J.D. Roberts remembered fondly by former Saints players
With the passing of former New Orleans Saints head coach J.D. Roberts, the memories returned for many of his former players.
In the eyes of some observers, J.D. Roberts was an ignominious part of Saints history, serving as head coach from 1970-72 and posting an unimpressive 7-25-3 record.
In the eyes of others, Roberts was simply put into a nearly impossible position and did his best to overcome insurmountable odds.
Roberts did not even make it to the starting gate in 1973 as Saints owner John Mecom fired him prior to the start of the regular season, replacing him with John North.
While his tenure is largely forgettable, Roberts is certainly memorable from his first game as head coach on Nov. 8, 1970 when Tom Dempsey kicked an NFL record 63-yard field goal on the final play of the game as the Saints upset the Detroit Lions 19-17 at Tulane Stadium. The record would stand for over 42 years.
When Roberts became head coach of the Saints, it was not his first time coaching for the franchise.
Roberts was an assistant coach, serving as linebackers coach under Tom Fears in 1967-68 before Roberts took as head coach of the Atlantic Coast Football League Richmond Roadrunners.
It was there that Mecom summoned Roberts from to replace Fears just seven games into the 1970 season, with the Saints at 1-5-1 on the season.
Saints Hall of Fame inductee Danny Abramowicz, who played for the Saints from 1967-73, played for Roberts.
“He came here in a tough situation in his first head coaching job,” Abramowicz said. “They wanted him to create miracles. He was a tough Marine guy. He did the best he could under the circumstances. He was a great football player and understood the game. I think being his first job was very difficult. The fans were expecting big things from us. We didn’t always agree with everything he said but we respected him and his position.”
Being head coach of the Saints in losing times was not easy.
“We were in a restaurant,” Abramowicz recalled. “He came in and the fans booed him. It was tough but he took it and said it was part of the job. He got along well with the tough guys as he was an offensive lineman. I think J.D. was plowing some tough ground in those early years. The fans and game were different then. We had either real young guys or real old guys. That formula doesn’t work.”
There was one physical characteristic of Roberts which Abramowicz always remembered.
“He was always walking around with that cigar in his mouth,” Abramowicz said.
Original New Orleans Saints quarterback and Saints Hall of Fame inductee Bill Kilmer was with Roberts for one season in 1970.
“I was only with him for six games,” Kilmer said. “That first game he took over is memorable. When Dempsey kicked the field goal, we only had seconds left and I threw a pass to Al Dodd and got him in position for the 63-yard field goal. I came off the field and J.D. was yelling to throw an alley-oop bomb. I couldn’t throw 50 yards, much less that far.”
One of Roberts’ assistants intervened.
“Don Heinrich told J.D. that Tom could kick it and J.D. said okay, kick the field goal,” Kilmer said. “J.D. didn’t want to kick the field goal. He wanted a desperation pass. That would be my only real memory. I thanked him for trading me, though.”
Kilmer went on to quarterback the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl.
Saints Hall of Fame inductee and Saints Ring of Honor member Archie Manning took over for Kilmer after being drafted second overall in the 1971 NFL draft by the Saints.
“I have kept up with J.D.,” Manning said. “It’s been a couple of months since I spoke with him but he was kind of fading. J.D. lived a long life. J.D. was good to me. He drafted me and he always had my back. He always had my back.”
Manning recalled one specific meeting with Roberts that eased the concerns of an inexperienced young quarterback.
“I was a rookie, struggling and he called me in and wanted to see me,” Manning said. “I thought he was going to sit me down. He said he didn’t care how badly we got beat or how many interceptions I threw, he wasn’t going to sit me down. He always had my back.”
Many legendary stories about not knowing names, particularly of opposing players who were very significant, have been told for many years about Roberts.
“There was plenty of funny stuff as well,” Manning said. “He loved my boys. That’s all he wanted to talk about. He loved to keep up with Peyton and Eli. That’s all he would talk about. He was a friend whom I appreciated.”
Saints Hall of Fame inductee Bob Pollard played two seasons under Roberts and remembers him fondly.
“I thought he was a good head coach,” Pollard said. “I didn’t like him at the first training camp I went to. He didn’t say much. He didn’t talk to the players that much. He ended up being a really good coach, in my mind, despite the record.”
There was a seminal moment for Pollard with Roberts which really helped the young defensive lineman.
“What really changed me was when he took me aside at one of my games as a rookie and he told me how much he liked me, how I played and my attitude,” Pollard said. “That kind of gave me a whole different feel. He ended up being a caring kind of person and a good coach.”
While others will remain critical of Roberts and his record, Pollard will always stand up for him.
“He knew the game,” Pollard said. “He really helped me. He stood up for me and helped me as a young player in the league. He related well to linemen. I have nothing bad to say about him.”
Saints Hall of Fame inductee Jake Kupp was an original Saint who played for Roberts during his entire tenure here.
“He came into a very, very difficult situation,” Kupp said. “We had kind of flamed out after older players faded following the expansion draft in 1967. We were kind of rebuilding by then. J.D. was given the mandate to discipline us to right the ship. A lot of times, people construe discipline with hard work. No team could have worked harder than we did in the first three years (1967-69). That was tough.”
Kupp felt Roberts was simply carrying out what ownership wanted of him.
“When J.D. came in, he kind of felt like he really needed to come down hard on us,” Kupp said. “Our training camp was in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It was 94 degrees and 94 percent humidity. It was just like starting all over. It was tough. I remember how difficult it was for the players. We had lost most of our stars. It was tough. The players and coaches were feeling pressure to win.”
Kupp has nothing but good things to say about Roberts, the person.
“I really liked J.D.,” Kupp said. “He was a Marine, very disciplined. We played old school of football. Vince Lombardi influenced football so much. Players and coaches were not close in those days. What I really appreciated about J.D. is that he would listen to you. I was a captain and he listened to me. I felt appreciated. He was honest with you. He was a good man who worked us hard. He did what he was told to do.”
**Ken Trahan has served as General Manager of the Saints Hall of Fame Museum since its inception in 1988
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…