By Bob Underwood / March 15, 2020
Some consider Johnny Roland the greatest football player in Missouri Tiger history. And if it weren’t for a knee injury suffered late in the 1967 season, he may have become the greatest running back in St. Louis Football Cardinals history.
John Earl Roland was born on May 21, 1943 in Corpus Christi, TX. He was a natural athlete, throwing two no-hitters while playing baseball in middle school. He also ran track and starred in “B” team football his freshman year at Miller High School in Corpus Christi where he ran for a 50-yard touchdown on his first carry. As a high school senior, Roland earned all-state honors rushing for 1224 yards and scored 14 touchdowns.
BOOMER SOONER DENIED
Roland had over 50 colleges interested in him after his sensational high school career. He signed a letter of intent to play for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma in June of 1961, but later decided to attend Mizzou.
“I decided I would rather not live in Oklahoma,” Roland told the St. Louis Dispatch in 1966. “I thought my best opportunities might come in the state where I attended college and I felt I definitely would prefer living in Missouri to living in Oklahoma.”
Although letters of intent were not binding at the time, Oklahoma filed a complaint with the Big Eight Conference charging that Mizzou hid Roland out in a Columbia motel until he enrolled.
“Actually, that’s not true,” Roland recently said. “I was working in Kansas City.”
The complaint was denied and Roland became a Missouri Tiger.
Roland excelled for the Mizzou freshman team in 1961 rushing for 171 yards and three touchdowns in his first varsity game against California in 1962. By season’s end, Roland set a school record with 830 yards, the most ever by a sophomore at Missouri.
Roland was on top of the world in Columbia. And then his world came crashing down.
Before spring practice in 1963, Roland loaned his vehicle to another student and it showed up the next day with two wheels and tires that had been taken from someone else’s car. Roland was charged and pled guilty to misdemeanor theft and was suspended for the fall semester, which resulted in him missing the entire 1963 season.
“He didn’t tell me, but I knew he didn’t have anything to do with it,” Roland’s fiancé Barbara said.
“I didn’t talk about it then and I’d rather not talk about it now,” Roland later told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
It was later reported that Roland had nothing to do with the theft and his only crime was failing to give up the name of those who borrowed his automobile.
Some felt that Roland would leave Mizzou after the suspension. “I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t come back,” an angry head coach Dan Devine said at the time. “He’s too smart to have switched different colored wheels from a car parked in the same block, but he’s too proud to turn pigeon…”
But Roland returned to the team in 1964 and many considered him their top offensive threat heading into the season opener against the Cal Bears, however head coach Dan Devine had other ideas.
“The week of the California game they wanted me to switch to defense,” Roland said. “I knew we needed help there. I wasn’t happy, but I made the switch.”
Roland turned into a triple threat for the Tigers. He became an All-American defensive back, a dangerous running back, and a top return man as he led the team in punt returns his junior and senior seasons.
Johnny Roland left Mizzou as one of the most decorated athletes in school history. He became the team’s first African American captain in 1965 and led the team with six interceptions. Roland even threw a TD pass in Mizzou’s 20-18 Sugar Bowl victory over the Florida Gators.
Roland was a vicious tackler, an outstanding pass defender, a top punt and kick returner, and was considered by many the top offensive talent on the 1964 team.
“Where do you play him?” one pro scout questioned. “Wherever you need him. He can play wherever he wants to play.”
BIG RED OR JETS?
The St. Louis Football Cardinals drafted Johnny Roland as a “future” in the fourth round of the 1965 NFL draft, just three rounds after selecting Joe Namath with their top pick. Coincidentally, the New York Jets also drafted Roland and were prepared to do whatever it took to get him.
But this time the Big Red got their man. Roland signed a three-year contract worth a reported $400,000 just hours after Mizzou’s Sugar Bowl victory. It was reported at the time that Roland signed for less money than what the Jets had offered.
“I don’t really know,” Roland humbly said with a smile. “I’m pretty sure I signed for a lesser amount than I could have with the Jets, but it was enough. And, more than anything, I wanted to play in St. Louis and the National Football League, not the American League.”
Said Bill Bidwill, “We are delighted. I was nervous about him. We had some terribly stiff competition. I can’t tell you how happy I am about the outcome.”
A STAR IS BORN
Head coach Charley Winner decided Roland would play offense for the Cardinals and he certainly didn’t disappoint.
In his first NFL game, Roland helped the Big Red turn a 10-3 halftime deficit into a 16-13 win over the Eagles in the 1966 season opener at Busch Stadium. Roland contributed 148 total yards in the second half earning him NFL Offensive Player of the Week honors.
