OAKLAND, Calif. — When Seth Roberts walked to the line of scrimmage, he didn't have a clue. What was his route? What was this coverage? Oh no, was that his position coach scowling over there?
His first season at West Alabama, Roberts would inevitably screw up and phone home in a pit of frustration.
"There was too much mentally going through him," said his father, Ronnie Roberts. "His mind would go blank."
Yet here is Seth Roberts today.
There's only one minute, 55 seconds left in overtime. At the Buccaneers' 41-yard line, on 4th-and-3 from the slot, he smells blood. Roberts toasts his man on an ankle-breaking slant route, catches Derek Carr's laser, busts through two tacklers and coasts to the end zone. He guns the ball at a "Bucs for a Better Bay" sign on the back wall and is mauled by teammates.
He's not clueless. He's a hero.
At the center of Raiders magic this season is a 6'2", 195-pound kid from Nowhere, USA. Roberts landed in the Bay Area via Pearl River (Mississippi) Community College and Division II West Alabama. Three of his 10 touchdowns in two seasons have been game-winners. OK, so it's a fourth overall pick (Amari Cooper) and a rejuvenated 10th overall pick (Michael Crabtree) who are really anchoring this aerial attack, but you know how the NFL postseason works.
Seasons boil down to someone else.
David Tyree pins a football against his helmet. Mario Manningham is a trapeze artist along the sideline. Jacoby Jones leaks free in the Broncos secondary with 31 seconds left to cradle a 70-yard touchdown. Jermaine Kearse hot-potatoes a catch off five body parts.
Seth Roberts could be next. He's trending toward such a moment.
He takes a seat inside his locker and reminisces. The brutal murder of a cousin rocked his world in high school. The death of a grandmother tested him in college. The blistering-tough love of one coach was bound to pinball him one way or another.
"Ambition, man," Roberts said. "I always had a dream. I would never speak about going to the NFL, wanting to play in the NFL, but it was always in the back of my mind. I've been working since I started playing.
"I think it's paid off."
He turns around and points to the red Under Armour cleats he'll wear for Sunday's "My Cause My Cleats" game against the Bills. The American Diabetes Association logo is screen-printed near the heel with "1.4 million diagnosed yearly" written in white. That's what took his grandmother's life.
"I've got a lot of loved ones watching down on me," Roberts said. "They're my angels. They're guiding me."
He didn't land in these shoes by accident.
Killers left the body in an alley to rot.
That reality still stings.
They left him to rot.
Two men shot Shedrick Bonner in the head, and his 19-year-old corpse was found near a bike trail off Second Avenue and Third Street in Moultrie, Georgia, on March 15, 2007. The two charged were supposedly friends of Bonner, members of the same Block Boys gang. Jerrod Blackwell was sentenced to 15 years in prison and five years of probation. Ktherius Johnson received 11 years and nine.
As the Roberts family recalls, Bonner had cooperated with police on a previous investigation, so the two took him out as retaliation. Court documents, per one report, indicate the two were trying to rob Bonner of ecstasy pills.
Either way, Seth Roberts' cousin was dead. Bonner—affectionately known as "Scrooge" by everyone—was gone. The two were closer than cousins. Like brothers. So here in Oakland, he relives the nightmare. He was in ninth grade at the time.
"Go on Facebook right now," Roberts said, despondent, "and you'd still see 'RIP Scrooge.'"
Of course, Bonner was no saint. He had been previously charged with aggravated assault in a shooting incident that resulted in one man's death, the wounding of two others and four homes struck with bullets. But after a stint in jail, he told authorities exactly what had happened, serving as the main witness in the case. The prosecutor said Bonner named two suspects.
Soon after, he was dead.
Roberts believes his cousin was trying to turn his life around.
"They led him to this alley," he said, "and shot him in the head and just left him in the alley. ... He's thinking he's with them, and they killed him. Shot him in the head."
When Roberts was three years old, his family moved from Moultrie to Tallahassee, Florida, but the two cities were only an hour and 15 minutes apart, so he'd see Scrooge often. Scrooge looked after him, too, driving him to see his grandmother down the street. After his death, whenever the family was back in Georgia, Dad refused to let his son drift into the streets to see old friends. He knew what it'd lead to. So he hired Seth as one of his bag boys at the Publix supermarket he managed. His son lasted three months.
Fine by Dad. But right then, they made a pact. If Seth wasn't going to work 9 to 5 during the summer, he sure as heck was going to play sports.
