In the spring of 2007, HLS Professor David Wilkins ’80 asked the members of his seminar to envision their futures. One student foresaw a federal judicial appointment. Another wanted to make partner at a prominent law firm. Also in the class was Daron Roberts ’07, who had a different sort of answer. He wanted to be head coach at a national football powerhouse.
The pronouncement was a bit of a surprise even to Roberts. The 3L hadn’t had any football experience since his days as an All-District strong safety for Mount Pleasant (Texas) High School. A University of Texas graduate with a year on Capitol Hill and two years at the Kennedy School under his belt, he had thought of being a politician—perhaps spending a few years at a Texas law firm before moving into public service. Now all that was to be postponed. Graciously but firmly, Roberts turned down job offers from international law heavyweights like Vinson & Elkins. There was no longer a fallback option.
The turning point had come the previous summer, at a South Carolina youth football camp where Roberts volunteered during a break in his internship schedule. There, he says, he realized he was reliving his “best days” as a high school player, marveling anew at the power of the game to bring young men together, and at his own desire to mentor the campers. “I remember flying back, leaving there and thinking, I’ve got to coach football,” he recalls. “And I’ve got to do it now.”
Roberts set his sights high, offering his services to all 32 National Football League teams and to the top 50 college programs as well. “After five years at a setting like Harvard, my only inclination was to be a part of the best program that would take me,” he recalls. “I always envisioned the NFL as where I want to be—the NFL is the Harvard of football.” Roberts was willing to work for no pay beginning after his graduation in June 2007—that is, if anyone would have him.
As it happens, there was only one person who would. Just two months before receiving his law school diploma, Roberts got a call from Herman Edwards, then coach of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Edwards offered a coaching internship. His rationale? “He said, ‘If you can get through the first year of Harvard Law School, then you ought to be able to make it through training camp,’” Roberts recalls.
That proved to be the case. While friends at notoriously demanding firms proved their mettle with late nights and early mornings, Roberts kept pace and then some. After Edwards agreed, at the end of training camp, to let him stay on with the Chiefs through the 2007 season, he began spending nights on a mattress in a stadium closet to make sure he was ready for work each day at 4:30 a.m. The commitment made an impression. In 2008, the Chiefs hired Roberts to a full-time position as a defensive quality control assistant. In 2009, he made the move to the Detroit Lions, where he now helps coach the team’s secondary.
The transition—from law student to professional coach—has been breathtakingly rapid. According to Shaun Mathew ’07, when someone asks him which of his law school friends has the most interesting job, he inevitably tells them about Roberts. “I have even more fun answering their next question,” says Mathew: “‘How is that even possible?’”
But Roberts remains grounded, and focused on mentorship. He recently launched a free camp—“4th and 1”—for younger players in east Texas, emphasizing football skills in the morning, SAT skills in the afternoon and life skills at night. Cambridge, he says, often seems closer than ever. “Drafting legal arguments and drafting a game plan in the NFL are really two identical exercises,” he says. “What’s my opponent’s best argument? How do I combat that argument? What are the counterarguments to my position? That’s very similar to us asking, Who is their best player? How do we stop their best player? What will be their next move?”