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Saturday, September 01, 2007

In North County's rich tradition of football stars, Roberts, Seau, Tinoisamoa stand taller than rest

It happened nearly 55 years ago, but the image is burned into the mind of legendary Oceanside High and El Camino football coach Herb Meyer as if it occurred yesterday. "We were playing at Escondido, and C.R. Roberts broke free," Meyer said of an Oceanside game in 1952. "He was running in the open down the sideline.

"An Escondido kid made the mistake of trying to tackle C.R. high instead of taking his legs out. So C.R. straight-armed the guy and lifted him 2 feet into the air.

"That guy was down on the field for a long time. They had to roll the ambulance out and take him to the hospital. We found out later that C.R. had crushed that kid's sternum."

Meyer was the blocking back on Oceanside's single-wing teams in those days and relayed signals in the huddle for the Pirates.

"Later that year, we were playing Sweetwater," Meyer said. "C.R. straight-armed a defender and broke the guy's arm."

It's stories like that “with statistics to back them up“that put Roberts above every other student who has played prep football in the North County.

Oceanside quarterback/tight end/linebacker Junior Seau and Vista linebacker/running back Pisa Tinoisamoa join Roberts as choices for the North County Times' three greatest "Legends of the Fall." Roberts went on to star at USC and played several years of pro ball with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL before going on to the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.

At one time, he was part of the 49ers' "Alphabet Backfield" that also included Y.A. Tittle, J.D. Smith and R.C. "Alley Oop" Owens.

Like Roberts, Seau played at USC.

A first-round pick of the Chargers in 1990, Seau is a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, a seven-time All-Pro selection and was a member of the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team.

He went on to play with the Miami Dolphins and is now with the New England Patriots in the twilight of his career.

Like Seau, Tinoisamoa was a two-way star in high school.

He's the only player in San Diego Section history to be named first-team All-CIF on offense and defense. And he was the section's defensive player of the year.

That was in 1998, when he gained 1,606 yards on 232 carries, scored 22 touchdowns and made seemingly every play on defense (70 tackles, 10 tackles for losses, six sacks, three fumble recoveries and an interception).

Tinoisamoa went on to star at Hawaii and was a second-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2003.

He was named the team's rookie of the year that season and has been a starter every season in the NFL.

Roberts: 'A physical specimen'

Don Portis, longtime coach and athletic director at Escondido High, played for the Cougars against Oceanside in '52 and has his own stories about Roberts.

"I hit C.R. five times, and I don't think he broke stride once," Portis said. "He ran right over me, and I have the cleat marks to prove it.

"He was incredible. Every time he carried the ball, he either ran over us or we couldn't catch him."

That was pretty common in Roberts' junior and season seasons.

He rushed for 1,903 yards as a junior, 1,858 as a senior. He scored 31 touchdowns as a junior and 30 as a senior. And those were nine-game seasons.

Meyer remembers a game against Coronado in which Roberts "touched the ball 12 times and scored six touchdowns." Roberts rushed for 326 yards in that game.

At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Roberts was a big man for his day. But he was also fast, running the 100-yard dash in 10.2 seconds.

"He was just a physical specimen," Meyer said.

Roberts went on to star at USC on a team that also featured future L.A. Rams All-Pro running back "Jaguar" Jon Arnett and Ernie Zampese, who carved out a great career as an assistant coach at San Diego State and in the NFL.

"I was in grammar school and I remember watching those guys play in the L.A. Coliseum," former North County coach Craig Bell said. "C.R. had the strongest-looking calves I've ever seen.

"He was frightening."

Chick Embrey, Escondido's legendary head football coach, remembers Roberts as "a slasher, a guy who was so quick."

"He was big and fast," Embrey said. "I remember he long jumped 24 feet in our pit at Escondido, and that pit was the pits.

"No high school player I've seen “and I've been around a while “was as dominant as C.R. Not even Junior Seau."

Roberts was just as dominant at USC. In 1956, he set a school record by rushing for 251 yards in a racially charged game at Texas.

Hotel officials in Austin weren't going to allow Roberts, who is black, or his black teammates “Hillard Hill and Lou Byrd“to stay in the team hotel. The USC players waited outside the hotel until everyone on the team was given a room.

He had runs of 74, 73 and 50 yards in that game against the Longhorns. He had 177 yards on 11 carries at halftime and only carried the ball once in the second half. USC won 44-20.

Roberts was forced to sit out his senior season because of penalties connected with the breakup of the old Pacific Coast Conference.

Roberts' brother was killed in France after D-Day in World War II, and Roberts nearly went to West Point because he wanted to be a pilot. At USC, Roberts enrolled in the Air Force ROTC program and became a drill commander.

Now 71, Roberts is retired after a long career as a teacher and administrator.

"But I'm actively retired," said Roberts, who was recently married and now lives in Norwalk. "My health is still good, so I've taken up golf.

"I still like to go to the senior center to sing and dance."

A staunch supporter of civil rights, he is still involved with USC's Black Alumni Association.

