116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Iowa junior Terry Roberts dove to catch sophomore quarterback Alex Padilla’s pass and rolled sideways, but it wasn’t ruled an interception.
He stood up, held the ball up to his face at the ref, showing he had possession, and when the call stood, he bent over, dejected.
The next time, though, Roberts didn’t miss, catching Padilla’s pass in the air for an undisputed interception at Iowa’s Kids Day football scrimmage.
Roberts already has shown he’s a key playmaker as a gunner on special teams, recovering fumbled punts against Northwestern and Nebraska in 2020 and aiding in Iowa State’s second fumbled punt in 2019. Iowa scored on drives following all three turnovers.
“Those are plays that are really hard to make ... but he's brought an incredible dimension to us as far as his speed and the way he covers kicks,” Iowa special teams coach LeVar Woods said.
He’s also practicing returning, something he did on Iowa’s freshman scout team and as a senior in high school at Cathedral Prep in Erie, Pa., averaging 15.7 yards on 13 punt returns and 24.9 yards on 11 kickoff returns.
But Roberts also is listed behind senior honorable mention all-Big Ten right cornerback Riley Moss, and emerging as a potential playmaker in an already-deep secondary.
“If you're not on offense or defense, you can't really get down on yourself,” Roberts said. “Who knows? One day I might get the shot, but every day I get 1 percent better.”
Roberts’ first sport was wrestling at age 4, and as the smallest kid in his age group, he earned the nickname, “tater tot.” But that only fueled him as a fierce competitor — becoming a three-time area wrestling champion.
When his father, Terry Sr., put him in football, Roberts still was undersized. His brother, Jerry Roberts, was the coach.
“I put him in a game he shouldn’t have been in at 4 years old, and he showed me some speed,” Jerry said. “He was the smallest kid on the field with the biggest heart.”
Standing at 5-foot-10, 180-pounds, Roberts still is not the height of his FBS counterparts, and that’s why Jovon Johnson — former Iowa, NFL and CFL defensive back, — said he was largely overlooked in the recruiting process. But when Johnson held his first kids camp in Erie, he said the 8-year-old “skinny kid with long dreadlocks” was hard not to notice.
“He didn’t understand the potential he had, and I don’t think he cared,” Johnson said. “I think he cared more about getting better. He continued to work and who would’ve thought he’d be at my alma mater?”
Terry Sr. is open about the hardships he had raising his son. Even now, he tells Terry not to come home to the east side of Erie because it’s not a place he wants him to be.
Terry’s parents divorced when he was young, and his mom took his sisters across the country to start a new life, while he stayed home with his dad.
Terry Sr. wanted the best for his son, but speaks candidly about “the struggle” he had financially raising his son as a single father, despite being employed as a counselor in the criminal justice system at the time.
He often sought help from family members like his brother, Jerry, or his parents for places to go when the utilities were shut off in his house, or even showering at his cousin, Steve Spearman’s local gym.
But that’s where Terry’s work ethic comes from: a family that did everything it could to raise him.
“Terry comes from a Christian background, his grandfather who is a bishop,” Jerry said. “Some kids can take the struggle the wrong way and make it negative, like, ‘Hey I might go start selling drugs to help my family out,’ but his father and grandfather instilled discipline where he wanted to go the straight and narrow.”
Finding ways to stand out
Terry played high school football at Cathedral Prep, a private Catholic school where Jerry still is a defensive line coach.
At the time, Terry played for an all-star team that included Dusquene quarterback Joe Mischler and running back Billy Lucas, Penn State offensive lineman Juice Scruggs and Notre Dame linebacker Bo Bauer.
It was a star-studded team that Cathedral Prep head coach Mike Mischler said was one of the best of his five state-championship teams in the 20 years he’s coached there. Terry played a pivotal role in two of those championships during his junior and senior years.
“The biggest play of the game was Terry stepping in, beating the kid on a curl and he stepped in front of it to go back 37 yards for a touchdown to get us within two points,” Mischler said. “We got the two-point conversion to tie it up, but I don't think we win the state championship without him making that play. It really turned around the whole ballgame.”
Johnson, who continued to train Terry, made a call to Iowa during Terry’s junior year. Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe and defensive coordinator Phil Parker came to take a look before inviting Terry to camp.
“I let them know that there was a player that resembled me and had a little bit better size,” Johnson said.
Terry Sr. hoped that 10-hour drive to Iowa would be worth it and when he saw his son sprint out of the practice facility, he knew. The two went on a tour that eventually ended at head coach Kirk Ferentz’s office with an offer to play at Iowa.
“I remember shaking his hand and saying, ‘You are the Michael Jordan of coaches, I know your face, I know you,’” Terry Sr. said.
Terry garnered more offers after Iowa, but remained loyal to the first Division-I program that offered him.
At Iowa media day, Terry wore a silver chain with the nickname “Trizz,” one that his father gave him after he was too old to be called “tater tot.” It’s just a cultural thing, his dad said, to give him a name with more swagger.
“It was a long road, that just motivated me to work 10 times harder than a lot of people,” Terry said. “Coming to Iowa to participate in camp — that was really my time to show that I can actually play.”
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