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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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Now she was 24, working in a lab for the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C., supporting her husband through dental school, sometimes plowing through a book a night...pregnant. Out came Phoebe, a verbal phenom. Reading, thanks to Andree's tutelage, at age four, polishing oil Love Story at seven, pulling mostly A's in school. Chip off the old bookshelf. Confirmation of Andree's vision. Another pregnancy. Another word hound. Mary was reading at four, then winning essay contests, speech competitions, teachers' hosannas. "I knew how to raise daughters," says Andree with a cock of her eye.

Andree, meet Willie. He's the little guy pulling your earlobes, tugging your hair, yanking the air-tip Murillos right out of your mouth while you're trying to finish the last chapter of The Dirty Dozen.

"I was shocked," says Andree. Holes in the walls. Busted lamps. Shattered chandeliers. "I was astonished," says Andree. She had had no brothers. She had had no clue. One day Willie put on his sneakers and stuck his foot under a lawn mower. The lawn mower was on. The tip of his toe was all but off. "I wanted to see what would happen," he said as his parents mopped up the blood.

Years later, when Willie would sign a $5.5 million contract as the first offensive lineman chosen in the '93 NFL draft, the people working in his agent's office would call him Taz. As in Tasmanian devil. "He'd come into a room when we were kids and bug you, tease you, poke you," recalls his sister Mary. "He'd unravel everything and leave. I had to get out the butcher knife a few times."

The family, by then, had moved to Pine Bluff, Cliff's hometown, and had a fourth child, Andrew. Willie's mom had bought a blue-eyed, gray-furred Siamese cat and named it Ho Chi Minh. The neighbors, black working-class, still close enough to the dirt to know all the old folk tales about Siamese cats, were terrified of Ho. Ho had a voice like a human, it was whispered, stole meat right off the barbecue grill, could even suck the life out of you if he caught you napping. The Roaf's got a call one Christmas morning from a horrified neighbor with a life-sized Nativity scene in the yard. Come get that cat! We're not goin' near it! He's in the manger! Ho Chi Minh slept with Baby Jesus!

Yes...the perfect pussycat for Andree Roaf. She walked against the wind, sniffed at conformity, lived by her own compass. "If I hadn't married and had children," she muses, looking off into space, "I could have been very eccentric."

"Headmistress of a convent," suggests her daughter Mary.

Andree curled up each night with her book, her cigars and the disintegrating feather pillow she had had for decades, the one she loved to knead and pinch, snapping the feathers' quills one by one. Ahhhhh. Uh-oh. Willie's home. She steeled herself. She read harder. Sometimes she fled. Sometimes she ended up bent over her book in the bathroom, the door locked; exactly how many times could a kid scream "Mama!" before he lost heart?

In the end he usually won. Willie was irresistible. He was Andree turned inside out—playful, outgoing, needy, physical. "You're spoiling him," her two daughters admonished her. "You're babying him. He's your favorite."

"He's just so sweet," Andree would say. "So good at heart." The Roafs visited New York City when Willie was 12. A homeless man, drunk and wrapped in tattered clothes, slumbered on the sidewalk near their car, soaking up the water trickling from a nearby pipe. "We have to do something!" cried Willie.

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