This article appears in the May 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
On the eve of the 2010 NFL draft, Daron Roberts bows his head in prayer inside his small Detroit home. As the
assistant secondary coach for the Lions, a team whose defensive backs have struggled mightily over the past few seasons, he spends a lot of time beseeching God. Kneeling on the floor in his all-black Detroit Lions sweats, in his pristine but sparsely furnished living room, the 31-year-old Roberts has the look of a hyperorganized preacher -- fitting for the son of an East Texas Baptist minister and a retired elementary school principal. "Lord," he says, almost joyfully, "I pray our draft picks are as committed as we are to reviving the Detroit Lions."
Roberts' optimism, even about the Lions, should come as little surprise. His MO is to target seemingly impossible goals, then reach them in nothing flat. Less than four years ago, in 2006, Roberts decided he wanted to become a pro football coach. It was an unremarkable choice, to be sure, in all ways but one: At the time, he was a clerk at a large law firm, rounding the corner on a Harvard law degree, and he had no NFL connections or any kind of football résumé, except for the fact that he played in high school. (He earned his undergraduate degree in liberal arts and government at Texas before getting a master's in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.)
Roberts got the bug when he tagged along with a friend who was working as a counselor at Steve Spurrier's prep camp in South Carolina. He had long been a gridiron fanatic; in high school, he spent twice as many hours at football practice as he did studying. But working at Spurrier's camp, he began to entertain thoughts of becoming the next Jon Gruden (whose book, Do You Love Football?!, was a big hit with Roberts). Something inside the law student changed during those three days. "The best part was sitting with the campers at night," Roberts says. "Our talks would switch from zone technique to girlfriends. That's when I realized football is the most powerful conduit for reaching young men in America, and that I had to be a coach."
And that's when he resolved to trade one grueling career track for another. Instead of grinding away to make partner at a big firm, he would start from scratch with the clipboard brigade. "He is still young," says Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. "But he has the intelligence, talent and work ethic to make it to the top of anything that he tries."
Here's how Roberts went from aspiring lawyer to NFL assistant in little more than a year.