During summertime, the heat and humidity are so oppressive and the mosquitoes so unforgiving near the Bayou that it's almost unbearable. Tim Roberts grew up on its fringes and frequently spent the free time of his youth swinging on ropes and dropping himself into waters heavily populated by alligators.
It made for quite a feeding frenzy, as you can imagine, but not in the way we ill-informed northerners would assume. Where Roberts comes from, people capture alligators and take them home for dinner rather than the other way around. Roberts was affectionately called "The Exterminator" by neighbors who summoned him to catch varmints that slipped into their homes.
To hear UB's senior safety explain, one of his pets could wind up on his plate. He once had one pet alligator that slithered from his bedroom and took up residence behind the family couch. He had pet snakes and iguanas but thought nothing of roasting rabbits and squirrels over an open fire. A bullfrog could pass for his companion one day and southern fried cooking the next.
"It tastes like chicken," Roberts said with a straight face.
Why, of course it does.
I'm guessing Elmo's Bar and Restaurant doesn't plan to combat skyrocketing prices of chicken wings by serving deep-fried bullfrogs – medium, extra crispy? – but Roberts' didn't travel from Cajun country to Buffalo, via the West Coast, for good food, anyway. He was starving for a good education while pursuing his dream of reaching the NFL.
Although the Bulls have players from various outposts, it's safe to assume only one grew up 30 miles west of New Orleans in the "Catfish Capital of the Universe," survived two massive hurricanes, played for a California junior college, experienced a terrifying home invasion, moved across the country and cracked UB's starting lineup.
That's the abbreviated version, one that conveniently leaves out living in a shelter for several weeks after Hurricane Katrina, seeing the trail of dead bodies along the road leading to his native Des Allemands, La., (pop. 2,500) upon his return and having the family trailer home demolished seven years later during Hurricane Isaac.
Roberts is a gregarious, talkative 22-year-old who is strikingly similar to former Steelers safety Troy Polamalu with his curly long hair protruding from his helmet, scraggly beard and hard-hitting style. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, he fits the mold for safeties and appears tougher than a steelworker.
"You're looking at a guy who is determined to make it right for himself and his family," UB coach Lance Leipold said. "This is an opportunity not only football-wise but educationally to make it better for him and his family. That's how he's approached it. He's hungry in what he does."
The honesty in his game comes from his humble background. Roberts' parents may have been short on cash when he was growing up, but they were long on family values and big on education. Roberts had grades high enough to get into a decent college. He was intent on getting his education, without the burden of student loans, through football.
His mother, Yvette, is a paralegal while his father, Paul, works maintenance on the field where Tim played linebacker at Hahnville High. They raised three sons in a trailer home – "in the middle of nowhere," he said – that was nearly swept away by Katrina and later was destroyed by a toppled tree, thanks to heavy winds blown by Isaac.
After spending several weeks eating rations and sleeping on air mattresses in a shelter after Katrina, his parents and brothers Jacob and Jordan treated Hurricane Isaac like a minor inconvenience. They simply wedged into Roberts' grandmother's trailer home next door and became a stronger family. If nothing else, it was a life lesson about teamwork.
"We never cared about money," Roberts said. "We were definitely not materialistic people. Instead of buying shoes or good clothes, we went to the movies or we went bowling. I always go back home before the season. It's a wakeup call for why I'm doing this. It reminds me to work for my parents, my family and my future family."
Division I athletes don't often fall between the crevices of recruiting these days, but it does happen every now and again. Roberts was barely recruited after playing linebacker in high school. D-I coaches saw a tweener -- too small to play linebacker and not fast enough to play defensive back. These days, he looks like a prototypical NFL safety.
Three years ago, he enrolled at Fullerton CC on the advice of a UCLA assistant coach who heard about him through childhood friend Kenny Young. He used $600 from his graduation party for a deposit on a two-bedroom apartment that he shared with five roommates. He lived on Ramen noodles and slept on the floor.
"I was in heaven, man," he said.
After all, he was playing ball and had a 3.4 grade-point average while working toward a nursing degree. "I just love helping people," he said. He improved his chances of earning a scholarship. While his family and friends were fighting the elements back home, he was soaking up the rays and enjoying the scenery.
"I couldn't complain," he said. "I was out there in Cali enjoying the weather while a lot of my friends didn't play after high school. I had a little money from my work-study (job). I was looking at palm trees and going to the beach."
One night, after a roommate he met weeks earlier stole someone's wallet, a gunman entered their apartment and started shooting. He ended up pistol-whipping the roommate, who left the house to treat his injuries and never returned. "Blood everywhere," Roberts said. "It was crazy." Roberts hid behind a wall, shaken but unharmed.
Roberts and the others were evicted from the apartment, leaving him temporarily homeless while trying to finish the season. He paid a teammate $300 for groceries and spent the remainder of the school year sleeping on a couch. It was no big deal for a guy who spent countless nights in worse conditions back home.
All along, he had another mission in mind.
"I didn't have no friends, and I didn't know nobody when I came there," Roberts said. "I had a different mentality. I didn't really want friends. You want to get in and get out. It’s hard to say 'dog-eat-dog,' but it really was everybody for themselves. I had a purpose, a vision. I was just sticking to football."
It just so happened that UB was looking for football players. Coaches were scouring the country when they came across Roberts' games at Fullerton CC, where he had seven interceptions in two seasons. Roberts had no idea where Buffalo was located and didn't care. He knew he found the right place the moment he stepped on campus.
Last season, he quickly worked his way into the starting lineup and had 64 tackles and two interceptions in 12 games. Now, he's hungry for more. He changed his diet, embraced a strength-and-conditioning program and cut his body fat in half, to 6 percent, in less than a year. Even better than his 3.6 GPA is his 4.5 in the 40. He's planning to graduate in December.
Roberts walked off the field Friday after a warm and muggy practice saying it felt like football weather, which around here means 55 degrees and sunny. Indeed, he was a thousand miles from home. He couldn't help but wonder where his road would lead him at this time next year. For all he has endured, his story needs a fairytale ending – in New Orleans.
"Oh, man, that's my team," he said. "I'm going to put it all out there. At the end of the day, I want to say that I gave it everything I can. This is my dream. What's a dream if you don't chase it?"