Moving the chains

Junior safety Devan Roberts warms up on the field before a home game at Bragg Memorial Stadium. (Nolan McCaskill/The Famuan)

A chunk of concrete block lay near bits and pieces of shattered glass. A laptop, a pair of Jordan sneakers and two 14-karat gold necklaces – one bearing a heart-shaped pendant that read "No. 1 Mom" – were missing. But the offender was responsible for more than just burglary and third-degree grand larceny.

Neighbors said they saw smoke coming from a house, but none of its residents were home, so they notified authorities and alerted the homeowner. And after Devan Roberts received the phone call from his father that August morning in 2008, he rushed to his Ocala, Fla., home – a home, to his surprise, surrounded by yellow caution tape.

"As I pulled up to the front of my house," said Roberts, now a junior strong safety on Florida A&M's football team, "like half of it was gone."

An officer from the Ocala Police Department reported heavy smoke damage throughout the residence and heavy fire damage in the kitchen area – a result of the final offense: first-degree arson.

Roberts broke down at the sight of his mother overflowing with tears outside of what had been her home just a few hours prior.

"I think about that often," Roberts said. "I feel like that's motivation for me to get my family somewhere better, so that's why I just continue to keep playing football and take it as far as I can."

After the fire, Roberts had nothing left from his home – nothing to show for all the hours he worked at Winn-Dixie that summer, nothing to evoke the memories of his childhood, nothing to wear the next day.

Forward progress

Roberts and his parents moved in with his grandmother, who lived nearby. But the transition was tough.

As many as eight people would cram into the three-bedroom home: Roberts, his parents, grandparents and sometimes three younger cousins. But while others occupied the bedrooms, Roberts was limited to a couch.

"With me being in the front room, I had to wait 'til everybody got done watching TV at night, no matter how tired I was, before I could go to sleep," said Roberts, who often came to the house tired from 10-hour days at school that included early-morning weightlifting sessions and strenuous football practices. "I really never got a good night's sleep for about three months."

To avoid the painful drive through his neighborhood, Roberts also resided with friends and his former ninth grade football coach, Jody Phillips. He stayed with Phillips, mostly on the weekends, for about a month. Roberts needed to clear his mind because he sought vengeance for who destroyed his family's home.

With Phillips, Roberts was in a neighborhood where he didn't have to worry anymore. He was in an environment where making sure the front door was locked wasn't a priority. It was "like a new lifestyle."

False start

Admittedly, it was hard for Roberts, a starting junior cornerback for the Forest High School Wildcats, to focus on football after the fire. Even so, the Wildcats began that season 3-0. Then they traveled to Gainesville, Fla., to play the .500 Eastside Rams. After the first quarter Forest trailed 13-3, but a few players, including Roberts, didn't seem to care.

"They had a good band," Roberts recalled with laughter. "And after a deficit, we pretty much stopped caring about the game, even though we still had three more quarters to play.

"My lack of focus, it showed because I got scored on that game. It was more of, 'Oh, I don't care because I have another year and this and that,' but it shouldn't have been like that."

The Wildcats lost that game 42-23 and finished the season 8-2, missing the playoffs because of key district losses. Roberts ended his season with 23 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. But soon after the season's disappointing end, Roberts was able to return to his home, which was rebuilt at the same location, in mid-December.

Unsportsmanlike conduct

It was the summer before his senior campaign. Skill players were outside running routes and practicing defensive coverages on the practice field before they went inside the field house to lift weights. But when that time came, Roberts and a teammate decided to go home instead. Then-head coach David Hodges, fed up with their antics and behavior, called both players into the office the next day and almost deprived them of their opportunities to play their final season.

"I fooled around," Roberts admitted. "I made jokes and maybe got on the coaches' nerves, but I never felt like it was to the point where the coach would want to kick us off the team and felt like I wouldn't be an asset."

