13 for '13: Old pains still don't stop David Roller

photo David Roller has played with Rhea Central, Kentucky, WFL, CFL, the Green Bay Backers and the Minnesota Vikings.

Chattanooga area's top 13 defensive linemen of all time(listed alphabetically)Demonte Bolden (Tyner, Tennessee, CFL) -- Had 30 sacks at Tyner and was a Parade magazine, U.S. Army and USA Today All-American who pared his college choices to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina State, South Carolina and Tennessee before choosing the Vols. He started 23 games at UT. He has begun his fifth Canadian Football League season and his third with the Calgary Stampeders.Tony Brown (City, Memphis, NFL) -- All-state as a senior tight end and defensive end, he became a three-year starter at Memphis and played eight NFL seasons beginning with Miami and including five years with the Tennessee Titans.Jason Hall (McCallie, Tennessee, NFL) -- After helping the Blue Tornado win a state title and being named local player of the year by the Times Free Press, he became a second-team All-SEC performer with seven sacks as a senior. His pro career included stops at Buffalo, Carolina and Tennessee, and he was named defensive player of the year in one NFL Europe season (Cologne).Mason Harris (Ridgeland, South Carolina) -- The current Gamecock was a disruptive force at Ridgeland, where he accumulated 189 tackles, including 27 sacks, his final two seasons. He was rated the 58th-best prospect in Georgia by Scout.com his senior year. After redshirting at South Carolina he played mostly on special teams last season. He heads into camp listed at second team at defense end after a strong spring practice in which he earned the program's defensive player of the spring award.Robert "Cotton" Letner (Meigs County, Tennessee, NFL) -- An all-state football and basketball player at Meigs County, Letner lettered three years in football under Bowden Wyatt and also earned letters in track. His professional football career included stops in the Canadian Football League (Montreal) and the Buffalo Bills, who were at the time still members of the American Football League.Nigel Nicholas (Ridgeland, Oklahoma State, NFL) -- Following a stellar prep career in which he had eight sacks and more than 70 tackles as a senior at Ridgeland, Nicholas became the school's first big-time prospect and was ranked as a top-50 prospect by Rivals.com. He started two seasons at Oklahoma State and played in every game after redshirting his freshman season. After registering nine career sacks and 25 tackles for loss, he was signed by the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent and is in camp with the NFL team this summer.Ayanga Okpokowuruk (McCallie, Duke, AFL, NFL) -- A four-year football letterman, Okpokowuruk also played basketball and threw the shot for the Blue Tornado track and field team. He played in more than 40 games at Duke, starting at linebacker, defensive end and noseguard. He was with the NFL's Cleveland Browns and New York Giants and also played briefly in the Arena Football League (Spokane, Wash.).David Roller (Rhea County, Kentucky, NFL) -- He was MVP of a World Football League championship game with the Chicago Fire and was twice named WFL all-pro. Roller, a member of Kentucky's football hall of fame, also played a couple of years in the Canadian Football League and spent seven seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.Terdell Sands (Howard, UTC, NFL) -- All-state as a senior at Howard, he played just one year at UTC before taking a year away from the game. He played with Kansas City, Green Bay and then seven seasons with the Raiders in the NFL.Jacques Smith (Ooltewah, Tennessee) -- After being ranked as the state's top prospect and selection as the Times Free Press defensive player of the year in 2009, he enrolled at UT in January 2010. As he awaits his senior season -- and third head coach -- as a Vol, Smith likely will be a starter at defensive end, and there are high expectations for him as a pass-rusher.Bob Standifer (Central, UTC, NFL) -- He was an All-American for the Mocs in 1984 and also is a member of the school's athletic hall of fame. He played a year for the Oakland Invaders in the United States Football League and spent a couple of seasons with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.Steve Wade (Tyner, Vanderbilt, NFL) -- An all-state lineman and state discus champion at Tyner, Wade was a first-team All-SEC player and the captain of the Commodores in 1985. He was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1986.Reggie White (Howard, Tennessee, NFL) -- He was an all-state football and basketball player while at Howard and blossomed as a defensive stalwart at UT, where he was both All-SEC and All-American. Before joining the NFL he had a brief tenure with the USFL's Memphis Showboats. Recognized as the best defensive lineman in the history of the pro game, White was a 13-time Pro Bowl selection during his 15-year NFL career that included glory days at Green Bay and Philadelphia. He was a first-ballot selection for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

They once called him Disco Dave. For a big man he had some impressive moves, which he reserved for the football field, each time gyrating near a fallen quarterback.

He had steps that would have shamed Terrell Owens or Icky Woods, and he was among the first NFL players to freely express elation over a job well done, ahead even of Houston Oilers receiver Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau.

For David Roller, a Dayton native and high school All-American at Rhea Central, it was truly an expression of delight with nothing akin to choreography.

"Some coaches liked it; some didn't," he recalled. "But that was me."

Today, though, is a different story. If he dances, the 63-year-old does so on surgically replaced knees, and sooner or later the wrenching pain in his back and neck reminds him that he's awaiting the outcome of lawsuits pending against the NFL for surgical procedures to repair each.

And yet Roller, who reached the NFL via the University of Kentucky and the World Football League, has no regrets despite four lawsuits against the NFL, including one regarding numerous concussions.

"My career was fun and I wouldn't change it for anything," the former All-American said.

His love of the game, the fans and his teammates overcame any animosity.

Former WFL teammate Anthony Davis, a Heisman Trophy runner-up who made a career of beating Notre Dame during his days at Southern Cal, spoke in glowing terms of Roller.

"Roller showed leadership through his playing," Davis said. "He would talk it up in the locker room, but it showed on the field. More than anything he showed it on the field. He was a great leader on the field."

Roller twice made the WFL's all-star team and once was its defensive player of the year.

And fans always loved him, at least those for whom he played. Roller would show up early for practice or games and sign autographs -- "Maybe even eat a hot dog or two with them," he related -- and then he'd hang around for a couple of hours after games to sign more autographs, sample some postgame morsels and just visit.

Packers fans once swept over the fences, hoisted the 270-pounder on their shoulders and carried him off the field following a particularly good day against the Detroit Lions.

"There had only been two guys they did that for, the other being Gary Knafelc in 1955," Roller said with pride.

He also was once compared to former Cardinals offensive lineman Conrad Dobler, who at one time carried the reputation as one of the game's dirtiest players.

"Yeah," Roller said with a laugh. "I bit him once, but I'm sure he bit me first."

Those were the good old days, but as he looks back the UK hall of famer said he doesn't care much for the pro game today.

"My last real year, 1980, I was paid $80,000. Some of the jokers today are making that much per catch," he said. "I think they're way overpaid. And the fans -- nowadays the fans are lucky to even get one of those guys to look at them, much less sign an autograph.

"The league has forgotten players that really built the game -- Jack Lambert and all those guys at Pittsburgh -- and they're not taking care of the veterans. There are so many [former players] who are down and out, some of them living out of their cars."

Roller, though, said he can be thankful. He is a regional sales rep for Lowe's in the greater Atlanta area -- "Not going to go broke but not going to go hungry, either," he said -- and his three sons have college degrees, are married and have given him three grandchildren with another on the way.

He still has the homespun, country-boy philosopher style that fans, teammates and the media always seemed to love.

"Aw, I didn't like some of my coaches, but they probably didn't like me none either," he said.

Contact Ward Gossett at wgossett@timesfreepress.com or 423-886-4765.

photo 13 for '13 tile