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July 3, 2018

Naaman Roosevelt is helping to lead the way

Naaman Roosevelt believes it’s better to give and receive.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders’ veteran slotback is the face of Roosevelt’s Receptions, a program through which he helps KidSport with its fundraising ventures.

For Roosevelt, it was only natural to take the opportunity to help out given his own experiences with sports growing up in Buffalo.

“(Participating in sports) changes your attitude, it changes your environment and it changes your personality,” said Roosevelt, 30. “It helps out so much with different things in your life that you need.

“Sports gave me a better understanding of life, what I need to be, how important it is to work hard and what you need to do to get ahead in life, so I want to give kids the same opportunity. If I can just help a couple of kids turn their lives around, I would love that.”

Roosevelt grew up on the east side of Buffalo in what he described as “a neighbourhood where we didn’t think about going to college and things like that.”

“Sports gave me a better understanding of life, what I need to be, how important it is to work hard and what you need to do to get ahead in life…”

He can remember the day when things changed for him — the day the head football coach at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute came to the Roosevelts’ home to recruit 13-year-old Naaman while he was in eighth grade.

Roosevelt’s parents agreed to send their son to the private school, starting him on a path toward a pro football career and away from a life that claims many young people.

“East-side Buffalo was like every city in America,” Roosevelt recalled. “There was crime. You saw violence down the street. You heard gunshots at night. It was hard to even think past the next day sometimes.

“We were kids on the streets having fun and anything could have gone bad. There could have been a drive-by shootout and anybody could have been shot. We just tried to make it go day by day and enjoy each other. We didn’t understand it was so much bigger than Buffalo …

“Sports helped me so much by getting me out of that situation, meeting new people, seeing different things and knowing that there’s much more than just hanging out with your friends, not doing anything and bumming around the streets.”

After starring as a quarterback and defensive back at St. Joe’s, Roosevelt moved on to the University of Buffalo. He expected to play quarterback at UB, but the Bulls had brought in another pivot — a fellow named Drew Willy — and Roosevelt was moved to receiver.

Willy, who now is a member of the Montreal Alouettes, said the shift was made permanent one day when Roosevelt caught a screen pass and gained 60 yards.

“He has been a gamer ever since I’ve known him,” Willy said during the Als’ recent visit to Regina. “Even when he was an 18-year-old kid, whenever he got the ball in his hands, he was able to make plays.”

Willy and Roosevelt spent three seasons together at Buffalo before embarking on pro careers.

Roosevelt had NFL stints with the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions and the Bills again before signing with the CFL’s Roughriders in March of 2015 — 13 months after Saskatchewan had traded Willy to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Roosevelt has become a fan favourite in Saskatchewan, not to mention a productive receiver. He has caught at least one pass in each of the 38 regular-season games he has played with the Roughriders and posted 1,000-yard seasons in 2016 and ’17.

He had six receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown in Saturday’s 23-17 loss to the Alouettes, with his five-yard TD snag — when he leapt and caught the football behind the head of Montreal defensive back Dominique Ellis — earning Roosevelt kudos.

He’ll take his streak of consecutive games with a reception into Thursday’s contest against the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats (7 p.m., CKRM, TSN).

“I’m so happy to see him produce every single week,” Willy said. “He’s just one of those guys you root for.”

Roosevelt has taken on a new role with the Roughriders in 2018, but it’s one he was willing to embrace.

In his first three seasons, Saskatchewan’s receiving corps featured veterans like Rob Bagg, Weston Dressler, Bakari Grant, Chris Getzlaf and Chad Owens. All of those players are gone in 2018, so Roosevelt is now the elder statesman.

As a result, he has become more vocal and more of a leader. He offers advice and direction during the receivers’ meetings and tries to lead the way in the weight room, in the film room and on the field during practices and games.

“I’ve got to do everything right first before I can tell anybody anything or lead by example,” Roosevelt said.

“Even when I was in college, I didn’t say a word my first couple of years until I was a junior and senior and understood, ‘It’s my team now. I’ve got to step up. I’ve got to lead by example.’ I feel like I’m growing into that role where I’ve got to speak out if I see things that aren’t right or if somebody’s messing up or if somebody’s down and I’ve got to pick them up.

“I’m still learning, but I feel like it’s going pretty good.”

Willy isn’t surprised that his friend is taking the leadership bull by the horns.

“It might take a little bit of time, but guys will see the production and they’ll see the way he works,” Willy said. “Usually when you put production and work ethic together, guys just kind of fall in line.”

The same sort of work ethic applies to Roosevelt’s off-field work.

In addition to his work with KidSport, Roosevelt participates in other activities on behalf of the Roughriders. He also tries to give back when he’s at home in Buffalo.

“I’m always trying to do stuff to help my community and help the city in general,” he said. “I put on charity basketball games or I tell kids, ‘Hey, meet me here. We’re going to get a workout in.’ I look for any way I can to help out.”