From that point forward, the Roberts family was traveling to AAU basketball tournaments constantly.
"And that kept him out of the streets," Ronnie Roberts said. "My dad wasn't in my life. But as I grew up, me and my dad became close. I wanted to raise my son different."
Then Kez McCorvey had a notion.
McCorvey coached football at the Maclay School, which Roberts attended. McCorvey also was a former NFL veteran, having played receiver for the Lions from 1995 to 1997. And in Roberts, he saw a freak athlete who would make an ideal wide receiver. He told Roberts he'd have a better shot at a scholarship in football than in basketball. Convinced, Roberts redirected his focus. Just like McCorvey saw in Herman Moore in his Lions days, Roberts possessed an innate ability to "high-point" the ball in flight.
From there, McCorvey used drills he learned at Florida State to harness Roberts' wicked change of direction.
"He was raw, but he had a lot of talent," said McCorvey, now the receivers coach at Middle Tennessee State. "A lot of natural skill."
Florida State was Roberts' dream school, but he was barely a blip on the Seminoles' radar. The family thought Miami (Ohio) would offer a scholarship, but it never did. So Roberts went off to Pearl River Community College for two years. Division I interest remained non-existent.
Then Desmond Lindsey had a notion.
Lindsey, then the Division II West Alabama receivers coach, had seen some grainy Pearl River film.
"This kid," he told himself, "has a chance to be special."
So Lindsey introduced himself to Roberts after a game and fired off weekly text messages to stay on his mind. A "good game" here, a "you'll be the next great at West Alabama" there. And off to Livingston, Alabama, Roberts went. The Roberts family loaded into the car and headed six hours northwest.
Nobody thought the NFL was even possible.
"Nah. Nope. Nope," Ronnie Roberts said. "Wasn't even thought of then."
Seth Roberts had no clue what he was getting himself into.
A week or two in, he called his dad.
"This Coach Lindsey," he said, "this guy's crazy."
He had had enough.
Enough of the drops. Enough of the brain farts. Enough of the laziness.
After yet another eyesore of a practice—two weeks before the season opener—Desmond Lindsey made up his mind: He'd explode. He'd make these kids remember this day for the rest of their lives. The receivers walked into the classroom and took their seats to watch film. Lindsey, as always, positioned himself at a table behind everyone to see who was and wasn't paying attention.
Then he turned on the film and started asking questions.
Lindsey laughs a deep, bellowing Southern laugh.
"I call it," Lindsey said, "psychological warfare."
He acknowledges he "egged some things on" with his questions, and he hated their answers.
First, Lindsey chucked a remote control across the room. Next, he flipped the table near him upside down and shouted.
"Everybody get out! If we're not going to do it this way, we're all wasting time!"
Then Lindsey stormed out himself. He told the players if they wanted to watch film to go ahead and do it by themselves. He was finished.
One room over, the West Alabama quarterbacks heard the loud kaboom.
"Our head coach, he was the quarterbacks coach, he was coaching us," quarterback Kyle Caldwell said. "And he left our room and went in there and said, 'Well, he flipped the table in there.'"
Five minutes later, Seth Roberts and a teammate were pleading with Lindsey to return. To lead. They passed his test.
"OK," Lindsey told them. "It's on. It's all good now."
The Desmond Lindsey Experience was real at West Alabama.
And it was in that forgotten pocket of the state that Lindsey took a thin, mild-mannered athlete with ridiculous hops and toughened him up physically and mentally to become the sort of player who could rip through those Buccaneers defensive backs.
West Alabama, a small school with classes of about 15-20 kids, didn't face SEC competition each week but a schedule filled with the likes of College of Faith and Delta State and Abilene Christian. It was a place where Caldwell could look into the stands and mouth full conversations with his father.
"That close," Caldwell recalled with a laugh.
Without Desmond Lindsey, you don't have a clue who Seth Roberts is right now.
Seth Roberts had only 22 catches for 312 yards and a touchdown in Year 1 in Livingston. He alligator-armed his way through a tentative, distracted season that the Tigers capped with a horrid 49-21 loss at Valdosta State. After that two-catch clunker, Lindsey told Roberts his performance was a flat-out "embarrassment." West Alabama was now out of the playoffs, and Lindsey told Roberts he was a major reason why.
Lindsey informed Roberts he wasn't the player he thought he was.
"Inconsistency," said Lindsey, now the tight ends coach at Southern Mississippi.