This fall, he'll finally be inducted into the Oceanside High Hall of Fame.

"I have very fond memories of my days in Oceanside and the high school," Roberts said. "Going into the Hall of Fame is an honor, something I'm very much looking forward to."

Seau: 'Absolutely awesome'

Bell “who coached at San Dieguito, Vista and RBV “and Meyer also have firsthand knowledge of Seau and Tinoisamoa.

Like Roberts, Seau was a man among boys in high school.

But the Pirates had a hard time settling on a position for their star. He was a quarterback as a sophomore and junior before switching to tight end as a senior. And he was always a linebacker.

"Junior was absolutely awesome in '85 and '86," said Meyer, who was coaching at El Camino when Seau played at Oceanside. "He absolutely kicked our ass.

"He's a tremendous athlete “played football, basketball (CIF San Diego Section Player of the Year in '86) and track (Avocado League shot put champion).

"He was big, strong and fast. When he came out of the locker room, he turned on his motor. As a defender, he created havoc all over the field."

Bell was an assistant coach at Vista when Seau played.

"When he was on defense, you had to have two guys blocking him at all times," Bell said. "But he was good on offense, too.

"They just threw him short passes, and he ran over people on his way to the end zone."

Dave Barrett, now the athletic director at Oceanside, was the Pirates' defensive coordinator when Seau played.

"There was never a more driven player than Junior Seau," Barrett said. "From the first day he stepped on the field, he wanted to be the best player out there.

"He had the desire to be the best, and that has allowed him to succeed. He was the best practice player I've ever seen."

Barrett remembers the start of two-a-day practices before Seau's junior season.

"Practice started at 8 a.m., and I was there at 6:30," Barrett said. "Junior was already on the field doing shuttle runs. He had already lifted weights. There was no one else around, so it wasn't for show.

"Like all great artists, Junior has that burning desire to be the best."

It is that desire, Barrett believes, that has allowed Seau not only to endure, but thrive in the NFL, playing through bumps, bruises, pulled muscles and broken bones to secure a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after he retires.

Now in his 18th NFL season, the 38-year-old Seau will soon overtake Bill Romanowski for the second-most NFL games played by a linebacker. Seau is at 241, two behind Romanowski. Clay Matthews is the all-time leader at 278.

Seau has 1,735 career tackles “including a personal-best 155 in 1994, when the Chargers advanced to the Super Bowl “and 53 sacks.

He also founded the Junior Seau Foundation, aimed at child abuse prevention. The foundation gives an annual Legend of the Year award to an individual who exemplifies its mission statement.

Past winners include Lance Alworth, Sid Gillman, Don Coryell, Marcus Allen, Deacon Jones and Bobby Ross.

"Am I going to Canton (Ohio) when Junior goes into the Hall of Fame?" Barrett asked. "I may be the first one there."

Tinoisamoa: Two-way star

Tinoisamoa's inclusion as first-team All-CIF on both sides of the ball was a hot topic a decade ago.

There have been other two-way stars since Tinoisamoa, but he forced All-CIF voters to re-think the process. Now, two-way stars must be as good or better than Tinoisamoa to be honored on both sides of the ball.

It hasn't happened.

"He was a guy you had to account for whether you were playing offense or defense," Barrett said. "You had to commit a lot of people to stop him. To beat Vista, you had to take him away. But that was a tall order. There was a reason he was All-CIF both ways.

"It's a tremendous feat to play 48 minutes like he did, especially running back and linebacker. Receivers and cornerbacks can take plays off, but not running backs and linebackers. He strapped it on every play. For him, it was hit or be hit on every down.

"When he carried the ball, the only way to beat him was to swarm, bring lots of hats to the party. On defense, you had to commit multiple guys to block him. But that left you vulnerable to other things, and you still couldn't block him."

Tinoisamoa also left his mark on Meyer.

"He was a very good athlete," Meyer said. "He was a great success at multiple positions.

"And now he has been a success at all levels."

He almost didn't get the chance to play at the next level.

Tinoisamoa, the nephew of the late, great Sal Aunese “ the CIF San Diego Section Offensive Player of the Year as a quarterback at Vista in 1985 and the starting quarterback at Colorado “ was put on probation for a 1998 graffiti incident. Later, he was jailed for trying to break up a fight that involved his brother, Mike.

But Hawaii coach June Jones took a chance on Tinoisamoa.

"Pisa learned and grew from his hardships," Jones said. "We felt he came from a good family and had character.

"We took a chance and he rewarded us."

As he matured from a lean 210-pound high schooler to a 255-pound man, Tinoisamoa led the Warriors in tackles. Despite a shoulder surgery, he attracted the attention of pro scouts.

In his first two years with the Rams, he had 189 tackles “95 in his rookie season of 2004 and 94 in '05.

Shoulder problems limited him to 11 games and 36 tackles last season, but he's healthy again and ready to make his mark in 2007.

Contact John Maffei at (760) 740-3547 or jmaffei@nctimes.com. Comment at sports.nctimes.com.

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