CHARLOTTESVILLE, OCT. 31 -- Remember the story of the Incredible Hulk, a normally mellow fellow who, when provoked, turned into a furious, destructive monster?
The Virginia Cavaliers insist that Ray Roberts, their imposing 6-foot-6, 305-pound tackle, reminds them of such a creature and, if painted green, could strike a strong resemblance this Halloween night to the menacing comic book character. Like the Hulk, Roberts's football outbursts are downright scary, albeit amusing at times.
Virginia veterans recount a now-legendary story involving Roberts as a freshman, a tale so etched on the team's collective memory that even now players can't tell it without doubling over in laughter.
In his second preseason scrimmage, just two weeks after his arrival at Virginia, Roberts -- then a defensive lineman -- squared off with center Tim Morris. While he put Morris in a headlock with his right arm, flailing away with his left, defensive line coach Danny Wilmer and Coach George Welsh rushed over to break up the fracas. Wilmer tried to free Morris from the hold, while Welsh scaled the back of Roberts, who kept on punching, swinging Welsh around like a bucking bronco trying to eject its rider.
When the fracas -- one of many Roberts was involved in that season -- was finally stopped, Welsh tossed his prized fighter out of practice. Roberts thought his eviction was only temporary, but when he tried to return for the next series, Welsh sent him to the locker room. "I was just a freshman. I thought my career was over," Roberts said.
Not over, but definitely headed for a positive change. The next spring, Wilmer and Welsh argued whether to move Roberts to the offensive line, a prospect that didn't sit well with Wilmer, who recruited Roberts from Asheville (N.C.) High, figuring he had found the Cavaliers a sorely needed pass rusher.
But Wilmer unknowingly hastened the switch. After discovering Roberts brushing dust off a ceiling light fixture in the locker room, Wilmer, who was told by a Nebraska assistant that one Cornhuskers player had a wingspan of seven feet, measured Roberts's. The result was an astonishing 7-3. "Nice trait for an offensive lineman," Welsh told Wilmer, and Roberts -- who once was considered a Division I basketball prospect -- became an offensive tackle.
Now a redshirt junior, Roberts anchors a line that allows Virginia runners an average of 311 yards a game. His coaches liken Roberts to former Cavaliers all-American Jim Dombrowski, a first-round pick by the New Orleans Saints in 1986. They are almost identical in stature, dominating defensive linemen with a rare mix of imposing strength and unlikely quickness.
"I can't imagine there being an offensive lineman in the country better than Ray," said defensive end Chris Slade, the Cavaliers' leading pass rusher who spends much of his practice time trying to get by Roberts.
Slade has been hailed by some observers as the second coming of Lawrence Taylor, a constant reminder to Roberts of what might have been had Welsh adopted Wilmer's plan of building a then-240-pound Roberts into a pass rusher. "I'm happy for Chris and everyone," Roberts said. "But I'll pick up the paper sometimes and think, 'That could have been me out there.' "
The curse of offensive linemen is a lack of recognition, which has been particularly true at Virginia, what with a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback (Shawn Moore), an all-American prospect at wide receiver (Herman Moore) and two tailbacks on pace to rush for more than 1,000 yards (Terry Kirby and Nikki Fisher).
Herman Moore, a redshirt junior, has hinted at turning professional after this season, but Roberts says he'll stick it out another year, when a likely promotional push by the athletic department will help his run at the Outland Trophy, the award given to the country's top interior lineman.
Virginia promoted Dombrowski for all-American honors in 1985, an unprecedented pitch until $12,000 was earmarked for Shawn Moore's Heisman campaign. "It would take the right promotion," Roberts said. " . . . Then it would be up to me to go out and earn it. It's a very reasonable goal."
Roberts, a gifted artist, drew a portrait of Slade during the preseason, a picture that now rests on Slade's bedroom wall. But his favorite defensive end is the Washington Redskins' Charles Mann. "He's full speed on the field," Roberts said. "But softspoken and down to earth afterwards."
So is Roberts, according to teammates, who call him "Puddin' " for his soft, low-key manner away from football. He's virturally inseparable from longtime roommate Jason Wallace, who as a 5-10, 165-pound cornerback would seem a most unlikely sidekick. "We're alike in so many ways that it's hard to believe we're not related," Wallace said.
Even their mothers can't always tell them apart. Once, Josephine Roberts phoned while both were asleep, and proceeded to talk with a groggy Wallace for 15 minutes before both realized she had the wrong one. The younger Roberts will lose his roommate after this season -- Wallace was not redshirted as a freshman -- and says he'll live alone. "I don't know what I'll do without him next year," Roberts said. "Maybe it's bad that I don't have any other friends that close."
Roberts already has made arrangements for the Wallaces to attend Virginia games next season. They will come for at least one; Damon Wallace plays linebacker for Duke.
Not surprisingly, Roberts dislikes talking about next year, preferring to focus on the Cavaliers' magical 1990. Welsh has cracked down on practice fighting since 1987, and so has Roberts, who no longer needs to prove himself to anyone. But every so often, the Hulk reemerges.
"A lot of times, I just want to scuffle with anyone just to change the pace of practice. . . . If you can tell the team's just going through the motions, a scuffle picks up everyone's intensity."