Navy slotback Eric Roberts remembers the countless mornings he would roll out of bed before dawn, don his Naval Academy uniform, press a rifle against his shoulder and march around the team dormitory for a half-hour for violating school rules.
He had failed to keep his uniform pristine, strolled into class late, missed a homework assignment or flunked a quiz given by a superior officer.
"Having to march was supposed to be punishment, but it got to the point where it just became part of my routine my first two years," Roberts said. "I had a hard time adjusting to life here."
Roberts, who grew up a few miles north of Miami's festive South Beach, acknowledges the early mornings spent by himself have helped him succeed on the football field.
The 5-foot-10, 194-pound senior enters Saturday's game against Vanderbilt (0-2) needing 49 receiving yards to become the first player in school history to amass 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a career, a feat accomplished by just 34 players in NCAA Division I-A history. Texas Tech's Taurean Henderson is the only active college player who has reached both marks.
"Thinking about it now, that time by myself allowed me to think about our plays and how I can help our football team," said Roberts, who has rushed 13 times for 112 yards and a touchdown this season to give him 1,211 yards for his career. "In Miami, people are always partying and doing what they want, but here it's very strict and there's a lot of rules. I think having to go through what I have helped me grow up."
Navy Coach Paul Johnson said he was especially tough on Roberts as a sophomore.
"I got on Eric pretty hard, but I'm always the toughest on our best players," Johnson said. "But there was a point with Eric when I got worried because I wasn't sure if he was going to make it here. It was always the little things with him, never anything major, but if you could get a restriction for doing something, chances are he had done it. I had him run extra wind sprints all the time, and if he didn't run the most on our team, then he was definitely in the top five."
After that sophomore season, during which he had 469 yards rushing and 429 yards receiving and Navy finished 2-8, Roberts reached what he calls the turning point when he returned home.
"I was embarrassed: When I came home and my friends would ask me how Air Force was doing, like that's where they thought I played and no one had a clue about" Navy, he said. "I knew I needed to change and stop making mistakes."
Roberts did, averaging a school-record 9.1 yards on 69 carries and 24.6 yards on 20 receptions. The Midshipmen followed, finishing 8-5 and going to their first bowl game since 1996.
"Eric always had tremendous talent, and a great work ethic that I knew would make him successful anywhere he went once he set his mind to it," said Ken Cannon, Roberts's coach at Hollywood Christian School in Florida, where Roberts was the school's career leading rusher with 3,959 yards. "You could see that when he was in high school. He would show up in the weight room by himself at six o'clock in the morning to work out so he could be the best player he could. I'm not surprised he's been doing good things at Navy."
Quarterback Aaron Polanco and fullback Kyle Eckel each have 50 more carries than Roberts through three games. After touching the ball just seven times in Navy's first two games, Roberts had seven carries for 89 yards and a touchdown in a 29-0 victory over Tulsa, giving the Midshipmen their first 3-0 start since 1979.
"Eric's a team player and never complains about wanting to get the ball more because he plays a position that sometimes you get the ball one or two times a game and sometimes you get the ball 10 times a game," Eckel said. "But with Eric, even if he gets the ball eight times, he can run for 120 yards because he's explosive."
And as for joining the 1,000-yard club?
"Maybe it will show people back home that you can come to Navy and make a name for yourself: I'd never even heard of Navy before they started recruiting me," Roberts said. "But right now, I don't care if I have to block every play if that's what it takes for us to win."