By Jeremy Stafford -email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- For about six months, Kevin Roberts was a shadow.
A shadow of himself, a shadow to the Shenandoah Hornets.
As he watched SU slog through its bitter, forgetful 1-9 season a year ago, Roberts longed for the gridiron, for the thrill and rush of the game -- to stand five yards behind then-Shenandoah quarterback Vern Lunsford, clutch the football to his chest, and make those screeching, dazzling cuts that made him a second-team All-USA South tailback in 2008.
But shadows can't play football. They can only hide. They can only watch.
In 2008, Roberts averaged 104.9 rushing yards a game, then a Shenandoah record. He accumulated 944 yards in nine games.
On Oct. 27, 2007, Roberts rushed for 177 yards at Averett. Nearly a year later, he rushed for 160 yards against Christopher Newport.
In the latter game, Roberts sprinted 81 yards past the line of scrimmage, still the longest rush from scrimmage at SU.
But in what should have been his senior season, possibly his most magnificent season, Roberts was relegated to the bleachers.
A severe seizure in July 2009 meant he was unfit to play football.
"It was terrible being in the stands, feeling useless because you can't help your team out," Roberts said. "You're not on the team, but I still considered myself being on the team -- but being in the stands ... half the time I couldn't even watch half the plays.
"I was like, man, this is rough."
Statistically, the Hornets were dominant. Keone Kyle transferred to Shenandoah after two years at Louisburg College, and replaced Roberts swimmingly.
Kyle's 1,185 rushing yards set an SU single-season record. He was named first-team All-USA South, second-team All-State and third-team All-South Region.
In the USA South, Shenandoah ranked third in scoring defense, third in rushing offense, third in total offense and first in total defense.
Still, Shenandoah won only one game and went winless in the conference.
The Hornets led the nation in time of possession, a testament to how silly and useless the statistic is.
In 2009, Shenandoah embodied everything Kyle did: strong, powerful, bruising, burly, rugged, tenacious, stalwart.
But the Hornets weren't explosive. They missed Roberts' screaming tears down the sideline, his slices through the secondary, the way he quickly peeled off yards like Band-Aids.
But there was Roberts, in the bleachers, at the games but not in them. He watched his Hornets play well enough to win game after game, only to watch a blocked field goal, or a fake field goal, or a missed field goal, or a late touchdown, spoil game after game.
Roberts isn't in the stands anymore. He's on the field, faster and stronger than ever. Paired with Kyle, Shenandoah may have the deepest backfield in the USA South.
But Roberts isn't making predictions. He wants to win, sure. But envisioning another All-Conference season might be too hasty a thought.
For now, Roberts is thankful to be playing football again.
The first signs of abnormalcy came at random, often in the morning, when Roberts would get out of bed and "feel a little off."
"Only you know your own body," Roberts said, "so you know how you feel day in and day out. I'd wake up and feel a little off."
But the odd, seemingly arbitrary sensations were of little concern to Roberts. They were attributable to any number of causes: diet, lack of sleep, too much exercise.
Then came the minor seizures -- Roberts calls them mini-spasms -- which struck without warning, and for no particular reason.
"I'd be sitting there talking," Roberts said, "all the sudden I fall down, and I may come back after a split second, my heart will race, I'll be like, anybody see that?"
The mini-spasms came in clusters, often haunting Roberts for a long while, then disappearing for another long while.
One day, standing in his kitchen making a sandwich with his father, Roberts succumbed to another mini-spasm. Taken by the trance, he hurled a knife across the kitchen.
Time to see a doctor.
But after various tests, doctors found nothing wrong with Roberts, offered no explanation for his short-lived seizures.
They had all the puzzle pieces, but no picture to reference.
Again, maybe it was a lack of sleep.
The big one came in July.
On his way to class at Lord Fairfax Community College, Roberts suffered a string of mini-spasms.
His next few memories are as follows: He went home, tried to refresh himself with a shower, woke up in an ambulance.
His tongue was swollen. He couldn't speak.
"I'm just thankful my roommate was there with his girlfriend to help me out, call 911," Roberts said. "If they weren't there, I don't know what possibly could have happened."
But finally, at least, the doctors had a picture to reference, and they fitted Roberts' puzzle pieces together and gave him medication to control his spasms.
