On a Friday night in Lufkin, Texas, the signs say it all.
Meander around this Texas town of 30,000 on a Friday evening, and you'll find streets all but barren and local businesses closed. Local shops' doors are locked, the lights are off and there's a sign in the front window explaining why.
"We're going to see the Panthers play."
The Panthers are the Lufkin Panthers, the high school football team where IU signee Mandela Roberts starred at linebacker during the past three seasons. While Lufkin's top-20 national ranking and 14-1 record this past fall certainly played a part in the town's affinity for the local high school football team, it goes above and beyond this year's success.
Football in Texas, after all, is a religion.
"Our whole town revolves around our football team," says Roberts.
Proof of that surfaces every Friday night when the town flocks to Lufkin's football games. When Lufkin squared off with Southlake Carroll H.S. and Alabama-bound quarterback Greg McElroy in the state playoffs this season, 24,000 made their way to the state semifinal encounter.
"Most of our town was at the game," said Roberts.
That's why when the 6-0, 220-pound Roberts makes his way around town, he's recognized by young and old as the second-team All-State linebacker who helped Lufkin to the semifinals of the Class 5A state playoffs. There's a celebrity status that goes along with playing football in the Lone Star State, particularly when you're from a small town that treats its high school football stars in the same way that many small Indiana towns treat its basketball heroes.
Roberts can remember being the wide-eyed youngster himself, someone who couldn't wait for the chance to play on the local high school football squad. He can remember looking up to Rich McNeil, a quarterback at Lufkin in the 1990s that was the marquee name from the high school program at the time.
"We still kind of look up to him today," says Roberts. "Football is just really big in Texas."
"Playing football in Texas, it's like playing football in the (National Football) League," says Roberts. "Everyone knows you and you earn your respect - that's just how it is."
After making a big name for himself both in Lufkin and in the state of Texas with his play during the last three years, Roberts is now ready to do the same at the collegiate level. He'll attempt to do so for Coach Terry Hoeppner's Hoosiers, potentially as someone who could step in and help right away.
Roberts will arrive in Bloomington after a huge senior year at Lufkin. He led the team with 128 tackles, including 24 tackles for loss and six sacks. He also had a pair of fumble recoveries and two interceptions while also finishing as the school's all-time leading tackler. He played on a defense that also featured first-team All-State and Texas Tech-bound safety Leonard Hewitt.
A standout sprinter on his high school's track team, Roberts also runs a 4.5 in the 40 and has the sideline-to-sideline speed Hoeppner likes from his linebackers. He combines that with excellent strength as well, evidenced by his participation on the Lufkin H.S. weightlifting team.
Those types of tools, combined with that sort of productivity, makes Roberts an intriguing possibility for playing time as a true freshman. Roberts is equally enamored with the thought of working his way onto the field next fall.
"Coming from Lufkin where we were playing 15 games a year, I want to keep playing, I want to stay in the groove," says Roberts. "I don't want to be out for a year and get rusty. It will be a great opportunity to play in the Big Ten and be successful at it."
Roberts would also like to see the Indiana fan base go along for the ride. He got a taste of the Hoosiers' fan interest when he sat courtside for Indiana basketball's 81-79 win over Ohio State Jan. 11 during his official visit. He's hoping that with some success on the football field, Indiana can generate the same sort of interest in football that he's grown accustomed to while growing up in Texas.
"I was trying to go somewhere where it seemed that things revolved around football," says Roberts. "Indiana has a great basketball team, too, and hopefully we can get that sort of support on the football team."
SIGNING DAY 2006 - Mandela Roberts
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