It wasn't a tragic mistake that led Daron Roberts to list "volunteer football coach" on his résumé above two Harvard degrees and a stint on Capitol Hill. After graduating from the University of Texas in 2001, Roberts worked for Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) before leaving for the Harvard Kennedy School a year later. Roberts, however, wasn't convinced he wanted a career in public policy. "To be honest," the 31-year-old says, "I was looking for a way to run out the clock."
After Kennedy, it was on to Harvard Law and internships at two Houston-based law firms after his second year. That same summer he accepted an offer to volunteer at a high school football camp. "It showed me how powerful and cool football can be," he says. "I noticed kids from different social backgrounds who normally wouldn't be inclined to talk to each other becoming instant friends." After the summer ended he turned down two law firm offers and sent out 164 letters—to every head coach and defensive coach in the National Football League and 50 top college teams—asking to volunteer.
Roberts got one positive response. "I don't know why you want to do this," said Herman Edwards, then head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, but he hired Roberts as a summer training camp intern. At the end of the season, Roberts asked to volunteer for the fall, and he was hired as defensive quality control coach, the NFL equivalent of working in the mailroom.
When Roberts first walked into the office of Gunther Cunningham, the Chiefs' defensive coordinator, Cunningham says he told him: " 'Get the hell out.' And he looked at me and said, 'I'm not leaving.' " In January 2009, Roberts followed Cunningham to the Detroit Lions, where he's helping rebuild the franchise as an assistant secondary coach. That means rising at 5 a.m. to study opponents, meeting with players from 9 to 10, going to practice from 11 to 1:30, and watching game film for hours after that. The workday ends between 11 p.m. and midnight.
Roberts hopes to lead a college program one day. In the meantime he's found a bridge between his old and new lives: "We both have clients, and ours are our players. Our job is to put them in the best position to win."
Ditching Pinstripes for Pigskin
Hours Roberts works per week as an assistant secondary coach for the Lions: 100+
Number of résumés sent to NFL coaches for an internship. Roberts received one offer: 164
Hours per week that Roberts studies practice and game film to prepare his players: 55
Estimated salary decrease in choosing a coaching job vs. one at a white-shoe law firm: 50%
Data: Daron Roberts