“I thought about starting Roland earlier in the week,” Big Red head coach Charley Winner told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “But I decided to go with experience. I went to him in the second half because he’s an opportunist. He reminds of Paul Hornung in that he makes the most in what he has.”
Roland would go to back to back Pro Bowls his first two seasons and was named NFL Rookie of the Year in ’66 when he led the team with 695 rushing yards, 1476 all-purpose yards, and 6 touchdowns.
“He has lived up to his promise more than any back I’ve seen coming out of college into pro football,” Winner told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Roland finished fourth in rushing and contributed over 1100 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns in 1967, but a season ending knee injury against the Browns, not only cost him a chance at 1000 rushing yards, but would hamper him for most of the ’68 season when he finished with just over 400 yards rushing.
Roland was converted to fullback in 1970 and became a part-time player, but his most memorable NFL game came that season on a Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys when he scored three touchdowns, including one on a 74-yard punt return in the Cardinals 38-0 win over the Cowboys.
“He’s a helluva man,” MacArthur Lane said of Roland.
“He was tremendous,” Winner said.
“I love it,” Roland said of his performance. “Mental preparation has a lot to do with it. I’m just fortunate I was able to do the job.”
After leading the team with 38 receptions in 1972, the Cardinals wanted to go with a younger, less expensive running back, so they waived their all-time leading rusher in September 1973.
“The lowest point of my career was when Joe Sullivan called me on a Wednesday afternoon and told me I was on waivers,” Roland told Jeff Meyers of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “I really didn’t feel like playing any more this year because of the hurt and disappointment.”
However, Roland quickly changed his mind and signed with the New York Giants a week later. He also got some payback when the one-win Giants beat the Cards 24-13 at the Yale Bowl. Roland contributed 97 yards of offense and scored a fourth quarter touchdown to put the game away.
“It gave me a lot of personal satisfaction to show the Cardinals I can still play football,” said Roland after the game. “It was kind of fun out there. The Cardinals and I would chit-chat while I was on the field. They’d tell me how much they missed me.”
Johnny Roland would retire at the end of the 1973 season. However, he wouldn’t be out of football long.
A COACH IS BORN
With his playing days behind him, Johnny Roland joined his old Mizzou coach Dan Devine as an assistant with the Packers in March 1974.
“I felt this would be an excellent opportunity to see if I would like to stay in football in a coaching or administrative capacity,” Roland told the Green Bay Press Gazette. This opportunity might not be available in a year or two.”
Roland would go on to a long coaching career in the NFL. He worked three seasons under Dick Vermeil in Philadelphia and ten seasons for Mike Ditka in Chicago where he earned a Super Bowl Ring. Roland also coached for the New York Jets, St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints.
Roland is the only person to coach the NFL’s two all-time leading rushers in Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. He also coached Neal Anderson, Wilbert Montgomery and Jerome Bettis.
But Roland never got his dream job. Head coach of a National Football League team.
“Give me an opportunity,” he told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1987. “If I don’t succeed, fire me… I’ve read statements where the owners are afraid of hiring a black head coach and then having to fire him. They say there would be a social uprising. A lot of white coaches who can’t get the job done are fired, and there are no uprisings.”
There were reports that Walter Payton was going to hire Roland as head coach of the St. Louis expansion team in 1995, but those teams went to Carolina and Jacksonville.
Roland finally hung it up after coaching with the New Orleans Saints in 2005. He never got his dream job, but there was no question that he left his mark on the NFL. Eight years as a player and 30 years in coaching.
HALL OF FAME
After being passed over numerous times, Johnny Roland was finally inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998. It was long overdue.
“I received a Federal Express Letter from the Hall of Fame about a week ago,” Roland told Jeff Gordon of the St. louis Post Dispatch. “I was stunned when I read it and found out what it was.”
Roland is also a member of the Missouri and St. Louis Sports Hall of Fames.
Johnny Roland still calls St. Louis home. He stays busy playing golf and spending time with friends and family, which includes his 98-year-old mother who still lives in Corpus Christi.
Anyone who knows Johnny Roland will tell you the same thing. He treats everyone he meets like he’s known them their entire lives.
“Your life can be made or broken by the reputation you leave with other people,” John Roland Jr. recently told the Columbia Missourian. “Putting others before yourself. My father did that. That’s the type of legacy I want to hold myself to. That’s the type of legacy I want to pass down to my kids. That’s how you should handle your life.”
“My dad kind of was a big deal, and he still is a big deal to some folk.”