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Archie Roberts comes full circle in the NFL

After playing only one game as a professional in the 1960s, Roberts focused on a career as a surgeon. He now has partnered with the NFL Players Assn. to screen retired players for heart disease.

July 04, 2010|Jerry Crowe

Reporting from New York — Archie Roberts knew he faced daunting, almost impossibly long odds, but he was young, ambitious and maybe a little naive.

He wanted to be a surgeon and a professional football player.

So there he was in the mid-1960s, the Columbia graduate and aspiring quarterback endeavoring to make an impression on the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins while also attending medical school, a daunting double few would even attempt.

Roberts, his professional football experience limited to one game, ultimately left a more indelible legacy with a scalpel than a football, performing more than 4,000 open-heart procedures during 2½ decades as a cardiovascular surgeon.

More recently, he founded the Living Heart Foundation, which pioneered advanced mobile methods for cardiovascular screening in an attempt to raise awareness about heart disease.

Concerned about the increasing size of NFL players and the risks associated with the added weight, Roberts has partnered with the NFL Players Assn. to screen retired players.

"It's really something wonderful," Andre Collins, a former NFL linebacker and director of the NFLPA's retired players division, says of the program. "There have been life-threatening situations that have been avoided because of these routine screenings."

Roberts, 67, estimates that about 1,500 former players have been tested so far, with about 10,000 more to go.

"It feels natural and comfortable," the physician passer says of his return to the NFL universe all these years later. "I can make a contribution where I feel there has been a real need."

A three-sport letterman as a prep star in Holyoke, Mass., and again at Columbia, Roberts decided before he ever set foot on the Ivy League campus in Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighborhood that he would pursue a career in medicine.

But his football and baseball success at Columbia, where he set numerous Ivy League records in football and was an All-American shortstop, gave him opportunities he never anticipated.

The Kansas City Athletics, he says, wanted to make him a high pick in the 1965 amateur baseball draft — but only if the undergraduate would leave school a semester early.

The New York Jets showed interest too, making him the 51st pick in the 1965 AFL draft — after making Joe Namath the first.

"It was tempting," Roberts says over coffee during a late-morning interview at a midtown Manhattan eatery. "The money in sports back then wasn't what it is now, but to a kid that had very little money, from a small town in western Massachusetts, any kind of money like they were talking about, whether it was football or baseball, would have been appreciated.

"But it was not meant to be for me because of the way I was brought up and the value systems I had developed."

Medicine was his mission.

But then the Browns made an offer he couldn't refuse: In a deal brokered by owner Art Modell, a transplanted New Yorker, they paid for Roberts to study medicine at Case Western Reserve University while basically working part-time for the Browns.

For two seasons, Roberts joined the Browns at training camp, stayed with them through the exhibition season and then was assigned to the taxi squad as an emergency backup.

"In today's age, it wouldn't be possible," he says of the arrangement, "but even in those days, it was way out."

Roberts, however, longed to do more than sit and watch.

In 1967, sensing a greater opportunity elsewhere and without objection from the Browns, he signed with the Dolphins, who had joined the AFL as an expansion team a year earlier.

"But as luck would have it," Roberts says, laughing, " Bob Griese was drafted and came in that year."

During a semester's leave of absence from medical school, however, Roberts finally got onto the field.

In a 41-0 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, he completed five of 10 passes for 11 yards, with one interception.

And that was that.

He never played again and, after the season, returned to med school to resume his studies. A few years later, Roberts launched a distinguished career as a cardiologist.

Settled in Little Silver, N.J., with wife Nancy, the grandfather of six looked forward to several more years of open-heart procedures when, in 1997, he felt numbness in his right arm and helplessly slurred his words while giving a lecture.

He had suffered a stroke.

"I was a doctor giving advice to my patients but not living healthy myself," says the 6-foot, 190-pound Roberts, who at the time carried an additional 25 pounds. "There were risk factors that any good doctor would have recognized — I had put on weight and my cholesterol was high — yet I was too busy doing my thing.

"And that's pretty stupid."

The stroke may have prematurely ended Roberts' surgical career, but it led him back to the NFL through his foundation.

What if, years ago, he'd devoted his full attention to football?

"I've often wondered," Roberts says. "I'll always wonder. But I can never answer the question."

Thousands of heart patients, of course, are the better for it.

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