Ray Roberts is a champion for Special Olympics athletes

NEW YORK -- "Do you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be? Think about that. It's a very powerful statement."

Ray Roberts pauses. He looks around the old basement auditorium of Public School 721M. About 75 students and teachers are sitting in old, creaky wooden seats. He lets the quote attributed to poet Charles Bukowski hang in the air before he continues.

In this room, in this school, that message resonates. So many of the people he is speaking to have been told -- in one way or another -- what they can and cannot be. P.S. 721M is a District 75 school, the part of the New York City school system devoted to students with intellectual disabilities.

Roberts is their advocate.

His job used to require protecting quarterbacks and opening pathways for Barry Sanders as an offensive tackle for the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. Now, Roberts helps create pathways for children with intellectual disabilities -- although he cringes a little when the word "disabilities" is used. He offers ideas and backup for administrators who want to try to help these kids achieve.

A year ago, Roberts' role for this week's Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle went from being an ambassador to that of a full-time employee. Special Olympics hired Roberts to become director of Unified Champion Schools for urban development. He was encouraged to apply after Marc Edenzon, the president and managing director of Special Olympics North America, heard him speak. Roberts had been working with Rainier Scholars, a Seattle-based program helping low-income kids graduate college, and Edenzon was impressed by Roberts' story.

A Unified Champion School for the Special Olympics uses a combination of unified sports (sports combining students with and without intellectual disabilities), inclusive leadership programs and whole-school engagement as a way to promote acceptance, respect and inclusion for all students. The new position is how he ended up in Lower Manhattan on this June afternoon, spreading his message and learning about P.S. 721M's programs.

The kids asked the same questions any high school student might: How tall are you? (6-foot-6 ½ and around 275 pounds.) Did Barry Sanders really give you a Rolex? (Yes.) Why did you wear No. 72? (In honor of Ed "Too Tall" Jones.) Do you know Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson? (Yes.)

The students he's talking with, though, have been told they are different their entire lives. That they can't do things even though, in many cases, they can. It's why Roberts dug in on his inspirational messages.

Professional athlete, teacher, firefighter -- these are all jobs kids dream of having -- but Roberts says along the way, dreams get altered. "We encounter the world," Roberts tells the students. "And then the world starts telling you what you can and can't do."

A week later, teachers re-introduced Roberts's message in classroom discussions. "It kind of made clear to them, if it's not blatantly, there's almost this subliminal message of 'You're in special ed and you have that label,'" said Joe Stewart, a physical education teacher at P.S. 721M. "So I think one of the things that our students have to overcome is just the label and the stigma of having an intellectual disability and what those expectations are. Ray's message of 'Do you remember those dreams that you have, and what you really thought of yourself as a person before the world told you that you're this or you're that or you have a disability and you can't do this,' it's powerful."

Growing up in Asheville, N.C., Roberts didn't have much. His father was a janitor. His mom, a maid. He lived with his parents, his three sisters and grandfather in a 700-square-foot home. Food was scarce. The heat didn't always work.

It was an environment Roberts wasn't supposed to thrive in. He did, becoming the first member of his family to graduate college, at the University of Virginia.

"I've always felt like it was my purpose to give people like me voice," Roberts said. "Because there's so many people that were in my situation, that had good things to say and unbelievable gifts and talents, that were dismissed simply because people see where they came from and then discredit or devalue what it is that they bring to the table."

Football became a platform to push his message. He initially hoped to open his own school after his nine-year NFL career ended in 2001. After jobs in diversity inclusion at Microsoft and coaching high school football, he landed at Rainier Scholars and, last August, the Special Olympics.

Roberts, now 49, had to adjust to his new job. For so long, he thought of Special Olympics as "the hug" -- the feel-good moment shown in movies and television broadcasts. The organization's mission is much deeper. He wanted to do real work. His now-boss Andrea Cahn showed him what Special Olympics programs have accomplished -- increased attendance and plummeting disciplinary problems. She explained urban centers were the most difficult places to get programs implemented. Money is perpetually tight, resources constantly strained.

"I was like, 'You're telling me that you have this model that you take into these schools and it delivers this degree of social inclusion and friendship and change of school culture and all these different things but you're having a difficult time establishing that in urban environments?' She goes, 'Yes,' " Roberts said. "'So you're telling me that there's a female person of color with intellectual disabilities in one of these urban settings that is not getting access to this program?' She goes, 'Yes.'

"I'm like, 'All right, I'm in. If you hire me and I go through the whole process, then my whole goal will be to get this program to that one person because that female is getting the quadruple whammy. She's female. She's African-American with intellectual disabilities and she's in an under-resourced environment. She has next to no chance at succeeding at anything.' I'm like, 'That's why I want it then.'"

After taking the job, Roberts quickly learned its challenges. The usual playbook didn't fit the complexities of inner-city schools. They needed innovation to survive. Of the 6,400 Unified Champion Schools in the United States during the 2017-18 school year, Cahn said only 15 percent are in what might be considered low-income inner-city environments.

"We want the rate of schools involved in urban settings to be the same as anywhere else," said Cahn, the Senior Director of Special Olympics Project UNIFY. "We want to increase the density of our programming in the urban schools. We set a goal that right now, we want 20 percent of our school growth to be in urban settings."

