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Defusing Time Bombs

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Courtesy of Joshua Robinson '08 — Columbia College Today

The score was 3–3, time was running out and the Harvard football fans were turning hostile. The Crimson had just tied Columbia with a field goal, and Lions quarterback Archie Roberts ’65 was trying to silence them as he marched the Light Blue toward the end zone.

As the clock ticked down on that October 1963 afternoon, Roberts set up Columbia’s chance to win. It was only first or second down and the Lions already were in position for a long field goal. The horseshoe stadium in Massachusetts — among those in attendance was President John F. Kennedy, who had taken the afternoon off to watch his alma mater — grew louder.

This was no time for indecision.

Roberts jogged over to the sideline to consult his coach, Aldo “Buff” Donelli. “Let’s try one more play from scrimmage,” Roberts argued. “We’ll throw into the end zone. If I’m caught, I’ll just throw it away.” Donelli wanted to try the long field goal right away, but the soft-spoken, deliberate Roberts convinced his fiery coach otherwise.

Roberts lined up under center, the ball was slapped into his hand and he dropped into the pocket. But as he cocked his arm to throw, a hand came up. Suddenly, the wobbly pass was up for grabs. “As luck would have it, it was intercepted and that was the end of the game,” Roberts recalls of the tie.

Donnelli chased Roberts across the field and all the way into the locker room, furious for having been talked into changing his game plan.

Today, Roberts laughs when he tells that story, but when the ball fell into Harvard’s hands, it was only funny to the home fans, and possibly the President. Roberts often wonders “what in the world went through Kennedy’s mind when he saw this quarterback running into the locker room with the coach behind him.”

Some 44 years after throwing out the playbook against Harvard, Roberts is the man writing it, but this time the objective isn’t the end zone. In 1998, Roberts, who spent 30 years as a heart surgeon at hospitals all over the country after flirting with professional football, founded the Living Heart Foundation and has pioneered advanced, mobile methods for cardiovascular screening in an attempt to raise awareness about heart disease and the special risks for former football players.

Since 2003, the foundation has been sponsored by the National Football League Players’ Association to conduct screenings of retired players. In the past four years, Living Heart has screened more than 1,300 players in 20 NFL cities. But Roberts believes that they are just beginning to scratch the surface.

“The NFL has been built on a physical prowess and strength and durability, and the idea of psychological or physical problems has not been what the NFL has been about,” he says. “Nor has it been the public’s image of NFL players. They look indestructible, they look indefatigable, they look immortal. In that setting, it’s hard to be scrutinizing and looking for defects in the product.”

To read the complete article from Joshua Robinson, please check out the online version of the Columbia College Today.