Roberts’ time has finally come: Earned football glory the hard way at SFU

Jay Roberts compiled some outstanding statistics at Saint Francis College during his four years as a running back for the Red Flash football team.

Roberts, who played for Saint Francis (now Saint Francis University) from 1971-74, rushed for 3,824 yards in his career.

During his senior season when the Red Flash compiled a 7-1 record, he averaged 154.6 yards per game rushing but also started at safety and did the punting and placekicking.

After his senior season, Roberts was contacted by two teams in the professional World Football League about continuing his career.

You would think that such stellar numbers would have made him a shoo-in for the Saint Francis Athletics Hall of Fame.

You would be wrong.

Roberts has waited 45 years since his senior season to earn a spot in the Athletics Hall of Fame in Loretto, but Friday, he will be inducted along with seven other elite athletes.

“I’m truly honored to be considered, but I accept this on behalf of all the players who came before me and who helped start the program, those who played with me, and those who came after me to keep the tradition alive,” Roberts said last week.

Why has his alma mater ignored him for so long? A little history will help explain that.

When Saint Francis reinstated its football program in 1969 after a hiatus of 16 years, new coach Art Martynuska learned that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) would not sanction the program.

The NCAA said it could not do so because it did not have a classification for non-scholarship players, as Saint Francis was proposing, while also allowing scholarship players in its basketball program.

The NCAA told Martynuska that it was hoping to create a proposal that would allow schools like Georgetown, Duquesne and Niagara, which became Red Flash football opponents while offering basketball scholarships, to do that.

In 1973, the NCAA approved the current breakdown: Division I, Division II and Division III, which became the non-scholarship segment.

Saint Francis applied for and was finally given Division III status for football in 1978.

What Martynuska had to do in 1969 was find a group that would sanction the play of his team until the NCAA came up with such an alignment. The National Club Football Association served as a place where like-minded teams could compete until the NCAA created Division III.

Roberts was twice named a National Club All-American and offensive player of the year.

The label of “club” is what has impeded the induction of Roberts and others because some equate “club” with “intramural” football.

This year, Saint Francis made an institutional decision — agreed to by Rev. Malachi Van Tassel, the school’s president, and Susan Robinson Fruchtl, the athletic director — to allow players on teams that became NCAA units to be considered for the Hall.

Current Saint Francis football coach Chris Villarrial called Roberts’ induction “big for Saint Francis football.”

“Our story and our history hasn’t been told, and we need to tell the story of our program,” he said. “Many teams started as club football, but these teams embrace their history as we should as well. These are the guys that have paved the way for the program and are very proud of this program. Jay’s story is unbelievable. When he played, there was no social media or hudl. He received professional contracts as a club player on his own. He built himself into a great running back and was proud of where he came from. Jay bleeds for Saint Francis football.”

Roberts, who currently resides in Portage with his wife, Patty, is not in the SFU record book, either. If he was, he would be second in career rushing yardage behind Kyle Harbridge (4,126).

Roberts has a bachelor’s and master’s from Saint Francis and has been employed there for 21 years. He is currently director of the DiSepio Institute and Cermusa. He had previously worked as a Cambria County sheriff and a county detective.

Hugh Conrad was an assistant coach in the Saint Francis football program for six years and served as the Red Flash head coach for two seasons (1984-85). He was also a sports writer for the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat for 25 years.


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