To accomplish that year-over-year, Roberts is preaching different approaches. He and Cahn speak at least once a week by phone -- Cahn in Washington, D.C., Roberts in Seattle -- and almost daily by text message to build their plan.

It's still a learning process for Roberts, who traveled the country on a listening tour his first few months on the job to understand the specific needs of different cities.

Roberts can't count the number of times he's pitched ideas to school districts and they've loved them, wanted to implement them but couldn't because of finite -- often strapped -- resources. Districts fade in and out. In cities where a program is often built on one "champion" teacher, burnout happens. If that teacher moves schools or districts, the program teeters. When federal grant money disappears, so does the program -- part of the reason Roberts pushes districts to match federal funds as a way to stability.

From their first conversation, Roberts urged Patti Doherty to be bold. Take a chance. Doherty, the director of schools and youth engagement for Special Olympics Massachusetts, wanted her program to reach Boston Public Schools.

She had no luck. Money was tight, transportation for after-school programs was unavailable. She pitched her idea: Students already have free transportation from area schools to local Boys & Girls Clubs. Instead of focusing on building school-based programs, target the after-school centers students are already going to.

"[Roberts] kept really pushing me to continue with that even when the going got tough," Doherty said. " 'OK, let's go, let's think of it this way.' He was really that guiding factor, listening to my ideas, guiding the ideas.

"He was like, 'Why not? And how about this?' He would just give me more out-of-the-box ideas."

Doherty said her biggest issue was convincing the local Boys & Girls Club administration to support her initiative. She used the same data Roberts does when pitching schools on sponsoring Special Olympics programs: They increase attendance and educational success and decrease disciplinary problems.

A small pilot program was green-lit for the 2017-18 school year. Seeing progress, Doherty said the program will grow next year. Roberts recently began working with Special Olympics New Jersey on similar plans.

Roberts doesn't view any idea as ridiculous, because the people suggesting them know their communities. In urban areas, sometimes it is the community that informs the school instead of the reverse. It's why he championed the Boys & Girls Club idea.

He tries to connect different leaders, too, to help work through the challenges both together and on their own. Once a month, Roberts gathers the directors of nine urban programs across the country on a phone call. He acts as the idea-sharing, brainstorming facilitator.

"He's been the glue for all of us," Doherty said. "To just keep sharing different ideas and really think outside the box."

Roberts is done speaking. He takes the kids' questions and gets in the middle of a picture, holding up a circular blue-and-yellow "City Hawks Pride" sign. At P.S. 721M, rebranding the school in 2006 did as much as anything to help increase school morale.

Kids who wouldn't wear Special Olympics gear wear City Hawks logo items. Every door in the school has a City Hawks logo. At the end of Roberts' talk, when Stewart yells "City!", the "Hawks!" back from the students is as automatic and loud.

While not yet certified as a Unified Champion School, P.S. 721M's athletics program is part of its success story. The program started with track and field in 2006 to help motivate eight students with falling attendance. With a goal to shoot for -- competing in meets -- they stayed for class.

The next year, the principal offered funding to fuel growth. The sports program added basketball, eventually becoming part of a 12-team citywide league, among other sports.

Students from P.S. 721M also partnered with the Fieldston School -- a prestigious private school in the Bronx with a yearly tuition over $48,000 and that routinely sends kids to Ivy League schools -- to represent the United States in floor hockey as a unified team last year. They finished third in the World Winter Games in Austria.

A year later, the students still hang out and message each other; these relationships would never have existed without Unified sports.

"Special Olympics gave me confidence to speak up to a lot of people in there," said 18-year-old Kenneth Kinsey, a student at P.S. 721M and a member of the USA floor hockey team. "And get to know them more."

In this case, their differences covered more than intellectual abilities. Between Fieldston and P.S. 721M, there were massive socio-economic differences. None of it mattered. The groups found similarities and a common goal.

Society's perception of Fieldston kids makes them more likely to be in hiring positions one day, and this experience gave them insight into another world. It's these types of moments -- these true growth moments -- that brought Roberts to Special Olympics. The feel-good is nice. The life-changing is the real victory.

That's what Roberts fights for. After he spoke to the class, he went to James J. Walker Park across the street -- the public park doubles as the school's athletic field -- and played 7-on-7 flag football. Roberts loves these moments too. It's another part of the mission -- seeking joy.

Based on athletic ability alone, you wouldn't see much of a difference between these P.S. 721M students and those at another city school. They interacted with Roberts, picked off his passes and celebrated after big plays.

The period ended. Kids went home or to work. Roberts stuck around for an hour with Stewart and Hiroyuki Yamada, the director of the District 75 Wellness programs for New York City. They brainstormed. Tried to find something more that could work for their district.

The informal conversation encouraged Stewart. Gave Roberts hope, too. This, Roberts said, is where real ideas are born. Structured meetings are less productive. Creativity is stifled. Here, possibilities can be unlimited. By the time they were done, Yamada started thinking about meetings for the future, programs that could happen.

"Look at the movement we already have," Roberts told the men. "Just sitting here talking."

As Roberts left the school, he had a huge smile on his face. That was a good day. He helped kids. Imparted advice. Connected with the day-to-day workers for the vision he's trying to implement. Left excited about their future. Right now, for Ray Roberts to be who he has always wanted to be -- it doesn't get much better than that.