Dr. Clifton Roaf was one of the most inspiring men I've ever met. I came to know Roaf, a Pine Bluff dentist who died last week, when I worked for Simmons Bank. He served on the bank's board and also on the board of the Simmons Foundation. His prayers before foundation board luncheons were legendary, as were the pep talks he would give when things weren't going as well as they should have been going in Southeast Arkansas.
No one ever loved Pine Bluff more than Roaf. In a town where race relations have long been an issue, he was a consistent voice of reason.
He was, however, just one part of the amazing Roaf family. His wife, the late Andree Layton Roaf, became the first black woman to serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court when she was appointed by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to succeed retiring Justice Steele Hays in January 1995. She wasn't eligible to run for a full term on the high court but was appointed by Gov. Mike Huckabee to the Arkansas Court of Appeals. She served for almost a decade on that court. Andree Roaf died in 2009.
The couple's son, Willie Roaf, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2014. Willie Roaf has often told reporters through the years that his mother would have preferred that he become a doctor or an attorney. He was attracting so little interest from college recruiters as a football player at Pine Bluff High School that he considered switching to basketball.
Finally, Willie Roaf decided to play football at Louisiana Tech University. Roaf was 6' 4", 220 pounds when he went to Tech, small for a college offensive lineman. Former Tech coach Joe Raymond Peace said assistant coach Jerry Baldwin brought film of Roaf playing for the Zebras.
"Jerry said he was probably a better basketball player than football player," Peace said. "I looked at about eight plays, and I could tell he had great feet and hips. At the time of my visit, I believe I was the only head coach to go into the home, although Larry Lacewell would go in later."
By his sophomore season, Willie Roaf was 6'5", 300 pounds. Louisiana Tech played Alabama, Baylor, South Carolina, Ole Miss and West Virginia, allowing professional scouts plenty of opportunities to watch him by his senior season. Willie Roaf was picked in the first round of the 1993 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints. He was the eighth selection overall and the first offensive lineman to be drafted that year. He spent the first nine years of a 13-year NFL career with the Saints. He started 131 games for New Orleans and helped the franchise to its first playoff win, a 2000 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams. A torn ligament in his right knee forced Roaf to miss the second half of the 2001 season. He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons. Roaf was voted to the Pro Bowl 11 times in 13 seasons. He earned a spot on the NFL All-Decade teams for the 1990s and the 2000s.
Clifton Roaf was one of nine children who grew up in a four-room house at Pine Bluff. In a 1993 story for Sports Illustrated, Gary Smith described Clifton Roaf's father as a man who "loaded railroad freight, worked fields, sawed wood and pushed mops to survive." Pine Bluff was among the most segregated cities in the South. Clifton Roaf would later say that one could "look at an address and tell whether the person was white or black."
"Sure, he had been his high school's co-valedictorian, but sports had always been his true love," Smith wrote of Clifton Roaf. "He had spent Friday nights playing football and Saturday mornings picking cotton, and he had become an all-state defensive lineman talented enough to do what was virtually unheard of for a black teenager in Arkansas in the '50s--win a scholarship to a Big Ten school. But here he was [at Michigan State] ... hobbling through his senior year on a kneeful of mush, teaching freshman linemen how to pass-rush, no longer even on the roster."
Clifton Roaf had attended all-black Merrill High School at Pine Bluff. In 1958, one of the city's largest employers, International Paper Co., paid a Michigan State education professor named Raymond Hatch to evaluate the city's schools.
Roaf told the Pine Bluff Commercial years later: "What he found, of course, was a big discrepancy between the educational facilities at Pine Bluff High School and those at Merrill. They told him that they perhaps had someone who could go from this small segregated school in Pine Bluff and matriculate through a major white university, and that someone was I. Dr. Hatch was instrumental in me getting the scholarship to go there."
Roaf boarded a train in 1959 and vowed to never return to the South. He had his train ticket, a copy of his financial-aid agreement with Michigan State, a bag of clothes and $30. He later attended dental school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and returned to Pine Bluff to practice with his talented wife in tow.
Andree Layton came from a Nashville, Tenn., family where academics were stressed. Her grandfather won a scholarship to Yale in the early 1900s and later became the director of the YMCA in Norfolk, Va. Her mother was an honors graduate of Talladega College in Alabama and earned a master's degree from Michigan State. Her father earned a master's degree at Fisk. A blind date with Clifton Roaf in the spring of 1961 at Michigan State led to marriage and eventually one of Arkansas' most remarkable families.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 09/20/2017