(Editor’s Note: This story was authored by former St. Louis Globe Democrat sports writer Rich Koster and was originally published in Sport Magazine in July 1967)
To appreciate Johnny Roland’s talent, you must be aware of his shortcomings. In a game dominated by specialists, he has no specialty. He’s not as fast as Gale Sayers, as quick as Leroy Kelly, or as powerful as Ken Willard. He’s never run a 10 second 100 and when he throws a football it frequently wobbles or floats. On the longest run of his rookie year, a mere 50 yards from scrimmage, he was hauled down from behind in the open field. He tabulated over 80 yards rushing in only one game and he average an unspectacular 3.6 yards per carry over the season.
So how did the 6-2, 215-pound Roland emerge as the NFL’s Rookie of the Year? And what made him worth a $300,000 bonus contract to the St. Louis Cardinals?
Simple. He wins football games. He wins them the way Frank Gifford used to. And Paul Hornung. With the relentlessness of that 3.6 yard average and the lighting of the big play. He succeeds with versatility. He wins with his head . . . and heart.
A confirmed non-specialist in a world of specialists, Johnny Roland has his shortcomings on the football field. He doesn’t move too fast, he can’t run over people and he throws a wobbly option pass
“Some guys in this league play three or four games a season,” suggest Abe Stuber, who excavates college material for St. Louis. “Roland has shown he plays them all. He gives 100 percent all the time.. That puts him in a different category from the others.”
Roland categorized himself in his first professional game. At the end of the three quarters of a grudging yardage battle against Philadelphia, the Cardinals trailed, 10-6. Midway through the final period, they were faced with a third-and-33 problem at their own 47.
Quarterback Charley Johnson called a post pattern and directed Roland downfield to divert defenders out of the area where Sonny Randle, the Cardinals speedy split end, was to intersect the pass.
But the rookie was buffeted by heavy resistance at the line and by the time he fought free the pass had been thrown, contested . . . and fallen incomplete.
Or had it? Randle arrived on schedule and the ball was on target. But a third party, Eagle defensive back Joe Scarpati, exploded into the picture at the instant of reception. A mid-air collision stunned Randle, kayoed Scarpati—and caromed the ball toward the turf in a brief, tight arc.
Roland, 20 yards short of his designated station was just two strides from the football. He snatched it, jostled through a crossfire of arms and struggled to a first down at the Philadelphia 16.
Four plays later, the Cardinals had their only touchdown in a 16-13 victory—because Roland had been in the wrong place at the right time. Throughout the second half of that game he was in the right place at the right time. He sat out the entire first half, yet he still accumulated 159 yards in total offense and was chosen the NFL’s player of the week.
The following weekend against Washington, the Redskins defense focused on Roland. After three quarters of play, he had 19 yards on 12 carries and the cards were agains without a touchdown. Then, early in the final period, St. Louis recovered a fumble at the Washington 25. On second-and-seven, Roland circled right end, snapped two arm tackles at the 20 and headed for the end zone.
At the five, Redskin safety Paul Krause drove a shoulder against Roland’s thigh pads—and Johnny drove right through him. The touchdown triggered a 17 point fourth quarter and a 23-7 Card triumph.
Two weeks later at Philadelphia, Roland set up the first St. Louis touchdown with a punt return, then scored a touchdown with an 86 yard punt return.
The next Sunday, the Giants led 16-7 well into the fourth quarter. Roland brought the ball to the New York 40 on a 27 yard kick return and two slashing runs of seven and 11 yards. On the next play, he took off to the right, sucked in the linebacker and threw a long pass down the sideline. Bobby Joe Conrad hugged it at the five and went in for the touchdown which proved pivotal in a 24-19 St. Louis victory.
The Cardinals couldn’t keep winning for long after Charley Johnson was sidelined. But even when they fell out of the Eastern Conference race, Johnny Roland never let up. He tied a Cardinal record by carrying the ball 192 times from scrimmage in 1966. On 37 of those runs he was confronted with a key situation—second or third down with five yards or less to go. he fetched a fresh set of downs 26 times and for the 37 rushes equaled his overall average of 3.6 yards per carry.
His powerful legs, great sense of balance and deceptive change of pace were worth 1606 yards to the Cardinals offense last year. He led the league in punt returns (20 for 211 yards), rushed for 695 yards, caught 21 passes for 213 yards, completed five of eight of his own throws and contributed more than 100 yards in total offense in nine of the Cardinals 14 games. All of this was enough to give him the edge over Tommy Nobis, Atlanta’s fine middle linebacker, in the Rookie of the Year balloting.
