Roman Oben, who played 12 years in the NFL, is...

Roman Oben, who played 12 years in the NFL, is the league's director of youth and high school football. Credit: Getty Images / Ronald Martinez


Roman Oben enjoyed a solid NFL career that spanned 12 seasons and included a Super Bowl championship. But being a pro athlete, never mind a left tackle, wasn’t his dream growing up in Washington, D.C., after his family moved from his native Cameroon.

“I wanted to be the Fonz,” Oben said, referring to the famed “Happy Days” TV show character Arthur Fonzarelli, played by Henry Winkler. “He was my hero. At 4 years old when we moved to the States, I was watching ‘Happy Days.’ I didn’t speak English, and I was picked on a lot. But when I started playing football, it gave me a chance to feel good at something.”

Oben, 43, played for the Giants, Browns, Bucs and Chargers, winning a Super Bowl with Tampa after the 2002 season. Although he understands that very few who play football will make it to the NFL, he offers a fierce defense of the values the sport instilled in him.

At a time when the NFL faces increasing scrutiny about safety concerns, particularly the hot-button issue of head trauma and the incidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in deceased former players, Oben has become an advocate for the game as the NFL’s director of youth and high school football.

He shared his experiences with owners, general managers, coaches and executives in a speech Sunday night at the league’s annual spring meetings, sharing his example of how football can offer intrinsic rewards and provide life lessons.

“From kindergarten all the way through eighth, ninth grade, it was awkward, uncomfortable for me,” said Oben, who moved from West Africa to Washington with his mother, who worked for the Cameroon embassy. “I was always cautious about things. Then I played football, starting in the 10th grade, and you feel good about things. Football gave me confidence. It gave me structure. It gave me the ability to feel a sense of belonging and being a part of a team.

“You get 30 letters in your high school coach’s office, and you feel good about things,” said Oben, who graduated Louisville with an economics degree. “People are flying you first class to visit their schools. The world changes for you.”

Oben is aware of the risks associated with football, and mindful of the critics who believe it is too dangerous, and parents who are reluctant to let their children play. But he believes the rewards far outweigh the risks and that recently released statistics showing a stabilization in the rate of young people playing football may reflect a turnaround in its perception.

Oben cited a report from the Sports Fitness Industry of America that indicates flag football participation went up 9 percent in the past year, and that tackle football among high school athletes has stabilized after experiencing a decline in recent years. Those numbers match up with a study released this month by USA Football that shows 2.17 million children from ages 6-14 played tackle football in 2015, an increase of 1.9 percent from 2014. Flag football participation in the same age group increased 8.7 percent from 2014 to 1.67 million.

“There are still more kids playing high school football than any other scholastic sport in America,” Oben said. “The kids that want to play still end up playing. Most parents see the values in football and let their children play.”

But what about the avalanche of publicity about the dangers of football, particularly the many diagnoses of CTE?

“Every parent has to make the best decision that’s right for them and their child at their dinner table,” said Oben, who had no head trauma-related injuries during his career. “I would challenge every parent to be educated and not rely on someone else’s opinion, what they saw on a TV show or something they’ve read. I mean, tragedies have happened and there’s an inherent risk in everything. You have to gauge what type of football activity can be of value. There are a lot of things you get intrinsically from football that you don’t get in other sports. It’s about football values.

“We have to do a better job of collectively communicating that,” he said. “It’s got to be led in localized ways. At the local level, that’s where the game is. It’s kids playing, moms selling sweatshirts, dads coaching who aren’t getting paid millions of dollars to coach. They do it because they believe in what football really means.”

Predictably, Oben received a positive response at the owners’ meetings, but he knows he will have to convince a much more skeptical audience — the public at large — that playing football shouldn’t be feared, but embraced.

“We have to continue to tell the positive story, and not the sensationalized headline,” he said. “Football has values for everyone who plays it. Even if I had never played past high school, I’d still believe in those values.”