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Educating Willie
Gary Smith
December 27, 1993
Willie Roaf's mother wanted him to be a star student, but instead he became a star athlete.
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December 27, 1993

Educating Willie

Willie Roaf's mother wanted him to be a star student, but instead he became a star athlete.

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To think how innocent it all seemed. How benignly it began. A lovely spring Saturday in 1961 at Michigan State. A blind date for Cliff Roaf and Andree Layton, arranged by the girlfriend of Cliff's teammate Herb Adderly. Andree, a knockout—that was the scouting report. A little quirky, perhaps. Rarely went to parties. Never had a boyfriend. Burned a hole clean through her sheet and mattress pad at age 11 with a hot light bulb while reading under the blanket at midnight so her parents wouldn't know.

A knockout bookworm, a wonderful anomaly. Cliff was intrigued. Never mind his right knee, which burned like dripping candle wax from his collision with another player that afternoon in the annual Green-White intrasquad game. Never mind the assistant coach's order that Cliff, a sophomore backup defensive lineman for the Spartans, go to the campus hospital that night. A knockout bookworm. Besides, if they said the knee needed surgery, it would mean weeks of missed classes, certain failure in physics and chemistry, no college degree for a young man whose family had no money, none, to pay for an extra semester once his four-year academic-athletic scholarship ran out. Cliff was going to get a college degree. He found a cane. He hobbled through the date with Andree. They talked ideas. They talked books. His eyes kept growing bigger. So did his knee. It was a mango in the morning.

The knee would never recover. Duffy Daugherty, the Michigan State coach at the time, made the pain worse, burying Cliff in the depth chart for insubordination. All in one day Cliff lost a football career and gained a wife.

"They went into my living room at home and read—that's how they dated," recalls Andree's father, William Layton, a Renaissance man who loved writing and reading and acting and dancing and singing. "Oh, I smelled that boy right away. I le smelled good."

But what was happening to Cliff? He had grown up as one of nine children crammed into a four-room house in Pine Bluff, son of a common laborer, a man who loaded railroad freight, worked fields, sawed wood and pushed mops to survive...and here Cliff sat, feeling almost intoxicated, in the Michigan home of a black family that discussed theater, listened to opera, used one fork for salads and another for meat.

Sure, he had been his high school's co-valedictorian, but sports had always been his true love. He had spent Friday nights playing football and Saturday mornings picking cotton, and he had become an all-state defensive lineman talented enough to do what was virtually unheard-of for a black teenager in Arkansas in the '50s—win a scholarship to a Big Ten school. But here he was, a year and a half after that blind date, hobbling through his senior year on a kneeful of mush, teaching freshman linemen how to pass-rush, no longer even on the roster.

That autumn of '62, Cliff and Andree had tickets for the big one, Michigan State-Michigan. He and Andree stood outside the stadium, talking. There was still time before kickoff. They decided to take a little walk alone the banks of the Red Cedar River, which cuts across the Michigan State campus. They heard the roar of the crowd behind them. Cliff, that was kickoff. They heard the thunder of the band. Cliff, that was halftime. They talked books. Cliff, snap out of it! They talked ideas. Good god, man! They talked marriage, talked children, talked dreams. That was it, Cliff! Ball game's over.

"Football players?" says Grandpa William. "Football players weren't Andree's idols. Eggheads were her idols." William Layton has a wonderful cackle.

******

Yes, one could almost hear God cracking his knuckles at the wedding, rubbing his palms, rolling up his sleeves, dice-shaking chromosomes. Andree was a woman with visions of how the world and the people in it should be, and her visions died slow, painful deaths. When she was seven, she discovered that her father was about to perform in a play in which he would kiss the teenage girl who was acting the part of his daughter. "You're a married man with children, Dad!" little Andree cried. "You shouldn't be kissing anyone but us!" On opening night her mother dressed Andree and her two sisters in yellow, blue and pink with bows in their hair. Andree made it out to the porch, then sat down, rocking furiously, refusing to budge as the rest of the family climbed into the car and pulled away to go watch Daddy kiss a stranger.

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