Former Louisville star and longtime NFL offensive lineman Roman Oben recently spoke with us regarding his professional career, raising a son who is a Division I recruit, his alma mater’s hot start and much, much more:
Roman Oben suited up for Louisville from 1991-95 before embarking on a 12-year NFL career. The first Cameroonian-born player to be drafted, Oben currently resides in New Jersey and works for the NFL in Manhattan. He spoke with us at length recently about a number of topics.
The Spun: Being born in Cameroon, you didn’t have the traditional football background. How did you get involved in playing the game and what was your experience like?
Roman Oben: Growing up in Washington, D.C., we had D.C. Boys and Girls Club. They had weight limits and I was always a little too heavy to play football. Back then, late 80s, early 90s, you could only play football in high school and be fine. You’d play freshman, then you’d play JV. By the time you were a junior you’d be on varsity. Maybe spring of your junior year you start getting letters. Senior year between Christmas and National Signing Day you take all your visits and make your decision. The whole mechanism was different back then. I think now with the early exposure and third-party mechanism with how you expose children to the game, you’re seeing the seventh and eighth-grade all-stars, you’re seeing kids coming into high school getting offers…From a coaching standpoint, as a high school coach, it’s not ideal. But on the other side, schools want to get to as many kids as early as possible.
The Spun: After high school, going into college, what made you pick Louisville? What stood out about them, and what was your experience like there?
RO: Louisville, it was interesting. Initially, I was going to go to an SEC school. They were getting investigated at the time for recruiting violations. I kind of feared them going on probation or suspension. Louisville always showed interest in me. Back then, you started saying, ‘Is a kid from in-state going to get more playing time than you, because these coaches have to go back to these high schools? Or is the kid from out-of-state going to play more?’ This was 1991. They said they were going to be like a Syracuse, a good basketball school with an emerging football program. They had just beaten Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl. I thought they were a program on the rise. They wanted me to play. I think that is important for a high school kid; they wanted me there as a part of their building process. I knew I could play early. I redshirted my freshman year but then I started as a redshirt freshman all the way through. I had a great experience. I was able to maximize my career on the field and in the classroom. It gave me a chance to grow.
The Spun: Moving into the NFL, you were drafted by the Giants and you played for them, the Bucs, the Browns and the Chargers during a 12-year career. You obviously won a Super Bowl with the Bucs in 2002. What was the NFL experience like for you, being able to have such longevity and consistency?
RO: Well, the beauty of it is, I didn’t play organized football until I got to the 10th grade. By the time I got to college, I had only played football for three years. By the time I got to the NFL, I had only played it for eight years. From age 15 to age 23, now I’m a rookie. It went by pretty fast. I was still learning how to play football, but the good part is, I was so far ahead athletically for my position (left tackle). When I got to the NFL, the film and coaching and competition, the mental toughness I learned in college and before I got to college, that helped me deal with being in New York, dealing with everything socially and managing my time. I didn’t play a lot my rookie year, but I started my second year all the way through. The defensive ends that they had back then, playing against Bruce Smith, John Randle and Clyde Simmons. Those guys are Hall of Famers. You play against a guy differently when you’re younger and they’re older. By the time I was in my fourth or fifth year, I was older and those guys were gone. Then the younger guys came in, like Jevon Kearse and Dwight Freeney, and I was the older guy. It’s funny how that circle works. I think being able to compete at a high level was something that I took pride in. I was always a little undersized for an offensive tackle, but I had a long wingspan. I played on teams that had athletic tackles, because we ran a lot of screens and pulled our tackles and did those things back then. The Super Bowl year, with that West Coast Offense and Jon Gruden, it suits athletic linemen…I’m just glad that wherever I went I was able to be productive whatever the philosophy was.
The Spun: It seems like throughout your career, and even now, charity and giving back has been big for you? How did you first get involved in charitable foundations and giving back to the community? What organizations have you worked with?
RO: It started out when I was in college. You do programs like tutoring kids at middle schools or visiting schools and hospitals. By the time you get to the pros, you kind of get borrowed to do everything. I started to think, ‘Now what do I want to do? What impact do I want to make?’ Because I was born in Cameroon, I had a heart for helping kids in Cameron. I had a heart for helping kids who grew up in urban areas like I did in D.C. The first thing we did was a reading challenge with the D.C. Public School System. Whoever read the most books throughout the course of the year, I took them to ESPN Zone in D.C. Then we built the foundation and built computer systems in Cameroon. We built an orphanage. We did a lot of things. I think it was an honor to use my career as a platform to help and serve others. Going to a Jesuit high school, learning about being a man for others: those are the things that if you don’t learn early and have a deeper sense of responsibility early. That’s why you have this platform.
The Spun: You played your first four seasons with the Giants. After your career was over, you went back and did radio and television work with them. What was it like getting into that field and also serving that organization in a different role?
RO: It was about my fifth or sixth year in the league, and I started seeing the first wave of former players doing TV…I always had a passion to do TV. People would always say, ‘You have a good voice.’ Being able to stay close to the game, explain the game to casual fans and why things went right or wrong, being able to get into the mind of a player, that stuff really mattered to networks. Some of the most meaningful work I did was with MSG Varsity. That’s when I really dove into the high school landscape. This was back in 2010. My responsibility was to call the Connecticut-area games and out on Long Island…It was an honor to use your knowledge and not overcomplicate things but actually make it easier to explain to the fans on TV and radio.
The Spun: Your oldest son, R.J., is a sophomore at St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey. He already has some offers (Rutgers and Louisville). What is it like going through this recruiting process as a former athlete who went through it themselves and as a parent?
