Photo: Willie Roaf and his father Clifton.
First Sydney Seau and her family felt disappointment. Now Junior Seau's only daughter – whom he wanted to speak for her if he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- must be filled with enough butterflies to fill a Super Bowl stadium.
The Hall made the right call when it reversed field on its 2010 policy that denies a family member an opportunity to speak at the enshrinement ceremony. After enduring a summer of backlash leading up to the Saturday ceremony in Canton, Ohio, the Hall announced last weekend that Sydney, who turns 22 on Friday, can tell the football world about her father.
Seau, one of the game’s all-time linebackers as a 12-time Pro Bowler and All-America at USC, will be enshrined posthumously. He had suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease suffered from too many blows to head. He took his life on May 2, 2012.
That only person I know to experience the thrill -- and pressure -- of speaking to the throng assembled at the Pro Football Hall of Fame is Clifton Roaf. His son Willie Roaf, an 11-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman, chose him to introduce him at the Hall’s Class of 2012 ceremony.
I asked Clifton to describe the emotions and pride he experienced and any advice for Sydney.
“My advice to her is to speak from the heart,” Roaf said. “Just tell us what her father meant to her. All she has to do is communicate what football meant to Junior Seau, and how it gave him access and opportunity to achieve in a great sport. But at the same time relate how in spite of all the time and effort he put into the games he played that he still was the caring father who made sure his daughter was never forgotten in his life. What should be important to her is that she was always important to him.”
How did he prepare to speak about Willie?
"I used the metaphor of a game,” he said. “You know you’re going to speak before an enormous crowd and you know there are going to be so many skilled presenters. You don’t want to fumble the speech. You want it to at least be at the same level as the other presenters, so it does make you nervous. I do a lot of speaking and I was nervous, but I didn’t want to come across that way. I wanted to represent myself to the best of my ability to recognize Will’s achievement.”
Roaf had some game experience to draw upon. The recently retired dentist was recruited to Michigan State out of segregated Pine Bluff, Ark., in 1959 as the first passenger on head coach Duffy Daugherty's Underground Railroad. The color-blind Daugherty provided opportunities for 44 black players from the segregated South in his 19-year career. But an injury in college ended Roaf’s career, which made his son’s achievements all the more special.
“The main point I tried to get across is this was an honor in my wildest dreams I never thought this would be possible for me,” he said. “But here comes this child, and he reinvigorated my interest in Michigan State and the game itself. I vicariously achieved a goal through my son being at the top of a game I love.”
Sydney has some game experience of her own. She played volleyball at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Calif., and was recruited for USC’s sand volleyball team.
Roaf had one more piece of advice to combat the butterflies.
“You want to try to focus the speech in such a way that you maintain the objective – to explain why football meant what it did to the honoree. You don’t want to become unfocused and dance around. You have to get your head together. She had to go through the emotional valley of watching him disintegrate emotionally (from CTE) and then finally get to the bottom of the pit that he took his own life. The chance to speak has so much meaning that it’s a way for her to work on her healing. I’m sure she’ll represent him really well.”
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."