"Having a ton of other things going on at the same time—it was a lack of focus. We're dropping wide-open passes. We cannot have that. Later in the season, whether it's college football or the NFL, it's all about the will and want. And that's what I let him know."
Actually, Lindsey was more pointed.
"He told Seth, 'You need to go back to Pearl River because they haven't taught you s--t,'" Ronnie Roberts said.
Dad took Lindsey's side, too. His son needed this.
While Lindsey was a father figure who lived at a complex next door to many of his players—they'd share burgers on the grill—he still coached with an iron fist.
Lindsey harped on attacking the football in the air and being a student of the game pre-snap. Roberts needed a "plan" at the line of scrimmage because Lindsey knew that if he couldn't beat press coverage, he'd never sniff the pros. If any of his receivers had a mental error, the entire position group did 10 pushups and 10 up-downs after practice while Lindsey ensured everyone knew who the guilty party was.
Maybe they'd bear crawl. Maybe they'd do wheelbarrow runs 100 yards and back.
All of them slammed into a blocking sled daily, too.
Roberts embraced it all.
He treated each of West Alabama's 15 spring practices like a Valdosta State redo. "He was dominating," Lindsey said. Into the summer, he juggled a factory job with daily lifting and running. Into fall ball, one-on-one drills with teammate Malcolm Butler became the stuff of legend.
"It was a battle," Lindsey said. "They were constantly battling. Every day. Jawing back and forth. And the team would feed off those guys. Seth was a very humble guy. He wouldn't talk much. But a lot of the time, with him and Malcolm's relationship, there was a lot of jawing. In any one-on-one drills, they made sure they were competing against each other."'
Added Caldwell: "That's what made Seth such a good route-runner. He had to go against Malcolm every play."
Seth Roberts @SethTRoberts
From Juco to D2 to ... Dreams. #SB50 https://t.co/XXBLMU41Ee2016-2-7 07:37:27
His days of cluelessness vanished.
A "glance route" became his bread and butter. Roberts would run a skinny post that could zag into a corner route if the cornerback played him inside.
Forget verbal or hand signals. He had a telepathic connection with Caldwell. The quarterback would alter his cadence, and if the safety crept into the box—leaving Roberts one-on-one with a corner—he'd give Roberts a subtle nod. The ball was coming his way. If the corner played off, he'd run a hitch. If the corner pressed, he'd go deep.
An introvert who was more apt to text than talk on the phone, Roberts still found his beast within. Caldwell remembers Roberts crossing over a teammate in a pickup basketball game and slamming the ball home with violence.
"I was like, 'Oh my goodness!'" Caldwell said. "He was an overall athlete."
In all, Roberts caught 40 passes that final season for 857 yards and 12 scores.
There might have been more table-smashing, too. Ronnie Roberts remembers a totally different story. He says Lindsey once flipped a table at practice and yelled "You guys don't deserve anything to drink!" as water spilled everywhere.
Whatever he did worked.
Ronnie Roberts' son was ready.
"Coach Lindsey really made Seth the player that he is," Ronnie said. "It all started with him."
As Seth Roberts morphed from scrawny underachiever to NFL prospect, he lost one of his best friends.
Sarah Holton died June 14, 2013, at the age of 71 to diabetes.
Her death wasn't as shocking as Scrooge's, but it stung Roberts more. The two were tight his entire life. He can still picture Holton waiting for him on her porch at night with that long extension cord attached to her phone. He spent many summer days with her. And when she entered a nursing home, he would visit her in his '94 Honda Civic and drive her to the store.
Per grandmother law, she'd offer him spending cash for college; he'd refuse, so she'd slip him money anyway.
"She built in that oldness," he said. "You know? A lot of people tell me I have an old soul. Older people say I have an old soul. That's where that comes from. ... It's how you carry yourself—how you think, what type of music you listen to. ... If I get my hair retwisted, they're playing the old-school jams, and I know it. My lady who does my hair says, 'You have an old soul.'"
Holton waited as long as she could before going on dialysis because, as a nurse, she saw the effect it had on patients and their families.
She finally hooked herself up to the machines and died within three years.
"She was just tired," Roberts said. "When you're tired, you just give up."
Several others close to Roberts died, too. His father's sister died eight years prior—two days after Christmas—while seven months pregnant. She had an asthma attack, which took the unborn baby's life, too. In addition to Holton, he also lost Holton's mother. To the bewilderment of family, he shielded his emotions.
"I think I would've just exploded," his dad said.
But not with Lindsey around. He could see something wrong in Roberts at times.
