Wednesday, November 26, 1997
Special turnaround for Roberts

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Al Roberts
The Bengals go to Philadelphia this weekend, which means something in the life of special teams coach Al Roberts.

It's a life that changed Jan. 16, 1996, in a Mobile, Ala., hotel room, when Roberts vowed to bury anger, egotism and emptiness forever in Christianity.

> ''My life is 200 percent better since I turned it over to God,'' Roberts said. ''I'm a better person. I'm not the same person. Some people can accept it. Others can't.''

Eight years ago, Roberts was the special teams coach for head coach Buddy Ryan's Philadelphia Eagles. He became a central figure in the ''Bounty Bowl,'' the infamous Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas when the Eagles supposedly put a $200 bounty on Dallas kicker Luis Zendejas, cut by Philly earlier that season.

Roberts remembers there was nothing organized. The Eagles were giving $100 bills for big hits and big plays, a practice currently outlawed by the NFL.

Because Zendejas had a reputation for not kicking well after he took a hit, Roberts remembers players buzzing how they should go after him. Then it escalated to guys talking on the phone.

Zendejas was still with the Eagles when one player got $200 - $100 each for hits on a punter and kicker. Which is why Roberts thinks Zendejas started saying the Eagles had a $200 hit on him.

''It was nothing. It was guys talking. It was all bravado,'' Roberts said. ''I don't want to put that on Buddy Ryan or the Eagles. It was the time. It was the whole bravado trip we were on. We were a strong, tough team. It was all about solipsism.''

Solipsism. It means self-absorption, and Roberts decries it. In himself and others, especially his players. He preaches no solo demonstrations on the field. He emphasizes punt and kick units coming and going off the field as a team.

If the new Al Roberts had been in Philly in 1989, ''I would have stopped it sooner. I would not have been tolerant of the bravado.'' When kicker Doug Pelfrey, a devout Christian, heard Roberts was joining the Bengals this season, he was terrified of the scuttlebutt. It said he was a tyrant, cussing every other word. When he didn't cuss, he ripped.

Instead, Pelfrey and Roberts have traded such books as Jesus, CEO.

''He came right out and told me he had changed his life, and I don't think he knew my background,'' Pelfrey said. ''He's proud of his new direction. He's the first coach I've ever heard that can coach you without cussing. Al has done it and done it well, and a lot of players will tell you he can get after you more than any other coach on the staff.''

The players praise Roberts for bringing discipline to special teams in an array of cutting-edge drills on kickoffs and kick returns. He tries to transfer the strength of a player into his schemes. Coach Bruce Coslet, who also hired him with the Jets, covets his enthusiasm and passion.

Rewind to a game earlier this season, when Roberts bolted off the sideline to drag special teams captain Eric Bieniemy out of a scuffle.

Before 1996, ''I took everything very personal, and I attacked guys more personally rather than technically,'' Roberts said. ''When you teach them on a personal level, it becomes a negative. So now I teach them technically, and it's more positive.''

He calls players by their numbers instead of names to keep it on a technical level. He disdains statistics because he feels they breed pride.

''If something happens (now), I don't take it as an indictment on my family and generations before,'' Roberts said. ''Now I treat problems technically. If you blow up at me and call me names, well, I'm going to leave it with you. That's your problem. Whatever you put out there is going to come back and get you.''

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