HAMMOND — Three years ago, Southeastern Louisiana junior running back/kick returner Xavier Roberson resigned himself to the fact that his recruiting process was over — and quite possibly his playing career, too.
Five months had passed since the start of the national signing period in February 2012, and Roberson, an all-conference defensive back at Tri-Cities High School in Atlanta, still hadn’t received a scholarship offer.
Without any financial aid, Roberson’s future appeared grim. Since the seventh grade, he had learned to depend on himself and, as a teenager, he navigated some of the more difficult streets in his hometown looking for places to live.
Roberson was homeless, having given up hope his mother could secure employment and maintain a residence. He earned enough money to pay for food and nights at a time in hotels. When it was possible, he stayed with family.
That pattern lasted through Roberson’s senior year until recently, when his mother and sister moved into a two-bedroom apartment.
“I had to make things possible the best way I could,” Roberson said. “I always made it to school every morning, and one day I knew things would change if I kept playing football and trying my hardest.”
Less than a month before players across the country reported to campus for the start of preseason drills, fate intervened and rewarded Roberson for his perseverance.
A letter, adorned with a giant white “S” trimmed in green in the top left-hand corner, arrived at Tri-Cities High but did little to tip off Roberson as to its contents.
It was dated July 20, but it might as well have been Dec. 25 when Roberson opened it and found a scholarship offer from Southeastern Louisiana; he immediately accepted. What has resulted has been an improbable journey, escaping inner-city blight to embark on what has evolved into a record-setting career in small-town America.
“I’d never heard of the school before,” Roberson said. “But where I’m from, a full scholarship is a dream come true.”
SLU coach Ron Roberts said it’s common to have scholarships available well after signing day. He said the Lions wanted to add another skill player, saw film of Roberson and sent out the offer.
“We recruit Atlanta, called his coaches and reached out,” Roberts said. “It’s just one of those things where we kind of found him. After we saw his film, I think it was a no-brainer.”
Roberson — a fleet-footed 5-foot-9, 180-pounder — signed as a running back and rushed for 1,026 yards and scored 12 touchdowns during his first two seasons, including 538 yards a year ago.
But special teams — notably kickoff returns — is where Roberson has carved out a niche as one of the best returners in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Roberson was named first-team all-Southland Conference and earned first-team Walter Camp All-America honors after he was the nation’s leader with a 35.2-yard average on 26 kickoffs, with three touchdowns.
He returned the opening kick last season against Central Arkansas for a 90-yard score. He brought back two more for 82 and 92 yards against South Dakota State and Northwestern State to set single-season school and SLC marks for kickoff average and touchdowns.
“Being the number one kick returner in the nation shocked me,” he said. “To see that next to my name was a big accomplishment. I came out working hard expecting to have a great season, and that’s what happened.”
Roberson, who has moved to slot receiver and caught two passes for 22 yards last week in SLU’s 44-3 win over Jacksonville, has the school’s career record with five kickoff returns for scores and needs 155 yards to pass Keylam Davis (1,340) for career kickoff return yardage.
Preseason acclaim came in droves for Roberson, with five outlets showering him with either first-team All-America status or national watch list mention. He averaged 29.5 yards on two returns in the opener.
“My family and friends expected me to be great,” he said. “They hope I live up to the hype and want me to keep working hard and get better every day.
“I’m just blessed to have this opportunity coming from the situation I came from.”