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'They did it, mama': South alum Roach goes from walk-on to scholarship, surprises parents
Curtis Roach
Curtis Roach is entering his redshirt junior season at Western Carolina after graduating from South Forsyth in 2016. Photo courtesy Western Carolina Athletics

Curtis Roach knows where to look to find inspiration.

Perched in the corner of E.J. Whitmire Stadium, there’s a collection of banners celebrating Western Carolina’s milestones. There’s one for Bob Waters, longtime head coach and athletic director. Another commemorates the 1983 season, back when the Catamounts played for a Division I-AA championship.

Then there’s Kirk Roach, a black and white headshot adorning the banner, with the number 14 next to his name.

“His jersey is up there on the scoreboard,” Curtis Roach said, “and it’s always been one of those things where you get tired during sprints – what would the ‘Catagoat’ do?”

Curtis Roach
Photo courtesy Western Carolina Athletics
“Catagoat” is a play on Western Carolina’s mascot, the Catamount, which is combined with the acronym “goat,” or “greatest of all time.”

It’s a nickname Curtis uses to describe his father, a legendary kicker at Western Carolina from 1984-87 and still the school’s all-time leading scorer.

He’s also the first person Roach called Sunday after learning the Western Carolina coaching staff had awarded him a scholarship.

“THEY DID IT, MAMA”

Roach’s phone rang Sunday afternoon. It was head coach Mark Speir.

Roach, who graduated from South Forsyth in 2016, played his first four years at Western Carolina as a walk-on.

That changed two weeks ago, only Roach didn’t know it yet.

“He was kind of beating around the bush saying, ‘You know, we don’t have enough scholarships for every guy we want to put on,’” Roach said. “Then, at the end of the call, he said, ‘I’m going to go ahead and tell you you’re on scholarship. The athletic director signed it a couple of weeks ago. We were trying to figure out how to surprise you, but I’ll go ahead and tell you.’”

Roach was ecstatic.

“So, of course, I started crying, thanking him too many times,” Roach said. “I had to tell somebody, so I called my dad. So, I called him, crying; he was crying. Luckily, my mom wasn’t home, so I was able to set something up and I had my dad just record her when I told her.”

Later that afternoon, Roach decided to call home once again and break the news to his mother. His father filmed the conversation as Roach exclaimed, “They just put me on scholarship, baby.”

“I had him put it on speaker, and I didn’t know what to say, so I just went ahead and just said it – ‘they put me on.’ I don’t think I really cried there. She started to, then it hit me after the video,” Roach said with a laugh. “We were still on the phone and I started crying with her. Definitely a whole lot of tears that night.”

After the tears came relief.

Roach said his parents paid his tuition the first four years at Western Carolina, but after a round of pay cuts affected the family, money was a bit tighter this year.

“My parents would take a bullet for me. They’ve always put their lives on hold for me,” Roach said. “They say, ‘Whatever you love is our priority.’ I love football, and they’ve always been able to make that a reality for me. The scholarship thing, it doesn’t change anything for me. I mean, I’m still the same person on the field. You still put a helmet on, you put your shoulder pads on; but it’s just how I could give back to my parents. They did everything for me.”

FOLLOWING THE "CATAGOAT"

Roach led South Forsyth with five interceptions in 2015, part of a War Eagles team that won 11 games and nearly upset eventual state champion Colquitt County in the Elite Eight.

Curtis Roach
Curtis Roach graduated from South Forsyth in 2016 after compiling 78 tackles, eight pass break-ups, five interceptions and three tackles for loss as a senior. File photo
He finished his senior season with 78 tackles, eight pass break-ups and three tackles for loss, garnering All-State and All-County recognition. Still, his recruiting didn’t pick up the way he anticipated.

“I thought I was better than what colleges were showing me,” Roach said. “I was an in-between free safety and linebacker guy. I was small, but I couldn’t really play linebacker and they didn’t think I was fast enough to play safety. I had a bunch of guys looking at me, but they wouldn’t pull the trigger with the scholarship. Luckily, Western gave me the open door.”

So Roach made the 3 ½ hour drive up to Cullowhee, North Carolina, where he looked to make a name for himself and prove he was worthy of playing at the Division I level.

His name, however, already had its place in Western Carolina lore.

Kirk Roach was a three-time All-American, four-time Southern Conference selection and a hall of famer at Western Carolina. He converted all but one of his 90 extra points attempts and hit 70 percent (71 of 101) of his field goal attempts, including 11 from 50 or more yards.

In 1987, he was picked by the Buffalo Bills in the fifth round of the NFL draft, which remains the highest selection in school history.

Curtis felt himself trying to impress others when he arrived at Western Carolina, hoping to live up to the legacy his father built there.

