Still, Roberts arrived to an icy reception. Chiefs coaches knew his story, and they didn't believe he wanted to put in the work required to reach their level. He showed them otherwise. Edwards exercised at 4:30 a.m., so Roberts exercised at 4:30 a.m. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham watched practice video in the predawn hours, so Roberts joined him—and made certain to brew coffee and have the projector warmed up before Cunningham entered the room. Roberts didn't talk much. He listened.
In mid-August, the internship over, Roberts received the one-way plane ticket he had dreaded. He would have to continue his coaching dream elsewhere. But rather than accept his fate, he went to Edwards and pleaded: He would require no salary, no team clothing, no computer—only a chance. Edwards said yes, but with conditions. Roberts would work (for nothing) from before dawn until early afternoon. Then he would assist (for nothing) at Bishop Miege High, in nearby Roeland Park, Kans., to gain on-field experience. After that he would return to Arrowhead Stadium and work (for nothing) deep into the night. Roberts didn't even pause. He said thank you and went back to work.
Roberts rented a basement unit in downtown Kansas City, but he doubts he slept there more than a handful of times. He spent most nights on an air mattress at Arrowhead. Several nights a week he taught online government and economics classes to students at a community college in Texas. The meager income from those classes kept him afloat.
As Kansas City's 2007 season opener at Houston approached, Roberts realized he wouldn't travel with the team, so he bought a plane ticket on his own. When he greeted Edwards and the coaching staff at the hotel, Roberts wasn't even sure if the coaches would let him sit in on last-minute game preparations, much less accompany them to the stadium. "I was almost embarrassed," Edwards says. "I was like, 'Really? Come on, man. We can do better than that. We've got to help this guy.'" For the rest of the season Roberts flew on the team charter.
Shortly after the season ended, Edwards called Roberts into his office. The offensive staff had been let go, and Roberts feared the worst, but instead of firing him, Edwards gave Roberts a quality-control position. His duties wouldn't change much, but he would get paid $50,000.
A year later, Scott Pioli took over as the Chiefs' G.M. and all the coaches expected a housecleaning. As Roberts waited for news of his fate, he got a phone call from Cunningham, who offered two instructions: Don't go to work; catch a plane to Detroit. Cunningham had just been hired as the defensive coordinator of the Lions, and he had a job for Roberts: assistant secondary coach.
On the practice field Roberts was surprised at how little the players cared that he hadn't played college ball. But he learned that as long as he could teach players techniques that would allow them to stay in the league longer, they would respect him. Plus, the players appreciated him for another reason: He could provide free legal advice.
After two seasons with the Lions, Roberts wondered if the NFL was the right place for him. He'd spent much of his life on college campuses, and he thought his experience in law and politics might help him as a recruiter. At the BCS title game between Auburn and Oregon, Roberts ran into Holgorsen, the former Leach assistant who'd just been named offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting at West Virginia. Leach's recommendation and Roberts's unusual résumé intrigued Holgorsen. Like Edwards four years earlier, Holgorsen took a chance. In March 2011 he hired Roberts to be West Virginia's inside receivers coach—even though Roberts had never coached offense. "I didn't need him," Holgorsen says. "I brought him in on offense, but I already had my offensive staff. So Daron just sat there and learned football for a year."
Holgorsen took over as West Virginia's head coach in June 2011 and eventually moved Roberts back to defense. He also turned the former student-body president loose on the recruiting trail. For Roberts, it felt as if he were campaigning all over again. "It's the same exercise," Roberts says. He learned from politics to adjust his pitch to his constituents, and now he had to decide what mattered most to recruits. Should he sell playing time? Development for the NFL? The competition in the Big 12? Should he sell the fact that a Harvard law grad would help shepherd the player toward a college degree? Roberts won plenty of votes this past off-season; in February he and Mountaineers running backs coach Robert Gillespie were named co-recruiters of the year in the Big East by Scout.com.
Roberts has a job that would fulfill the career goals of hundreds of interns and graduate assistants working the same menial jobs he once did, but he wants more. "The way he goes about his business," Edwards says, "it won't be long until he's a head coach." On the August day on which West Virginia began preseason practice, Roberts pulled up his hoodie in the Mountaineers' weight room shortly before 5 a.m. Yes, Roberts is sure he wants to do this. So sure that he no longer needs an alarm to rise in the wee hours. Those mornings, a simple mantra is all he requires. "I get to coach football today," he says, cracking his knuckles and flashing a smile that would have killed on a campaign poster.