CHAMPAIGN — There's only one game left in Austin Roberts' career on the Illinois football team.
He has one more chance to let his hair down from its perched man bun to let it flow out the bottom of his helmet and nearly cover the nameplate on the back of his jersey, with his grizzly beard protruding out the front of his helmet.
Roberts isn't lamenting his final game as an Illini after five sometimes tumultuous years in Champaign. He's always known this day was going to come, even when he committed to the Illini before his senior year at Rice Lake High School in Rice Lake, Wis.
In about a year Roberts will be enrolling in medical school to pursue his lifelong dream of being a doctor. He's finishing up a joint bachelor's/master's degrees in applied health sciences, working toward a bachelor's in community health and a master's in public health, and was recently named to the Academic All-District team for District 5.
It all started in a kindergarten, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" exercise. That was an easy question: Doctor. Just like his father, Kevin Roberts, who is a podiatrist. The two worked on a drawing of a brain surgeon in the operating room.
"I looked up to my dad as a little kid," Roberts said. "I wanted to be like dad. There’s been this burning desire inside of me to be a doctor."
That burning passion never waned — not when Roberts moved from linebacker to fullback to tight end; not when Roberts had to recover from a torn ACL in his senior year of high school or in 2015 as a redshirt sophomore; not when he watched three different head coaches come through the program.
His parents, Kevin and Denise, were his North Star. They never let him forget that this football gig only lasted five years. Austin Roberts watched college football in a vacuum when he was in high school. He didn't pay attention to coaches moving in and out of programs or anything that could happen off the field.
All he saw were players, some with long hair and grizzly beards, inspiring him to grow out his own hair and pursue his dreams of playing college football. He didn't envision any of what happened at Illinois: The coaching changes, the injury, the position changes, the losing.
“Part of the reason why I committed here, (my parents) said, ‘College football is nuts. Coaches can leave, you can get hurt. God forbid you never play again, where would you go to school? If football was totally out of the picture, which school would you go to?' I said the University of Illinois," Roberts said.
"They’ve constantly been there reminding me, ‘Hey, college football is fun for four or five years, but you have the rest of your life ahead of you. Make sure you’re taking care of school. Work your butt off in football, achieve your dreams, but remember there’s a bigger picture than the six inches in front of your face.’ I love my parents to death. They’re the sole reason I’m here where I am today. They’ve kept me on track from day one all the way through these five years. I’m forever grateful for that."
On top of the world
Before his senior season at Rice Lake, Roberts was the big man on campus. He was committed to play football at Illinois and on top of the world.
Then things crashed down. He tore his ACL as a senior in high school. Though it ended his season, it gave him clarity on his future. He had surgery to repair the damage in his knee.
That's when being an orthopedic surgeon became a career path he could see himself sinking his teeth into.
“I want to take high school, college guys and girls who get hurt on a Friday night game ... I want to be the guy who comes in and fixes them up and make them better for next season and keep kids playing," Roberts said.
Roberts rehabbed and came to Champaign as a linebacker. He took a redshirt as a freshman in 2015 and played linebacker in 2015 as a redshirt freshman. He saw a bulk of his time on special teams and scout teams.
He moved to offense in 2016 and suffered another torn ACL.
“I’m committed to go to Illinois, I’m the big guy in town or whatever and I got knocked down," Roberts said of his first injury. "There’s nothing worse than that feeling. Then the second time, I worked by butt off for three years to finally get to play some college football. I played less than 10 snaps that year and got knocked down again.
"The orthopedic surgeon is the person who comes in and fixes you up, then the athletic trainers and everything. When I had that first surgery, that’s when I was like, ‘I really like this.’ I can see myself doing this."
The way the application process for med school lines up, Roberts will likely need to take a year off. He'll do job shadowing and probably retake his MCAT — he took it the first time during the summer entering his sophomore season.
Maybe when he shadows he'll find another path, but the options are open, and when he gets his license, offensive lineman Nick Allegretti has volunteered to sign up as Roberts' first client.
Roberts came to Champaign as a three-star linebacker, ranked No. 33 in the nation at his position by ESPN.com and the No. 9 overall player in the state of Wisconsin.
By his sophomore season, he was a fullback in Lovie Smith's first season as head coach. Smith took over after Tim Beckman was fired and replaced by Bill Cubit, who was then fired.
Roberts started in all 12 games as a fullback last season before switching to tight end this year under first-year offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
He has two catches for 14 yards.
“He’s playing tight end and is essentially our sixth offensive lineman on the field," Allegretti said. "He has been with me through all those coaches and all those changes. To see him finally get on the field and succeed the way we knew he could his whole career, that’s been awesome."
The turmoil that Roberts experience at Illinois wasn't expected, but it was beneficial.
“I hate to say it, but I think all that happening was a blessing — all the turmoil and all the injuries," Roberts said. "It gave me a chance to stay focused on my school. My parents helped me. They said, ‘Dude, college football's four or five years. You have the rest of your life. Get your school work done. That’s what you’re going to have the rest of your life.’
"When things got tough, the coaches kept switching and all the commotion was going on, I talked to my parents and they said to keep working hard and whatever happens happens and hopefully the best works out."
Del'Shawn Phillips saw Roberts' leadership pretty quickly when Phillips joined the Illini prior to last season after two years of junior college.
Roberts knew he could only control school and how hard he worked, and it caught the eye of Phillips.
“He’s great at overcoming adversity," Phillips said. "He’s a tough guy on and off the field. He’s a guy off the field who works his tail off and on the field he works his tail off. It doesn’t matter what it is, workouts or whatever the case may be, you can count on Austin Roberts to work his tail off.
“If anybody or any boss or anybody wanted a person hired for a job and they wanted a guy that’s going to give his all-out effort, Austin Roberts is the guy you want to hire."
If you ask Roberts, he'll tell you that he probably didn't sleep nearly enough during his five years at Illinois, but that's fine by him. He came to the university as a clean cut, clean shaven freshmen and will leave with a slew of experience under his belt.
His man bun might not make it through medical school, but if anyone needed to place an easy bet, it's that Roberts will.