Roland’s immediate success in the NFL was unexpected, but not surprising to the uncomplicated 24 year old who is almost off-handed about his athletic accomplishments. He had no real doubts about making it in the NFL. The only question was when.
“I knew I couldn’t expect to come right out of college and be a starter the first year,” he said. He was siting in his comfortably furnished apartment in midtown St. Louis. His wife, Barbara and their two year old son John Jr. were in another room, leaving Roland alone to ponder his past. He pondered it gravely.
“After Francis Peay (a Missouri tackle who went with the Giants) and I signed our contracts, we talked a lot about what it would be like in the NFL, how tough ti would be. We just hoped to get enough experience our first season so we might play more later. I really had no idea that I’d start or even play much. And I certainly wasn’t expecting to do as well as I did.”
If the solemn-looking Roland had been a cocky rookie, his pro indoctrination surely would have been painful. He joined a team whose veterans were disgruntled over the unrealistic sums being paid to untried collegians and 30 minutes into the season he displaced Bill Triplett a popular halfback who had led the Cards in rushing in 1965.
But he made a place for himself as much on his attitude as his ability.
“I realized that if I did my job, that’s how I’d be judged,” he says. “I was actually away at All-Star camp the early weeks of training. And then my first exhibition, I almost got away on a couple of punts. That seemed to break the ice.”
Roland admits that the subject of money did come up once, however.
“After we were beaten pretty bad by Baltimore and Los Angeles in exhibitions,” he recalls, “Larry Wilson spoke to the players at a team meeting. He said that no one should be concerned with what the other guys were making, that these were different time in football and that the only criteria was whether or not a player could help the team.”
The Cardinal veterans probably didn’t need Wilson’s sermon to accept Roland. They may well have envied his bank account, but they certainly realized early that his was a talent to benefit them al in the long run.
The Triplett situation was something else. It’s always a delicate situation when a rookie benches a veteran, for both the veteran and the rookie.
“Bill and I are real good friends,” Roland says. “At first, when I’d see him in the locker room, it was hard for me to face him. But after I started doing pretty good, I think we both felt the one doing the better job should be in there playing.”
Triplett became a forgotten man almost as he crossed the sidelines upon being replace in the opening game. At season’s end he was traded to the Giants.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Roland’s swift success in the NFL was that he had concentrated on defense during his final two seasons at Missouri. (Drafted as a fourth round “future” after his junior year, Johnny made All-America in his senior year as a safety.) It’s not unusual for a collegian to be converted from offense to defense by the pros, but to do it the other way is rare.
Still, there was never any doubt that he would play somewhere in the pros.
“We knew he could play offense because Missouri used him offensive from the 20 yard line in,” says Stuber. “But he could have been a great defensive safety in this league too. I’ve seen him shed blockers and come off and make the tackle many times.”
Wally Lemm, the Cardinals head coach when Roland was drafted stated flatly: “He can make it as a running back, defensive back or flanker.”
Johnny starred in all three positions at Corpus Christi (Texas) High and was widely recruited. In fact, his enrollment at Missouri earned the university a reprimand from the NCAA after an alumnus made an unauthorized load to the boy for travel expenses.
The case was further publicized because Roland originally agreed to go to Oklahoma and when he changed his mind a Sooner assistant coach invaded the Missouri campus to try to persuade him to return to Norman.
“I had signed a letter of intent at Oklahoma,” Roland admits, “but that was before letters of intent were binding. After I signed, I started to think about the future. I decided I’d rather no live in Oklahoma. I’d rather live in Missouri. It wasn’t a question of race, but maybe I was subconsciously influenced by it. I thought my best opportunity might come from the state where I attended college.”
His college career began with a flourish. He scored three touchdowns and gained 170 yards in his first varsity game and went on to rank second in the Big Eight—to Gale Sayers—and seventh in the nation with 830 yards rushing. His future seemed limitless.
But then Johnny Roland’s world shattered. Shortly before spring football was to begin in 1963, he was suspended from the university, accused of stealing a pair of tires and wheels from another student’s car. The stolen tires and wheels were discovered in his possession and he admitted to taking them. He was charged with a misdemeanor and fined $50. If there were other involved, as since has been strongly suspected, Roland refused to implicate them. To this day, Roland refuses to unburden himself about he incident. “I didn’t talk about it then,” he says, “and I’d rather not talk about it now.”