Because the cause of his spasms was still unknown -- they might have been spurred by his workouts, doctors said -- Roberts had to sit out the 2009 season. He wasn't permitted to keep in shape for a possible return in 2010, either.
He became a shadow.
Doing absolutely nothing from July to November, Roberts lost 15 pounds. He was a thin memory of an all-conference tailback.
Roberts did find some consolation in not playing football: "That time gave me a lot more time to focus on my studies," Roberts said. "I got my grades up, which is obviously the most important thing.
And that year off gave me a lot of time to mature as well, so I grew up with that year off -- I don't take things for granted because you never know what could happen."
After six seizure-free months, Roberts was cleared to play football. But getting back into football shape was no simple task. All the workouts he'd done in high school and college, all the in-season practices and off-season training were lost.
He started from square one.
Roberts knows his body. He felt it at its worst a year ago. Now he's feeling it at perhaps its best.
"I feel like I'm better than I was," Roberts said. "I feel better athletically. I've changed: I eat better, I live better, I'm taking better care of myself.
"Mentally I'm sharper and I'm older, a lot more mature."
Call it perfect timing: Shenandoah graduated the bulk of its offensive leadership last season -- Lunsford, center Brian Cook, left guard Sean McKenzie, right guard Dennis Derricott and fullback Anthony Cordero.
When those players fell into the shadows, Roberts emerged from his.
"He kinda does fill that role being the leader for the offense, and we kinda need it right now," Kyle said. "He's been the most experienced guy on the team so far -- on the offensive side -- and he brings his leadership to the table."
This Shenandoah team, many players have said, is the closest team -- high school or college -- they've ever been on.
While coach Paul Barnes has preached the concept of family and togetherness to his team this preseason, it's Roberts who seems to be instilling it.
At practice, when he's not involved in drills, Roberts strolls up and down the sideline. He greets the defensive linemen, he talks with the linebackers. He fills the gaps which separate the different positions.
"We've got nobody on this team that talks down to anybody else," Roberts said. "We've got no little cliques on this team at all right now.
"There's no reason why we can't [hang out] just because we're offense and defense -- that doesn't mean a thing."
Roberts also inspires. To know where he was a year ago -- in an ambulance with a swollen tongue -- and to see where he is now is simply astonishing.
Left tackle Jamal Venable said he nearly gets in trouble watching Roberts zip in and out of tiny slivers of holes. Coaches say the once-plodding Hornets will be explosive in 2010 now that they have a tailback capable of searing Sprint Field with 81-yard bursts.
Roberts still isn't making predictions, but his smile betrays high hopes.
Call it perfect timing: Not only does Roberts' return coincide with the loss of Lunsford and the rest, it also puts him on the field with Kyle for the first time ever.
Roberts and Kyle both graduated from Thomas Edison, yet they never once played football together: Kyle transferred to Thomas Edison the year after Roberts graduated.
The pair had various other chances to play in the same backfield, but the opportunities always fizzled out.
"There have been a couple instances where we were supposed to go to the same high school together, but I always had different plans or I always went somewhere else," Kyle said. "But I guess it's meant to be now, me and Kevin in the backfield, we're here now, we're just gonna make it happen."
Roberts and Kyle, who have known each other since middle school, occasionally envisioned the wonders their union might produce on the football field.
How could teams stop the two of us, they thought. How would they account for Roberts' blistering speed, then Kyle's powerful blows, then adjust for another dose of Roberts' speed?
When Kyle transferred to Shenandoah, the pair could finally run together.
But then it was Roberts, or rather his body, who had different plans.
Still, Roberts and Kyle behaved like teammates. Roberts teased Kyle for his size: "You have no X button!" Roberts would laugh. "If that was me, I would have scored -- I'm not getting caught from behind."
The joking is largely finished now. A new season has begun, Catholic will come to Shenandoah on Sept. 4. The woeful 2009 season has been washed away by an off-season rain. Kyle is faster than he was, and Roberts is more dynamic.
And Roberts, once a shadow, is now a song. His once swollen tongue, he admits, now churns as fast as his legs. At practice coaches tell Roberts to tone down his talking. Roberts laughs. He doesn't mind. He's finally playing football again, and he couldn't be more thankful.
"Being back on the team, just being around the guys, the chemistry -- this is probably the closest team I've been on," Roberts said. "Just being around these guys makes football fun in itself.
"It's just all fun and games for me."