Through the first three months of the 2002 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rushing attack averaged just 87.4 yards per game, one of the worst marks in the NFL. Then it caught fire.
That 2002 Buccaneers team was, of course, the one that won a team-record 12 regular-season games, blasted through the playoffs and won Super Bowl XXXVII, 48-21, over the Oakland Raiders. It is best known for its suffocating defense, and on offense QB Brad Johnson was undeniably the MVP. But it would be a stretch to say that Tampa Bay was the Lombardi Trophy favorite entering December, and a hit-and-miss rushing attack was one of the reasons for that.
However, over the final seven games of that campaign, including the playoffs, the Bucs averaged a robust 118.3 ground yards per game, scored six of their 10 rushing touchdowns and complemented that amazing defense with impressive ball control. Tampa Bay averaged 4.7 yards per carry in December then ran the ball more than 37 times per game in the playoffs.
Roman Oben was the starting left tackle for that team, having signed as a free agent in the offseason after four years with the New York Giants and two in Cleveland. He joined a line that included holdovers Jeff Christy, Cosey Coleman and Kenyatta Walker, with Walker switching to right tackle after playing on the left side as a rookie in 2001. Oben knew that his crew was a work in progress, especially with Jon Gruden and a new coaching staff implementing an entirely new scheme.
"You had five guys playing together as a unit who never played together before," said Oben. "We were learning that running game that the Raiders did with Gruden the year before, and there was just the belief system that we had to get better at something. We only averaged about 90 yards rushing the ball during the season, and some of those were end-arounds and a couple scrambles. But I'm glad that we jelled and we played together at the end, when it counted. We got better as the season progressed."
Oben, whose NFL career concluded with four years in San Diego after two with the Buccaneers, has experienced something of the same phenomenon in his post-football life. Whip-smart and ambitious, he moved back to New Jersey and dived directly into a number of possible careers immediately after his final NFL season in 2007.
"I started in radio right away with the Giants, doing sidelines, some stuff for Sports USA radio as a sideline reporter," he said. "Each year, I just did more and more stuff. I was trying to grow in broadcasting, and trying to grow personally in a corporate sense at the same time, and that was very challenging, to be honest.
"You've got to understand – you're starting your life at 35 years old, when all your buddies have been advancing in their careers over the last 10 or 15 years. As athletes, we're so competitive in our personal lives, too. You want to hit the ground running when your career is over, and unless you're coaching or doing something football-related, it's not that easy of a transition."
Oben's approach was two-fold. He grew his broadcasting career, and he now does four television broadcasts per week, covering the Giants. He also tried his hand in a number of business endeavors, from marketing outdoor advertising to selling banner ads for local school districts. He also found a niche that has proved successful in bringing youth football education to a populace that has a wide variety of sports options for their children. He created Oben Flag Football and is providing clinics on football fundamentals to areas that previously had nothing of the sort.
"In the Northern part of the country, a lot of kids weren't properly educated about the fundamentals of football," he said. "If you look down South, in Texas or Florida, you can play flag or tackle, but up North you've got to compete with all these other sports, like lacrosse."
Oben has found that his broadcasting and business pursuits have begun to dovetail nicely, and both still have significant room for growth. He does some high school football broadcasting that is allowing him to find his analytical voice so that he can eventually excel calling college and pro games. And Oben Flag Football has its sights set on 30 locations in a very densely-populated area that can support that sport along with many others.
"Doing television during the season and then being in a youth-enrichment business kind of goes hand in hand," he said. "You have guys that become financial assistants or agents or something, and that works for some people, but for me I had to figure what I liked the most."
Like a lot of NFL players who find success after the game, Oben laid the groundwork for his post-football life long before his career was over. Part of that involved starting the Roman Oben Foundation, which brought him into contact with Liz Willyoung, who has worked with a long list of professional athletes and who is the president and CEO of the Champions Fund, a public charity comprising professional athlete funds and foundations.
"She's been as instrumental in my development as anyone," said Oben, who has taken many of the lessons he gleaned from Willyoung into the business world. "The level of professionalism that I learned from here has been so important for me. I learned to be professional and diligent from her."
Oben, who was the first Cameroonian-born player ever drafted in the NFL, has found a balance in his life that he seeks to bring to his own two sons, Roman, Jr. (11) and Andre (8). Both boys play a variety of sports, from football to lacrosse, and are excellent students and high-level readers. Oben's wife, Linda, is a first-generation American with parents born in Haiti, and someday the couple will likely take their family to their families' countries of origin. In the meantime, they are really pursuing the classic American Dream – generational progress.
"They're into a lot of sports, but they're very well-rounded," said Oben of his sons. "You want your kids to be balanced. I tell them that, 'Yes, you're dad played in the NFL,' but you'll have better opportunities than I did. I had better opportunities than my mom did, and that's what it's all about."
Oben's greatest opportunity as an NFL player was to play for a championship with the Buccaneers in 2002. That came to fruition in the Super Bowl XXXVII win over Oakland, but it really took hold the week before in Philadelphia, where the Bucs upset the #1 seed to win a trip to San Diego. Oben says his most vivid memory of the '02 playoffs was his team knowing they were going to win in Veterans Stadium. As with the development of the running game, the Buccaneers had proved to themselves that they could do it, that no obstacle was going to stand in their way.
"That Eagles game, we had a 96-yard drive," he said. "We started at the four, and there was no fear, no anticipation. We knew that whatever they called we were going to run it. It was at that point that we had that belief system that we were going to win."