He appeared before the Student Conduct Committee and stoically accepted his sentence. He could re-enroll in a year—later reduced by a semester—but would be ineligible for football until 1964—then 18 months away.
The irony of the situation was expressed by teammates and coaches. Missouri co-captain Tom Hertz spoke for others: “When there’s a bad apple, we about it first. We’ve had bad ones before, but they don’t last long. Johnny Roland isn’t, ore has he ever been a bad apple.”
Missouri assistant coach Clay Cooper pointed out, “He could have had credit anywhere in Missouri had he wanted to borrow to buy the tires. This is a complete reversal without motive. A thief is unreliable and inconsistent. When you ask Johnny Roland to be someplace, he’s always five minutes early.”
Roland himself remained silently contrite. When he left the campus, it was to go to Kansas City to work out his suspension. Before departing, he told coach Dan Devine: “I’ll be back.”
Many people doubted that he would. “It would have been easy for him to make a fresh start somewhere else,” Devine comments. “A 19 year old with less determination would certainly have accepted one of the Canadian pro offers. But he insisted he’d come back.”
In the fall of 1963, he kept his promise. And a year after that he rejoined the football team.
Having survived misfortune with stoic fortitude, Roland had a further adjustment to make on the football field in 1964. Devine asked him to switch to defense. Roland agreed, but had private misgivings.
“Truthfully, I was reluctant,” he says. “I knew we needed help and I knew what would happen if we went with a weak secondary. I wasn’t really happy but I made the switch. The first year was difficult. As the season progressed, we weren’t going too well and I wondered if I was doing the right thing.”
“it looked as if they needed me on offense and we weren’t beating anyone with our defense. Especially me. But I got better. I got confidence. I decided I was right to have made the switch when the coaches asked me to. There’s something about defense. Stopping the other guy, taking the heart out of his offense.”
He really came on in 1965, his senior year. Missouri compiled an 8-2-1 record and says Cooper, “Johnny was one of the best, if not the best defensive backs we’ve ever had. He was a vicious tackler, with size you seldom find in the secondary.”
Inside the 20, Roland moved to offense. “We wanted our best football player in the game then,” says Devine. “Johnny was a big, strong lad who could block and run with determination.”
Roland’s last college game against Kansas was a virtuoso performance. He scored three touchdowns, threw a pass to set up another, returned a punt to trigger still another, recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass. All of which prompted Kansas coach Jack Mitchell to pronounce: “Johnny Roland may be the finest all-around back in the United States. I believe he’s the best since Billy Vessels of Oklahoma.” Which was heady praise from the guy who had coached Gale Sayers.
By the end of his senior season, Roland had become an essential to the Cardinals—from a public-relations angle as well as a football resource. St. Louis had lost its last two first round draft choices—Joe Namath and Carl McAdams—in billfold battles with the New York Jets, and Sonny Werblin was again the foe in the bidding, with Roland the prize.
St. Louis fans took part in the wooing of Roland with a letter-writing campaign, and influential Missouri alumni also let Johnny know that they hoped he’s stay in the state. Dan Devine said, “You know, he was awfully low at one time. And he was alone. But he came back. He was the first Negro captain in any sport at Missouri U.—and he got all but one vote. I felt he’d make his reputation in Missouri. He’s have to start all over in New York.”
Roland says, “Mr. Werblin would have matched any money offered, but all things being equal I wanted to play here.”
All things were pretty much equal. Roland signed for an estimated $300,000. “I really shouldn’t have any financial worries when I quit football,” he says now. “I did all right and I’ve got deep pockets and short arms.”
His arms aren’t as short nor his pockets as deep as he’d have you believe, however. One of the first things he did after signing his Cardinal contract was to pay off the mortgage on his parent’s home in Corpus Christi.
Johnny’s extravagances are mostly minor. One is a record collection—weighted heavily to progressive jazz— which runs well over a thousand. On a free afternoon, Roland will spend hours listening to jazz.
Roland’s taste in clothes is more conservative than flashy, in keeping with his off-season role as an insurance sales trainee with the agency run by the Missouri alumnus who negotiated his contract with the Cardinals. “But I like clothes which are good for a sporting occasion,” he adds.
And he likes to rise to the sporting occasion. For those of you who still wonder how a non-specialist could have done so well, listen to the simple explanation of assistant coach Rick Forzano.
“He’s an athlete,” says Forzano. “That’s why he can do so many things. He makes up for any individual shortcomings with overall ability.”
That’s how Johnny Roland wins football games for the St. Louis Cardinals.