CANTON, Ohio — Phoebe Roaf and I sat in the dining area of the McKinley Grand Hotel on Saturday afternoon. Behind her were pictures of the Canton Bulldogs, one of pro football’s earliest teams, and a television showing Bob and Mike Bryan’s doubles tennis victory in the Olympics.
Sweet as the tennis win must have been for America, that was easy to block out. There was another picture of an American dream painted that moment, and the Bulldogs provided the backdrop for it.
Phoebe, in the foreground, was reflecting on the fact her brother, Willie, is now a Pro Football Hall of Famer. In fact, their family, including 95-year-old grandmother Phoebe Layton, could soak it all in.
“We all feel like we’re going in with Willie, and I think for my dad, it’s been an awesome experience for him because we really feel like we’ve been on this journey his whole career,” said Phoebe Roaf, 48, the oldest of Clifton and Andree Roaf’s four children and a rector at an Episcopal church in Richmond, Va.
Yes, Mrs. Layton said Willie’s induction is the best family moment she’s ever experienced, but she didn’t rank it above being at the first presidential inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. Still, she never dreamed one of her grandchildren would have a spot in the Hall until it happened.
“Willie was goofy and playful and mischievous and everything else,” Mrs. Layton said with a laugh. “He was having such a good time growing up.”
The front page of the Canton Repository newspaper showed another incredible picture: Willie embracing his father Clifton shortly after he received his Hall of Fame jacket at a dinner.
“I had a lot of emotions that night at the dinner,” Phoebe Roaf said. “I really wish my mom could be here, but it was wonderful to see Dad so happy and proud, and Willie got touched.”
Andree Roaf died in 2009.
Certainly, the Layton-Roaf clan weren’t the only ones sharing in Willie’s honor. Four New Orleans Saints fans, who have no relationship to Willie, flew into Akron-Canton Airport all decked out in Saints gear Friday, waiting for the day they’d see one of their own favorites be enshrined.
They and many other Saints fans were there just to celebrate an offensive lineman who quietly tended to his business. Willie drew that much love.
“The fact that people followed him as an offensive lineman really shows the respect that position now gets, which is always deserved,” Phoebe Roaf said.
Fred Hickman, a former CNN and ESPN anchor who now works for the Fox affiliate in New Orleans, said it’s how Roaf tended to his business that won over fans in the city.
“From day one, he went right to work and never missed a game that season, and I think fans appreciated that,” Hickman said. “Plus, he was from Louisiana Tech. He was a quiet man and just went about his business. But he was powerful.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a noted disciplinarian, quickly alluded to Roaf’s personality.
“What I appreciate the most about Willie Roaf is what a great guy he is,” he said in a one-on-one interview. “He’s a tremendous guy. As good as he was on the field, he was better off the field.”
Asked if Willie set the perfect example of what a player should be on and off the field, Goodell said: “Yes, because he’s a hard worker, he’s always looking to improve and he recognizes he’s got to give back to the game of football and his community. I think he’s a great example of that.”
Add the praise from up high — on the football pyramid, of course — and there might not have been a better way two Saints — Willie and Phoebe — could have pictured the weekend.
I.C. Murrell is the sports editor of The Commercial. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.