Bucs OT able to overcome obstacles and capitalize on opportunities with character and integrity.
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002
LAKE BUENA VISTA -- In Roman Oben's voice there is a tender resolve that says so much about who he is as a man and football player.
His tone is soothing and eloquent, his message direct and unwavering.
Forget the feeling that a bad day in training camp will have an affect on the Bucs' newest offensive tackle. It won't. Oben, entering his seventh season in the NFL, has seen it all.
Born in the Cameroon, he has a deep understanding of third world poverty. Raised by a single mother in Washington, he has a profound appreciation for sacrifice and hard work. Cut by the Browns despite starting 77 consecutive games, he lives every day by not taking tomorrow for granted.
Roman wasn't built in a day.
"Everyone has something that drives them," said Oben, whose steady performance in camp has prompted the Bucs to try Kenyatta Walker at right tackle. "When you're a foreigner and have a different background, you have a different force driving you. You're not just coming up from the urban environment and making it and going back for your high school reunion. No, you're coming from 2,000 miles away.
"You understand because you still have relatives who don't have the bare necessities, things you take for granted. You're not worrying about the distractions of the culture, the materialism and all that. I wore generic sneakers growing up and had to deal with the teasing. People used to make fun of my accent. I remember having to wear my traditional African dress in church and being so embarrassed."
No one makes fun of Oben now. His story -- and that of his mother, Marie -- is validation of the American dream.
Born on Oct. 9, 1972, in Yaounde, the capital of the West African country, Oben faced challenges early. His mother took a job with the Cameroon Embassy in Washington but left 3-year-old Roman with his grandparents, Clement and Magdelaine Oben.
"My father would not let me take him since I was coming to a foreign land and I had never been here before," his mother said. "I waited 10 months. It was extremely difficult (being without him)."
Marie said the first few months without her only son were antagonizing but not nearly as stressful as next few years. She struggled to raise her son in the inner city, maintain her devout Catholic background, stay close to her African heritage, work 40 hours (or more) a week and find a way to achieve a higher education.
"The one thing it does for people who have faced the issues that Roman has faced is that it teaches them to be resilient, to overcome adversity and to deal with adversity," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said.
There were predictable cultural hurdles.
With after-school care too costly, Marie was forced to leave Roman at home alone while she worked long hours or attended night school. She had a friend call him every hour to engage him in conversation and make sure he was staying out of trouble.
One night, she returned home around 8 to find the door chained from the inside. When her son failed to respond to her knocking, she assumed he was asleep and spent about 90 minutes banging on the door in an effort to rouse him. Then the police arrived.
"I was running back and forth and crying and the first thing the police asked him was his age," she said. "When he told them he was 6, they turned to me and were getting ready to arrest me. They couldn't because I had diplomatic immunity at the time. But they gave me a stern warning. It was a humbling experience. ... From that day on, I took him everywhere with me."
Oben smiles broadly when he says he has a vague recollection of locking his mother out of the one-room apartment, but remembers vividly sitting in the back of classes while she was in college.
"It would be almost every night, and I would be back there with my homework or my coloring books," said Oben, who has a 1-year-old son with Haitian-born wife Linda. "Where she went, I went. You just don't realize what she did. I ask her all the time, "Mom, how did you take 15 credits, work 40 hours a week and raise a child?' I commend her for that."
The son continues to follow the mother.
Marie her undergraduate degree and a master's degree and now is an information officer for World Bank.
"I told him he must not fall below me and he will not," she said.
A football and track star at Gonzaga High in D.C., Oben earned a scholarship to Louisville and distinguished himself on the football field and in the classroom. He mastered pass protection and run blocking, rapidly emerging as one of college football's top offensive line prospects, and was a third-round draft selection by the Giants in 1996.
He majored in economics, was a four-time athletic director's honor roll member, vice president of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and the 1994 recipient of the Louisville's Community Service Award.
In May 2001, Oben received a master's degree in public administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He has interned with two congressman, Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).
"My sense is that he can interpret information a lot of different ways," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "He's a very intelligent guy and probably has a lot of different books on his shelf than I do at my house. He's an interesting guy, to say the least."
Football and life, Oben said, aren't mutually exclusive. Oben made himself one of the game's most consistent left tackles and started 72 of his first 82 games with the Giants from 1996-99. Taking a big payday, Oben signed with Cleveland. Deep into the 2001 season he had made 77 consecutive starts. Then first-year coach Butch Davis told Oben the Browns were making a change.
Benched for the last three games, the former offensive captain was stunned and bitter.
"Imagine you sign a four-year deal and then get cut two years into your deal because they decided to go in a different direction," he said. "That's not fair, but it's the nature of the job. If you want a secure job you can go teach high school and stay in it forever. It's the nature of the business."
Oben said he injured his knee during the season, yet the Browns' assessment of his ability was more painful.
"Anyone who has ever coached me knows how committed I am to being a good player, knows how hard I work," he said. "In all fairness, when you work hard or to the best of your abilities, you should be rewarded. You don't go from team captain one year to being released the next.
"If I was giving up 11 sacks and 20 penalties in Cleveland then I would have understood, but none of that happened. ... In the offseason, visiting with the Rams and talking to (coach) Mike Martz, visiting in Baltimore and talking to (coach) Brian Billick or visiting the Vikings, they were saying, "We watched these games and we graded you out (fine). We don't know what happened in Cleveland.' That was some gratification."
The Bucs, who pursued Oben before he signed with Cleveland, have no doubts about his ability. Oben has seen increased time with the first unit.
"The one thing about Roman, on team's he's been on, he's always played," McKay said. "He's always started, he's always been there, he's always called upon."
Oben said the lessons of life have taught him no other way than to be there when called upon.
"The thing about life and football is that everyone has a chance to write their own book," he said. "When people open up the book of (me) what are they going to read? How good I was on the field? How many sacks did I give up? How many championships did I win? But, they also are going to ask what did you do for your community. How did you raise your kids? I keep in mind that all that stuff's going to come out."
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