chance to connect with.”
Like any other fifth-generation Texan, Roberts knew there was one activity that would put him in touch with all of Mt. Pleasant and almost all of Titus County: football. On his high school varsity squad, Roberts worked out with students of all abilities and backgrounds. Playing strong safety, he helped shut down rival passers in front of fathers and grandfathers and shopkeepers who’d worn the Mt. Pleasant colors during their high school years and who, like the rest of the town, planned their weekends around the Tigers’ home and away games.
“I was a much better student than I was an athlete,” says Roberts, who served as class president in each of his four high school years. “I was one of two black males in the gifted and talented program. Football was a way for me to stay connected to a community I didn’t see in class. I had no intention of staying with it after high school.”
Roberts did hang up his helmet and pads after his senior season. Planning to pursue a career in politics or policy, he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where he double-majored in plan II honors and government. He also interned for Texas Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, and was elected class president his senior year. After his graduation in 2001, he found work in the office of Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut), where he worked on the governmental affairs committee.
In the fall of 2002 Roberts started his MPP program at the Kennedy School. The program included a memorable leadership course with Marshall Ganz. “Professor Ganz pushed us to ask ourselves whether we were doing things that came from our core or things that would just do good to other people,” says Roberts. “His was the class where I learned to ask who I was. And why I was.”
A few months after he graduated from HKS, Roberts began work on a JD at Harvard Law School. He still planned to work in politics, most likely as an elected official. Then, as he was finishing his second year at HLS, a college friend invited him to spend the summer at a football camp at the University of South Carolina. “I’d been out of football since high school,” says Roberts. “But as soon as I started work there, I knew that I liked it a lot more than the jobs I’d been working at in law firms.”
It wasn’t a surprise that teaching kids to block and tackle was more fun than reading cases or filing briefs. But there was more to it: Roberts found his calling at the South Carolina summer camp. He’d always intended to enter public service; he’d just never considered that football would play a role. “I watched how this football camp brought kids together from all over the country,” he says. “I saw how easy it was for kids from the South Side of Chicago to form friendships with kids from the south side of Los Angeles on the field. I realized that I could do my public service as a coach, working with young people in the trenches every day. This was who I was. And why I was.”
In 2007, his final year of law school, Roberts made what must count among the most unusual career decisions ever made by an HKS or HLS graduate. Instead of looking for an associate’s position at a law firm or an opening on a Senate campaign, he contacted more than 160 college and professional teams to offer his services as a coach. One of them, the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, offered him an internship. By 2008 he was on the payroll as a defensive quality control assistant, with duties that included helping the team’s defensive backs adapt to life in the NFL on and especially off the field.
Roberts rode the gridiron express across the country for seven years, moving to the Detroit Lions in 2009 and then to West Virginia University, where he coached special teams and inside receivers. In the meantime, he launched 4th and 1, a nonprofit organization that offers free SAT preparation, football coaching, and life skills development to at-risk high school students in Texas, Michigan, and Florida. To date, 4th and 1 has served nearly 400 student athletes.
It was, Roberts admits, a fun ride. Then the train skidded to a halt. It was January 2014, in Cleveland, Ohio, where Roberts had been working with the Cleveland Browns. The team had just failed to make the playoffs for the 11th consecutive year. He and almost the entire coaching staff were encouraged “to seek employment elsewhere,” he says. Being let go was tough. But the real wakeup call came a few weeks later, when he was having breakfast with his son Dylan in their Cleveland apartment. “My son said, ‘Wow, Dad, you’re having breakfast,’” says Roberts, now a father of four. “And I realized that with my crazy NFL schedule, my kids rarely saw me in the morning. I started crying so loudly that my wife came into the room to ask what was wrong.”
That family breakfast prompted Roberts to think about changing his schedule. It also prompted him to look for a venue where his leadership could have a broader and more incisive impact. The time was certainly ripe. Professional sports was riddled with people behaving badly. A video had emerged showing the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulting his fiancée in an elevator. An audiotape released to the media exposed NBA Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling as an abject racist. A year earlier, the cyclist Lance Armstrong had been exposed as a cheat.
Roberts spent the spring drafting a syllabus for a college course titled Leadership and Strategy in Sports. When it was finished, he sent it to the director of the liberal arts honors program at his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. By the fall he was teaching two upper-division honors courses in sports leadership there. Midway through the semester, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came to the Austin campus for a meeting on domestic violence with head football coach Charlie Strong. He requested that Roberts attend.
Inspired by the meeting, Roberts drafted a blueprint for the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation. “We know that Daron has the skills to move the ball down the field on this initiative,” Goodell said when the center opened last January. “And we look forward to supporting him.”
Roberts and his colleagues hosted their first pilot program five months after the center opened. Twenty-three high school coaches from across the state came to Austin to work on best practices in recognizing signs of substance abuse and domestic difficulties in their athletes and on developing safe and effective social media strategies for their players and teams. The center is also developing programs in financial literacy for student athletes and will promote student and faculty research on the way athletes make decisions.
“Young people see athletes more than they see any other agents in our society,” says Roberts, who plans to invite as many as 100 coaches to the 2016 workshops and hopes to eventually scale the program statewide through the University of Texas system. “Athletes are going to be role models, whether they want to or not. They can have enormous influence. Because of that, I believe we have a responsibility to present those athletes with a template for good character.”