Florida High School Athletic Association bylaws would have prevented Roberts from competing at another school had he tried to transfer. FHSAA bylaw 9.3.2 dictated that "a student who transfers from one school to another will not be eligible at the new school until the beginning of the next school year," unless the athlete met any of four exceptions, which Roberts did not.

 His dreams of playing Division I football were almost shattered. And, in hindsight, Roberts felt that Hodges, who declined to comment, never did what he could to help him get to the college level.

Ashour Peera, Forest's former offensive coordinator, said some coaches didn't like Roberts' attitude from his first year on varsity and felt like they would have to "put up with him" rather than coach him. But Roberts felt differently.

"He didn't believe in me," he said of Hodges. "He thought that I wasn't going to be able to maintain myself, grow up and mature. And he thought I was just going to be another product of my environment."

 After coming so close to missing his last season, it wasn't until Roberts heard "you could be something" that he began to approach it seriously. The beliefs others had in Roberts inspired him to work harder. That summer he began believing in himself, too.

Sporting a weight vest with a speed parachute attached to his waist, he would dash up hills, determined to get faster. And he would push himself in the weight room, increasing his bench press to more than 270 pounds that year, determined to get stronger.

Fourth-down conversion

Roberts seemingly found his niche senior year. He was converted to safety, played wide receiver and was given the opportunity to return kicks and punts. Listed at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, he had the physical dimensions to excel, and he did.

Peera said Roberts "ended up becoming one of the best return guys we've ever had." He made big catches, snagged interceptions and made clutch tackles on defense and special teams.

"I think he finally kind of put everything aside and stopped worrying about what people were saying about him and just started playing football," Peera began, "and ended up becoming a good leader and really matured as a young man, not just a high school kid."

Mike Wagner, Forest's defensive backs coach, said Roberts made a lot of sophomoric mistakes, like all players do. But, to his credit, he listened to the coaching he was given.

The game against Orange Park High School in Jacksonville, Fla., stands out in Wagner's memory. That game, he believes, is when Roberts "finally put all the pieces together."

Roberts scored both of Forest's touchdowns in a 36-14 loss and finished with nine tackles. He returned a 22-yard interception and a 95-yard kickoff for touchdowns against the eventual district champions.

"I think he was very well suited for the safety position," Wagner said. "The way we played the secondary, he adapted to it really well. He had attention to detail and accepted the coaching and suggestions that I had for him and seemed to work very hard at that."

Roberts was named to Marion County's all-county first team and Florida's class 6A all-state second team. He led the county with seven interceptions, returning two for touchdowns, and added 69 tackles and one forced fumble in nine games. Offensively, he caught seven passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. And, averaging 32.5 yards per kick return and 20.8 yards per punt return, Roberts returned two kicks and two punts for touchdowns in his breakout season.

Fresh set of downs

Roberts scribbled his signature across his National Letter of Intent to play football at FAMU on National Signing Day, the first Wednesday in February when high school seniors can begin officially committing themselves to college programs.

The recruiting process was "eye-opening" for Roberts. It got to a point where he'd have a letter from a different college sitting in his locker almost every day before practice. But not many schools followed up.

 "I often wondered was that because of my play or because of my high school coach," he said.

 According to Roberts, the FAMU recruiting coordinator almost didn't come to inquire about him. Roberts said a coach at North Marion High School referred the recruiter to Forest, telling him that the Wildcats had a safety he may want to look at. And, although he received other offers from Division I programs, Roberts couldn't refuse FAMU.

"When I came on a visit, I had a great time, met the coaches and I felt like Florida A&M could be a place where I could strive to be a better player," he said.

So after graduating from Forest with honors, Roberts came to Tallahassee later that summer. All of the accolades and accomplishments he accumulated in high school were now irrelevant. He was a freshman again and had to work his way onto the field.

Roberts contributed nine tackles in 11 games during his freshman season for the Rattlers. In his sophomore season, he tallied 31 tackles and blocked a kick.

His junior year, in a starting role, he finished the season as the Rattlers' third-leading tackler with 59. He had 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Roberts was also tied for team leads with two interceptions, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick.

