FRISCO, Texas — Cowboys Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Cliff Harris has presented his annual Cliff Harris Award, given to the Small College Defensive Player of the Year, to the previous seven winners before the Little Rock Touchdown Club.
But this year because of scheduling conflicts and after a COVID-interrupted 2020 season, Harris brought the award ceremony to The Star in Frisco, Texas, handing the 35-pound, $3,000 sculpted trophy to Sam Roberts, the 6-5, 292-pound defensive end from Division II Northwest Missouri State.
The 14-man committee, consisting of Cowboys Hall of Famers Roger Staubach, Drew Pearson, Rayfield Wright, Mel Renfro, Gil Brandt and Harris, along with notable former Cowboys players like Lee Roy Jordan, Everson Walls and Charlie Waters, and former assistant coach and Alabama national championship head coach Gene Stallings, sifted through some 135 nominees from Division II, Division III and NAIA schools, basing the award not only on athletic achievement but also character, styling the criteria after the likes of the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and the Jason Witten College Player of the Year Award.
"Sam has really shown the ferocity and intensity," said Harris, signed by the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 1970 from tiny Ouachita Baptist in Arkadelphia, Ark., who made good in the NFL. "I'm really proud (of the award) and really proud of it that it brings what I wanted to do, you have a guy like Sam Roberts that will bring not only recognition today for winning this award but he's going to bring a lot of recognition as soon as he goes into the Hall of Fame after retirement wherever he plays (followed by laughter) because I know he's going to be a great player."
Roberts was a first-team AFCA and DCCA All-American player and second-team AP All-American. From Waynesville, Mo., Roberts also was named National Region 3 Defensive Player of the Year and the MIAA Conference Player of the Year while playing for the No. 4-ranked Bearcats (11-2) and their No. 2-ranked defense.
"I want to thank all to who had a hand in picking me for this award," said Roberts, who worked in his spare time in college as a certified nurse's aide at Parkdale Manor in Maryville working with the elderly. "I want to thank Mr. Cliff personally for seeing my talent on the field. Want to thank my mom (Tonya) for coming out. I want to thank my family and friends, for without them I wouldn't be where I am today. They played a huge role in my life.
"And I want to thank my athletic department, the coaches at my school who put me up for this award that I didn't even know about. They did this without me even knowing."
Ironically, Roberts actually won the award without knowing. While preparing to head from Maryville, Mo., to La Vegas to begin training for the NFL Draft, Roberts accidently left his phone in his car that was being transported to Nevada. So, when Northwest Missouri State head coach Rich Wright called to tell him of the award, he left a message that Roberts never listened to until four days later.
Thank goodness for social media. In the meantime, his Northwest teammate Kobe Clayborne sent congratulations on Snapchat and then he saw his Twitter account blowing up.
"I had no clue I had won it or anything," said Roberts, who already has played in the Hula Bowl and East-West Shrine game and will have his Pro Day workout at the University of Missouri on March 25. "My mom finally got home and she said you won the award. It was a crazy feeling."