“It’s definitely something that when I committed, I didn’t love it, thinking I was going to be in his shadow,” Roach said. “Now I absolutely respect him more, because I’ve seen what he’s been through here and what he’s done and how much success he had. I definitely respect him more and I’m definitely honored now.”

FINDING A WAY

Roach didn’t play a down his freshman year and decided to redshirt.

The following season, however, Roach began to make a name for himself on special teams, playing in nine games and tallying two tackles and a fumble recovery.

That momentum carried into his redshirt sophomore year in 2018, but two games into the season, he tore his hamstring.

“We were playing against Gardner-Webb my redshirt freshman year,” Roach remembered. “I ran down on kickoff – first play of the game for me because we received the ball – I was all hyped, my teammates were screaming because they know I’m just a hitter and they knew what I was about to do. I guess I got too excited, too amped up – it was a little hot outside – and I just heard ‘pop, pop.’ The first thing that hit the ground was my face. I got carted off the field and that was the end of that season.”

The NCAA granted Roach a medical redshirt, and suddenly, he had redshirted two out of his first three years at Western Carolina.

In addition to fighting injury, Roach also had a new position coach for every year he’s been at Western Carolina. All told, he’s played under three defensive coordinators and five position coaches.

But it was incoming defensive coordinator Andy McCollum, who coached at Georgia Tech for a decade, who decided Roach was worthy of the scholarship.

“(McCollum) actually gave me the scholarship and spoke up for me. He hasn’t even seen me play,” Roach said. “He’s seen film of me, and he knows what kind of guy I am, but he just told me, ‘Your character speaks highly of you, and if you’re going to love the game like I’ve seen you love it, then you’re going to play for me.’ I just absolutely admire that, which is really cool for him to not see me play and just be able to know what kind of player I am based on my passion for the game.”

Roach played in all 12 games in 2019, logging 18 total tackles between special teams and linebacker.

Perhaps the highlight of the season came against Chattanooga, when Roach converted a two-point play on a fake PAT.

Growing up as the son of a former professional kicker, Roach learned how to field the snap and turn the ball for the kicker: I’ve always believed I have the best hands on the team,” Roach said with a laugh. “A lot of my teammates and some of the receivers don’t agree.”

Curtis Roach
Roach chases down an Alpharetta quarterback in 2015 during a 49-7 South Forsyth win. File photo
He had held snaps at South Forsyth for then-kicker Alex Barbir. Naturally, Roach volunteered his talent one day at a Western Carolina practice.

“We didn’t have a holder at the time, so I said, ‘Coach, I can do it,’ Roach said. “I went over there, my kicker in practice made all four field goals and said, ‘You’re hired.’”

Roach’s first fake actually came earlier in the Chattanooga game.

Facing fourth-and-1 from Chattanooga’s 14-yard line, Western Carolina lined up for a chip-shot field goal. But Roach took the snap and scampered 11 yards to the 3-yard line.

Two plays later, the Catamounts punched it in for the score.

“Honestly, that scholarship just shows that all this adversity and everything that I’ve been through, it was all worth it,” Roach said. “I’ve been through about to quit. I’ve been through those injuries where I was just so close to giving up. I’ve been through those coaching changes where you’re really close to one coach you’re playing for, then the next one comes in and you don’t see the field.” 

THE NEXT STEP

Having confidence is necessary in football, Roach believes.

He always had confidence in himself – walking on at a Division I school, volunteering to play different positions – but to Roach, the scholarship is a signal that Western Carolina’s coaching staff shares that same confidence.

“That confidence boost is everything in football. Now I feel like they understand that I can play, and it’s just going to boost my confidence more,” Roach said. “If they let us play this year, I think I’ll be able to show that.”

Right now, the football season is in doubt, with several conferences postponing the season until the spring or cancelling it altogether because of COVID-19.

The Southern Conference released a statement Thursday reiterating its plan to play this fall.

With all this uncertainty, Roach can’t help but think of another acronym, one his taught him, like so many other things in his life.

The acronym is “eat,” and it’s meant to remind Roach of the things he can control: effort, attitude, being a great teammate.

Roach seems himself growing as a player. He says he’s learned more from McCollum than he has over the past three years, and he hopes he gets a chance this fall to reward his new defensive coordinator for placing his faith in him.

“Right now, I’m having fun,” Roach said. “I’ve got a helmet on for the first time, because our spring ball was cancelled due to COVID. So, I’ve got a helmet on again and I feel good.

“I feel like I proved to myself that I am a college football player. The other colleges that didn’t take a chance on me, I’ve proven to them that I can play at this level, and I can excel at this level.”