His two interceptions came in two of the biggest games last season. Against the No. 5 Oklahoma University Sooners with 85,000 fans screaming inside Memorial Stadium, Roberts intercepted a pass from Landry Jones, the Big 12's all-time leader in passing yards.

The Rattlers were in cover two, he remembered. The Sooners lined up with four wide receivers: two left and two right. He saw OU's leading receiver Kenny Stills developing a post route, and the ball sailed deep.

Florida A&M defender Devan Roberts, center, intercepts a pass intended for Oklahoma wide receiver Kenny Stills (4) during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

"It just fell right into my hands," Roberts said. "The whole crowd was silenced. It went from can't even hearing the play call to hearing a pin drop in the stadium. That was a great feeling."

In the Atlanta Classic, a televised game against Southern University, 41,000 fans were in attendance. Inside the Georgia Dome, an NFL stadium, Roberts found himself on the stage where he hopes to compete in a couple of years. He made a statement from the first defensive snap, forcing a fumble that led to a FAMU touchdown. And after a team-high nine tackles, a forced fumble and an interception, Roberts was voted as the Rattlers' MVP of the game.

Injury timeout

After recently having knee surgery, Roberts will not participate in the spring game. He's felt pain in his knee since his 2011 season. It wasn't intense, he said, but it got progressively worse and eventually caused him to miss practices last season.

So Roberts had an MRI, and doctors thought a screw in his knee from a previous injury was causing the pain. Roberts broke his tibia, which caused his kneecap to move out of place and required surgery, during his sophomore year at Forest.

He considered himself more of a basketball player back then. So, wanting to impress the coaches at tryouts, he dribbled toward the 10-foot goal, elevated and let out a scream as he felt a pop in his knee. On the ground unable to move, crying in pain, he was carried to his parents' car and taken to a hospital, where he had surgery the next day.

"The sound of surgery was just like – wow," Roberts reminisced. "It was definitely a humbling moment. It shows you that things can be taken from you."

Doctors placed two screws in his knee during the surgery. He said one screw is there permanently, and the other dissolved. But Roberts believes he was stronger and faster after returning from that injury, so he is optimistic about his return from his recent surgery as well.

"I feel like the surgery I had, it's going to make me play faster," Roberts said. "I had limits due to the pain before, but now that I don't, I feel I'll be able to play faster and it'll result to a better performance."

The challenge

Roberts, who will get the opportunity to return kicks and punts next season, anticipates his return to the gridiron. But before he can continue his NFL quest, he must continue to rehab.

With ankle weights strapped to his knee, Roberts does repetitions of leg lifts almost five days a week, in addition to riding a stationary bike. He plans to utilize the hills on campus to increase his speed and endurance this summer once he's healthy.

Roberts expects to be at full strength and well prepared come Sept. 1, when the Rattlers open their season against Mississippi Valley State University in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge, a nationally televised game on ESPN in Orlando, Fla. Just days after the fifth anniversary of when his home was destroyed,the fire that has fueled Roberts to excel will continue to burn in his final season to impress scouts.

Although Wagner admits he hasn't seen Roberts play recently, he believes Roberts has the size and speed of an NFL strong safety.

"As I'm getting older, I'm starting to hear that more and more now," Roberts said. "Once you get one person to tell you that, it makes you want to continue to work hard. I just feel like I'm just playing football. But after I actually watch film, it shows me that I am making plays."

Roberts, a criminal justice student, expects to graduate next spring. Knowing the odds – 1.7 percent of college football athletes play professionally – and that there is life outside of football, he can still see himself playing in the NFL and looks forward to being able to take care of his parents after signing his first contract.

"I want them to stay somewhere nice," Roberts said. "I want them to be able to sleep at night with the front door unlocked if they want to and not have to worry about anything, not have to worry about putting the alarm on. That right there is definitely motivation to make it to the next level."


"The Fire"


"Oklahoma Interception"