RO: It’s funny. I had this discussion with a bunch of guys that I played with, or guys that are older than me that have high school kids. Some have daughters that are running track, some have sons that have gone on to play [football] in college or are committing. We all say the same thing. It’s very fortunate…It’s an honor to know your son is good enough to be a Division I athlete and go to school and get your education paid for. That’s an honor. I think the biggest advantage I have is being able to give him the best perspective because I’ve done it at all levels. I understand the whole mechanism of recruiting. Don’t waste your focus and take a bunch of selfies in the locker room when you visit colleges. Just stay focused, become a better athlete, develop your mental toughness, improve your hands. That’s what I can give him the most. My son is a year, year-and-a-half younger than the kids in his class. He took his lumps early. Right, wrong or indifferent, we chose not to hold him back in kindergarten and we didn’t reclassify. I’m glad it’s starting to work now, but as a parent, you just have to let your kid know that they are going to take their lumps. I remember when he was in eighth grade, I told him, in three years from now, this conversation will be totally different. Just keep working. It’s hard; you don’t want to see your kid do poorly and feel like he’s behind, but that’s where being an NFL player and playing in college gives you that perspective.
The Spun: What other advice have you given your son so far about the recruiting process?
RO: The reality is, if you look at an NFL roster, one-third of the rosters are two-star guys, Division I-AA, FCS or Division II guys. The first thing I did with R.J. in eighth grade, we went back 10 years to the Max Preps or Rivals Top 100. It was like the 2004 or 2005 list. I said, ‘Name the guys on this roster that you know are in the NFL.’ It was like Haloti Ngata, Devin Hester, Vince Young and like one or two other guys. The other 95, he didn’t know. Maybe there was a guy or two who had a cup of coffee in the NFL. I said, let’s not chase the stars. If you’re a three-star, you want to be a four. That’s not important. What’s important is being fundamentally sound and being a good football player.
The Spun: How do you think it is for your son, growing up with a dad who played at the highest level?
RO: There’s a certain maturity that coaches expect you to have if your dad is a high school coach or played or coached in the NFL. They expect you to be a little more mature. So, you have to deal with that pressure. It’s not about your dad playing in the league, the superficial part of it. I remember I played with Philip Rivers. His dad was his high school coach, and he was a leader when he walked in the building. You felt that. There was always something different about some of those guys. The guys I played with in college whose dad’s played in college or in the NFL, you just knew they’d been around football their whole lives and were just different. I’m sure R.J. is the only kid in his locker room who grew up in an NFL locker room and was taking LaDainian Tomlinson’s gloves and showing them to his classmates in kindergarten the next day. There’s a certain maturity that you have that other kids don’t have. But he’s got to run his own race. I ran mine. But I can help him along the way.
The Spun: Your current job with the NFL, what is its full title? How has it been working with the NFL considering what is going on with the criticism of football and how football has changed with more concerns about safety issues and the future of the game?
RO: My job now is Senior Director of Strategy Development of Youth and High School Football. Within the NFL, our No. 1 job is to serve all 32 teams and insure all the programs they run are in line with our mission. That’s shaping the experience for kids 6-18, advocating for safety, promoting life values through the game of football and connecting the community with all of our partners. At the youth level, you have to promote a fun, safe environment and educate parents at the highest level. In middle school, you’ve got to make sure the game is being developed because you’re losing some of the urban base and in certain areas you’re dealing with kids doing multiple sports. In high school, it really becomes more educational, off-the-field, curriculum. High school football is really the last scholastic sport left in America. Every other sport is dominated by club and AAU participation. In the other sports, you play for your club team and then you just play for your high school team during the season. It’s not the way it used to be. Football is the only sport where a college coach has to come in that building and ask a high school coach what a kid is like, what his family is like. Part of that is about creating a solid structure for all the relevant parties. Part of it is making sure people in D.C. on Capitol Hill are aware of all the enhancements we’re doing regarding safety. It’s a lot of different roles, but it’s all about helping grow the game and making sure more kids are playing football.
The Spun: Lastly, do you still get a chance to follow or watch Louisville at all? They obviously had a huge win against Florida State and have a huge game at Clemson this weekend.
RO: I try to go to the spring game every year if I can. It’s usually right around the time of the NFL Draft, so it can be tough. This year, I’ll bring my son to a camp and bring my youngest son to their middle school camp. I’m really happy where the program has gone. You look at Charlie Strong leaving, he had about 20 or 30 kids that he recruited that are in the NFL. Then, you bring Bobby Petrino back. He was familiar with the program obviously. He’s had his issues and he’s dealt with that. What Louisville people have always wanted, they’ve said ‘We need a Frank Beamer. We need a guy that’s going to be here for 25 years and doesn’t want to leave. He’s not going to jump for an SEC job as soon as he goes 10-1. I think the profile of the Louisville program, as arguably a top-three program in the ACC, you can’t ask for anything better than that. On a good year, you beat Clemson, you beat Florida State. Now you’re in the conversation. Now, you’re not in the conversation every year, because some of those teams like Alabama, they are three-deep at every position. But at least you’re building classes of kids. You’re seeing kids now turn down Florida, turn down Florida State, Nebraska to go to Louisville. You see Teddy Bridgewater. Things like that didn’t happen 10 years ago. You have to give credit to the football program, the athletic department and everything they’ve done in the last 10 years or so.
Note: Roman Oben’s interview is part of a series of Q&As we’re doing with former college standouts. You can read our recent interviews with Ron Bellamy here, Eric Devendorf here, Kenny Guiton here and Jared Zabransky here.