Soldotna's Austin Roberts celebrates a SoHi touchdown during a game in a driving rain last August.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
In the training camp leading up to the state championship 2006 season, the Soldotna football team faced the green mile.
Every other day, the team would bring tennis shoes to camp and run a mile. The goal was for the entire squad to average 7 minutes. Once that goal was reached, the green mile was over. The idea was for the smaller players on the team, like running backs, to run less than 7 minutes and make up for the linemen running more than 7 minutes.
And then there was senior Austin Roberts. At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, he would go on to be named the small-schools lineman of the year after the season. A good hint as to why came with his best time in the green mile: 6 minutes, 20 seconds.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Soldotna line coach Galen Brantley Jr. said. “That’s not easy to do with that big of a frame. That takes guts.”
Photo by M. Scott Moon
It’s that rare combination of speed and size, according to SoHi football head coach Sarge Truesdell, that made Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minn., covet Roberts. Roberts has signed a letter of intent to play at the NCAA Division II school which finished 9-3 last season, had an undefeated mark in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and corralled the first postseason berth in school history.
“They pursued him probably harder than any team has pursued anyone we’ve ever had,” said Truesdell, who has coached at SoHi for nine years. “Because of his frame, at 6-4 or 6-5, and the way he moves, college coaches were salivating thinking about him putting on 30 pounds in the weight room.”
Brantley Jr. said a coach from Bemidji sat in Brantley’s classroom at SoHi and recruited Roberts.
“The thing about college is you’ve got to go where you fit in,” Roberts said. “I just felt like I fit in. I also had a couple of friends on the team.”
Roberts refers to Kenai Central graduate Brandon Miles and Homer graduate Canyon McKinstry. There also are seven other players from Alaska on Bemidji State’s roster.
Roberts, thanks to 5-10 mother Luci and 6-5 father Greg, has always had size. That size actually hurt him in his introduction to football. In fifth grade, when Roberts was living in Juneau, he played football for the first time. The problem was his 5-10, 150-pound frame placed him in a league that included high school freshmen.
“I hated it,” Roberts said. “I did good at times, but at times I would get demolished. It wasn’t because they were bigger, it was because they were more mature. They had been playing for four more years.”
The next time Roberts took the football field -- as a freshman at SoHi -- his size would no longer be a disadvantage. He was already 6-3 in eighth grade and as a freshman he earned most valuable lineman honors on the junior varsity.
As a sophomore, Roberts’ career hit a crossroads when he was caught drinking and was suspended for the entire season. Gone was a starting spot on the varsity.
His parents decided to use the incident to teach their son a major lesson. At the next football home game, Roberts worked in the snack shack. After that, they would make him attend all of SoHi’s home games.
“That was a major blow to him,” Greg Roberts said. “It hurt him every day. At first, it was, ‘Oh, well. I don’t get to play.’ By the second and third game, he was pretty upset. He just decided it wasn’t going to happen again.”
Austin Roberts said the suspension changed the course of his high school career.
“Before that, I was real willy-nilly,” he said. “I planned to have as much fun as I could in high school. It comes down to making the right choices, and that pretty much set me straight.”
When Roberts returned to the team as a junior, he had to make his way back into the good graces of the coaches. His size, speed and football smarts allowed him to do that.
Truesdell said SoHi’s offense is very complex for the offensive linemen. While a play, say a sweep, may look the same for a running back or a casual fan in the stands, the offensive linemen must constantly adjust the way the play is blocked depending on the defensive formation.
“One single play can be blocked five or six different ways,” Brantley Jr. said. “There’s a lot of different ways to line up 11 people.”
Truesdell said Roberts understands the blocking schemes so well that he actually taught the coaches a few things. The coach added that senior and guard Pat Moore also reached that level of understanding in the offense and that was a major reason SoHi’s rushing attack carried it to the state crown this year.
“It is very unique and both our guards were able to do it,” Truesdell said of players teaching coaches about the offense. “I can count on one hand the number of kids we’ve had do that.”
Greg Roberts said he watched a lot of film of opposing teams with his son to the point that “even slow Dad” could figure out what was happening on Friday or Saturday. Other than that, Austin is not sure where his football smarts came from.
“I really wasn’t doing anything that everybody else wasn’t doing,” Roberts said. “It just all came to me pretty easily.”
Truesdell said Roberts’ football acumen also showed up on defense.
“I was watching some film a couple of weeks ago and I noticed a couple of plays where the offensive line totally released him,” Truesdell said. “Most people would just fly up the field and chase the quarterback. He stood fast, and the running back cut back right to where he was.”
Roberts played well enough as a junior to earn second-team all-state honors and first-team all-Northern Lights Conference honors at guard.
With his place in the SoHi lineup now secure, Roberts came into his senior year with one thing on his mind.
“He told me as a freshman that he felt that with the guys that were playing they had the best chance of any team to win state as seniors,” Greg Roberts said.
Austin Roberts knew talking about getting SoHi’s first state football title meant nothing, though.
“It was kind of like sophomore year,” he said. “It was just kind of time to put up or shut up.”
Brantley Jr. said Roberts became the emotional leader of the team, leading stretches and yelling out motivation when the team crowded by the goalpost before each game. Brantley Jr. said that emotion was key in dethroning Kenai Central, which had won the last four small-schools titles.
“The intensity -- that’s kind of been a knock on us,” Brantley Jr. said. “A good Kenai team will come out barking, spitting, flying -- the whole works. We hadn’t taken that step until last year. Austin’s one of the kids that got us ready to go. He put us in the state of mind where we were ready for a fight.”
Soldotna’s rushing attack became almost unstoppable as the year wore on. In the semifinals of the playoffs, the Stars took a 50-6 lead at halftime on Houston. Soldotna emptied the bench after that, but at halftime, the Stars had scored on 29 of their last 37 possessions dating back to the regular season. In the title game, SoHi outrushed Kodiak 323-97 to win 29-20.
In addition to earning lineman of the year honors, Roberts was named first-team all-state at both guard and defensive interior lineman.
All this despite the fact, according to Truesdell, that Roberts never fell in love with the weight room in high school. He also participated in basketball and track for Soldotna, and played American Legion baseball in the summer.
“I haven’t done stuff to get better in one sport yet,” Roberts said. “I go from running lines and lifting to shooting free throws to throwing the shot.”
In basketball this season, Roberts came back from a broken foot sustained in an exhibition football game to provide a presence underneath as the Stars won the Southern Division of the NLC.
“Nobody pushed Austin around,” SoHi basketball coach Chris Hanson said. “If somebody needed to be stopped inside, he would stop them with his size and athleticism.”
In track, Roberts made the finals of the shot put at state last year. Roberts said he has high hopes for this season because he is better at the discus than shot put.
In addition to playing all the sports, Roberts finds the time to keep up a 3.5 grade-point average. He will major in sports management at Bemidji State, where he plans to redshirt his freshman year so he can spend time in the weight room.
“Without hurting the feelings of the Kelly Seggermans and the Mike Reeds, I think Austin will be by far the most difficult to replace,” Truesdell said. “He did too many things right in the middle, and we’re a trap offense. Twenty guys are pretty much revolving around the guards. It’s just really hard to find 240-pound guys that are going to be running down the field with the tight ends.
“In practice, when we ran sprints, he never ran with the offensive line. He always ran with the tight ends and running backs.”
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