A torn anterior cruciate ligament injury during the 2001 season put Willie Roaf’s football career in check. The offensive tackle was playing his ninth season in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints.
“I think it was something already hurt on me,” Roaf said. “I tore my ACL when I was playing in New Orleans in 1996. I think I re-tore my ACL. It probably gave out and snapped on me.”
The injury limited Roaf to seven games that season, as he found himself in and out of the lineup. By that time, Roaf already had a well-decorated career that included two NFC Offensive Lineman of the Year awards.
Roaf is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Saint, but it was his time with the Chiefs that helped him enter Canton, Ohio, on his second ballot, he said. He noted some linemen have had solid careers including Pro Bowl appearances but have never made a final ballot.
“I think if I had just stopped playing, I would not have made it,” Roaf said. “I think I would have eventually gotten into the Hall of Fame, but not soon.”
The short wait ended this past February, the day before the Super Bowl, when Roaf got the call to be enshrined. Inductees must be retired for at least five years, and the 2011 season was Roaf’s sixth.
Roaf said he wasn’t frustrated about not making it on his first ballot.
“Marshall (Faulk) was up along with other skilled, excellent players at their position,” Roaf said. “Richard Dent had been waiting 10 years. Sometimes you got to wait 10 years, but it didn’t take too long for me.”
Roaf backed up his eighth-overall selection in 1993 draft with his contributions to the Saints. His trade to the Chiefs after the 2001 season allowed him to add to his accomplishments.
“He had a new outlook on life, playing with a different team, playing in an expanded role,” said Will Shields, who played on the offensive line in Kansas City with Roaf. “The great talent he had to go against made it that much better. The way we put the numbers up helped him.”
Roaf utilized his quickness and versatility more in Kansas City’s system, Shields said. From 2003-05, the Chiefs had the most offensive yards in the AFC and the most in the league the last two of those seasons. They led the NFL in points scored in 2002 and 2003.
“When I was in Kansas City, they pulled us a lot more,” Roaf said. “It was a lot more fun for me because I got to use my athleticism more in a West Coast system. In New Orleans, I didn’t pull as much and get on the edges.”
But he had plenty of success in helping the Saints turn into a yearly contender. Most of his 11 Pro Bowl seasons were with New Orleans.
“When I first made All-Pro, we had Jim Everett, and we threw for 4,000 yards two years in a row,” Roaf said. “We hardly gave up 15 sacks in a year.”
He said the high point of his career was helping New Orleans earn its first-ever playoff victory in the 2000 season over the Rams, 31-28.
The low point? Roaf’s injury. But he took advantage of the opportunity to prove himself again.
“He was so much bigger, faster and stronger (with) the things he was able to accomplish,” Shields said. “Week in and week out, to perform at a high level made it better. He was able to prove he was a first-rounder from year one.”
The Chiefs offensive line also proved their endurance, as neither starter missed a game in Roaf’s first two years with the team, he said.
Billy Long, an Arkansas-Pine Bluff strength and conditioning coach in the late 1980s who was Roaf’s strength coach in Kansas City, said Roaf took his strength to a new level on game days.
“When the competition got heavier, he got heavier,” Long said. “I don’t think Dwight Freeney ever got a sack against Willie Roaf. He’s the most powerful football player you’ve ever seen, pound for pound.”