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My god, he was walking funny these days. High school football coaches had told him he could build up his leg muscles and run faster if he walked on the balls of his feet, a habit that had somehow run amok when Willie's torso turned enormous and his calves remained thin. He moved like a very large Hindu walking across hot coals, hips swiveling, bulk rolling from side to side and then landing almost daintily on the fronts of his feet. Some friends called him Zig Zag. A girlfriend would notice a resemblance between his walk and her pet iguana's gait and name the lizard after Willie.
It occurred to Andree that big, sweet, naive lugs like her son were the men her society venerated. Not men like her father and husband, the readers and thinkers, the community leaders. "I can't understand it," she would say, another vision dying hard. "I mean, I know that the average man doesn't fight in wars or hunt for dinner anymore, and so our athletes, in a way, are doing it for all of us. I realize that they're our modern-day gladiators. But still, the way we've exalted them...explain it to me."
Her gladiator, by his junior year, was almost flunking out of Louisiana Tech. He had stunned scouts by running the 40 in 4.82, allowing only a couple of sacks per season and, on videotape, always driving his man clean off the TV screen. "I'm gonna quit school," he told his mother. "Declare early for the draft—they say I can go third or fourth round."
Whoa! What? Andree mobilized. She talked him into taking a full load of summer courses. She talked him into seeing how much more money he could make by waiting a year and being drafted in a higher round. She talked Lloyds of London into providing a $250,000 insurance policy, assuring Willie some recompense if he were injured badly in his senior year, and she paid the premiums.
She made Willie Roaf a couple of million dollars. On Sept. 26, 1992, in Willie's senior season, Alabama came to Tech with Eric Curry, a certain first-round pick, probably the finest collegiate defensive lineman in the land.
Some scouts were still wondering about the temperature in Willie's furnace. Those bookwormish eyeglasses he wore on the sideline, they made him look...well, almost like someone who might want to get a master's degree or something. His offensive line coach, Petey Perot, breathed fire into Willie's ear all week. This is your chance, Willie. This is where you prove it.
Willie smothered Curry that day. Competition brought something out in him that his mother never glimpsed around the house. On third-and-nine in the second quarter, Tech quarterback Sam Hughes dropped back into his own end zone to pass, and Curry came like a bull. Willie stood him up stiff with his forearms, found his hand in Curry's helmet, ripped it off and let it fly. Curry was speechless. Curry was sack-less. Curry never even made a tackle that day. "Curry," said Willie, "you're going to have to deal with this for the next eight or nine years." Willie himself could hardly believe what he had just done and said.
Word spread across the land, across newspapers and computers and NFL front offices. Andree Roaf's baby was baaaaaaaaaaaad.
It has all been a blur since then. Postseason all-star games, draft rumors, agents calling, reporters calling, Willie telling everyone, "Talk to my mom," Andree being dragged into a world she had never dreamed she would be part of. Andree quizzing general managers for references on agents, reading books and innumerable articles about them. Then interviewing scores of them and grilling financial advisers as well, until she compiled a short list for her son to choose from. Andree getting so excited she could hardly concentrate at the office.
All the Roaf eggheads converging on New York to watch Willie go in the first round of the draft. Andree asking that the world call her son William. Willie winning a job that usually takes two or three years to master, getting it a few weeks into training camp when the Saints cut veteran offensive tackle Tootie Robbins. Willie shrugging and telling the reporter, "I didn't have nothing to do with it." Andree reading the quote in the paper and pouncing on him for using a double negative.