Keep pressing, he'd say. Keep fighting.
"At some point, you're going to get married," he told players. "What are you going to do when your wife comes in and says, 'Hey, honey, I'm pregnant. Hey, honey, I have breast cancer'? Are you going to go out to the local bar and get drunk? Or are you going to say, 'OK, I have insurance. We're all good. Let's start a treatment process.'"
So Roberts plugged along.
And then Zack Crockett had a notion.
The feeling McCorvey had? The one Lindsey had? This Raiders fullback-turned-scout set eyes on Seth Roberts at West Alabama and couldn't look away. The way he cut in and out of breaks. The way he decelerated so effortlessly. This all looked familiar. That's because Roberts resembled his old teammate at Florida State, Kez McCorvey. Crockett spoke to Roberts and McCorvey and then convinced the Raiders to take a closer look.
They did, signing him as an undrafted free agent in May 2014 before shuttling him to the practice squad before the 2014 season. Now Roberts is the team's No. 3 wideout with 35 receptions for 371 yards and five touchdowns this season.
When he's not in the Bay Area, you can probably find Roberts back home, at his grandmother's gravesite in Georgia. At Holton's tombstone, he tells her everything is going according to plan.
"It's a sense of relief and joy in my heart," he said. "I've never told anybody this, but I go back and just get away from my family and go sit down, talk, laugh. It's like you're just going to visit somebody.
"I might not say anything. I might just sit there smiling, thinking about the times that we had."
Their lockers were right next to each other. That final year together at West Alabama, Seth Roberts and Malcolm Butler discussed NFL glory. Daily. Roberts would star one day at receiver, Butler would star one day at corner and, no doubt about it, they'd both shatter the Division II odds.
Barely one year later, Butler was given his own holiday.
With the Seahawks at the 1-yard line a few weeks before, the then-obscure Patriots cornerback cut inside receiver Ricardo Lockette to steal the Super Bowl with a last-second interception. The tears and confetti poured. A Lombardi Trophy was hoisted. Feb. 21 was declared Malcolm Butler Day in Vicksburg, Mississippi. And, soon, Butler will cash in on a king's ransom of a payday.
One decision—to jump the route he had studied, to trust his instincts with everything on the line—turned Butler into a hero.
Lockette? The receiver running the slant? He was not given a holiday. Instead, he suffered a career-ending neck injury the next year.
He's not Tyree, not Manningham, not Jones. He is, now, mostly forgotten.
Onto that January stage now steps Roberts, facing a potential matchup in the playoffs against his former teammate.
"You can't make this story up," Butler said. "I think it's meant to be this year."
Maybe it's the AFC Championship Game. Maybe it's with 25 seconds left. Butler sees how the AFC is shaping up and knows there's a chance he'll joust again with Roberts—this time with legacies on the line.
"I'm not Miss Cleo. I can't tell the future," Butler said. "Whatever it takes. He'll do whatever it takes to help his team, and I'll do whatever it takes to help my team. We'll be competing no matter who it is. Taking it a game at a time. You never know what's going to happen."
Roberts has "the hunger," Butler added, "the attitude" needed to stick in the NFL. They're both overlooked D-II guys at heart.
"We have to stick around," Butler said, "and prove that we can play."
Constantly proving himself is the key because Roberts' trek to a Butler moment has not been smooth.
One month after his walk-off in Tampa, Roberts suffered a Valdosta State-like dud in a 21-13 loss at Kansas City. Targeted a whopping nine times, he had two receptions for 12 yards. Instead of feeling the wrath of one man, Lindsey, he laid an egg in front of millions on prime-time television. Everyone saw him shriveling in the minus-19-degree wind chill.
The conversation with his father afterward was short and sweet.
"Put it in the milk crate," Dad told him. "Forget it. Stack it away. Move on."
"That's what I have to do," Son replied.
So Seth Roberts thinks of "Scrooge" and the world he avoided. He thinks of his grandmother. He worries for his mother's sister, who now has health issues herself. He no longer has his MVP-candidate quarterback under center. And Roberts still can hear Lindsey's booming voice. The receiver recently told Lindsey that his "Take pride in that s--t!" battle cry was echoing in his head while he blocked a man downfield.
Soon, he'll run a route, the ball will arrive and Roberts must make the play.
He knows it. The Raiders know it. Dad knows it.
His name will be known by everyone...one way or another.
"You're right," Ronnie Roberts said. "And he's ready."
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.