Jermaine Roberts didn't even have time to wipe the sleep from his eyes.
By the time he could gather his thoughts, and even process what was happening, he'd been pulled out of bed by New Orleans law enforcement officials who thought he was the person they'd come to look for: his dad.
His father, also named Jermaine Roberts, would normally wake his children -- Jermaine Roberts Jr. (17 years old), Jyron (16), and Bre (15) -- around 5:30 a.m. to get ready for school.
On this particular December morning, however, Roberts Jr. faintly heard the doorbell ring around 4 a.m.
“My brother got up and went outside to look and no one was out there,” said Roberts, who was 15 at the time. “But [Jyron] saw my dad in the garage packing his lunch. So my dad opened the garage and [the cops] grabbed my dad. They saw my little brother and they thought my little brother was my dad and grabbed him. I was sleeping and they grabbed me, too. I got put on the ground and then they took us up front and found out I wasn’t my dad.”
Soon after, Roberts’ father was whisked away on charges he has declined to share with his son. According to Roberts' mother, Ivory Robinson, who was separated from Roberts’ father at the time of his arrest, they are drug-related.
With his dad in prison, Roberts, who was in ninth grade at Saint Augustine High School at the time, was left with a decision: give in to the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, a dangerous section of New Orleans that plenty of his childhood friends had succumbed to, or become the father figure and role model his siblings needed.
It didn’t take long for Roberts, now a highly recruited cornerback committed to Texas, to decide which direction he’d choose.
Turning a negative into a positive
Some of the things Roberts has seen in the Lower Ninth Ward should not be seen by anyone, much less a high school student searching for direction in life.
“I actually saw someone get shot a couple of times in the stomach, lying on the ground bleeding to death,” Roberts said. “I just remember looking at all the blood on the ground.”
The horror was just one of many witnessed in his young life.
“Every day someone gets killed in our neighborhood,” Roberts said.
Roberts' community, which sits downriver from the French Quarter, was one of many obliterated by Hurricane Katrina. When the storm broke through the levees on Aug. 29, 2005, Roberts and his family moved to Atlanta. They stayed about 18 months before moving back to New Orleans. Roberts, meanwhile, was just getting serious about football.
Since then, he has developed into an incredible talent whom his father hasn't yet been able to watch.
“He hasn’t been to one of my games. He hasn’t seen me in person,” said Roberts, who is ranked No. 165 in the ESPN 300. “He only saw me play [Pop Warner] ball. He hears everything in prison about how good I am doing. But he won’t be able to see me play high school ball.”
On a laundry list of tough circumstances that have evolved from this situation, father not being able to see son play football is near the top.
However, when others might sulk and let frustration take over, Roberts has grown accustomed to turning those negatives into positives.
“I use that as motivation for myself,” he said. “That definitely pushes me harder. I take everything out on the field.”
Roberts has matured in many ways since his father’s arrest, he says. Perhaps no moment bigger than when he chose to forgive.
“I was disappointed when I was younger,” he said. “But I’ve learned that everybody makes mistakes and that you have to be a man. I couldn’t be mad at him and have him think I didn’t want to talk to him. I had to forgive him.”
Roberts demonstrated his compassion at his father’s court proceedings.
“J went to court with him and spoke on his behalf and told the judge that his dad is a good person and that he just got caught up in some stuff,” Robinson said. “The judge commended him on doing well and told him to stay focused.”
Others helped influence him
There’s no denying that much of the credit for where Roberts is today rests on his slender 5-foot-9, 166-pound shoulders.
But it has been a team effort as well, one that starts with his mother, who works two jobs to support her family.
“The only time I am not working is when I’m sleeping,” she said.
Renowned New Orleans defensive backs coach Del Lee also has had an enormous influence on Roberts.
“People always say it takes a village to raise a child, so once his father did go away, Coach Lee 100 percent stepped in,” Robinson said. “Coach Dave Johnson, who is now a coach at Tulane, I still can call him and he checks in with J.”
Lee met Roberts while coaching at Saint Augustine, when Roberts was a budding star at wide receiver.
“But when I looked at his size and stature, I thought he could be a great DB,” Lee said. “So I ended up pleading with the head coach, who was an offensive guy, and got him to defense. The rest is history.”
Lee pushed for Roberts to start on varsity as a sophomore, which he did. Roberts flourished. He only got better as a junior, and now he’ll become the 13th defensive back Lee has helped get to college in five years, a group that includes current Arizona Cardinals rookie Tyrann Mathieu.
Lee is certainly proud about Roberts’ strides as a defensive back, but even more so, about the leaps Roberts has taken as a man.
“I’m extremely proud of him,” said Lee, who is now a coach at O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans. “In the inner city of New Orleans you can get caught up in the blink of an eye. It’s that easy. For him to be able to separate himself from all of the things going on out here is a testament to himself. I am very proud. Of course, it’s not done. We’ve got his senior year to go, but I know that everything will be fine.”
Lee checks on Roberts weekly, sometimes calling him every other day, just to make sure he’s on the right track. When Roberts needed a ride to Texas’ camp last week, Lee was the one who drove him.
“When you have an idle mind, things start to happen, and it’s not always positive,” Lee said. “I’m proud of him to be able to stay focused and not venture into any of that.”
Future at Texas is bright
For now, communication between Roberts and his father is limited to one phone call every two weeks. The message from behind bars is clear.
“He just tells me to keep my little brother on the right track and to take care of my mom and my family,” Roberts said. “It’s too easy to get in trouble in New Orleans. Where we are from there is a lot of killings. He just wants me to keep my brother on the right path.”
The elder Roberts likely will get out of prison during his son’s freshman year at Texas. That will be a big moment for all involved.
“I’m going to miss him, but I’d glad he is leaving New Orleans,” Robinson said about her son's future with the Longhorns. “New Orleans is not the safest place for any kid. It’ll be hard letting him go, but Texas was my first pick. They are very family-oriented. Mr. Mack Brown and his wife are some very sweet people.”
It will also be the first opportunity, since Pop Warner football, for the elder Roberts to watch his son play.
He will no doubt have his eyes glued on No. 9, the number Roberts chose in honor of the Lower Ninth Ward.