He was a 5-foot-8 nose guard from a single-parent, cash-strapped family who earned his first paycheck long before he got his first pair of jeans.
In other words, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman was different from many of his teammates at John Carroll University. Thanks to academic scholarships, Roman landed at the Division III college due to his intellect. But it was his over-the-top intensity that raised eyebrows.
The pricey, private Catholic school in suburban Cleveland wasn't exactly overpopulated with hardscrabble East Coast kids.
At one point, John Carroll coach Tony DeCarlo placed a call to Dr. Ken Leistner, Roman's tough-love surrogate father in East Rockaway, N.Y. DeCarlo didn't know if there might be a problem. Greg, he explained, wasn't a typical John Carroll kid.
Looking back, DeCarlo says Roman "settled down in a hurry" and became one of his all-time favorite players. For his part, Leistner, a legendary strength coach whose no-nonsense guidance helped shape his surrogate son, laughs at the memory.
"It was like they dropped a New York-New Jersey kid into a relatively genteel atmosphere in the Midwest and a bomb went off," Leistner said. "It was all positive. But it was like &‘Is this guy for real? Is he really 110-miles-an-hour, 24 hours a day?' Well, yeah. He is."
Two decades later, Roman, 38, has smoothed out his rough edges, but his drive and determination haven't diminished. In fact, it's clear the qualities that willed him into becoming a Lilliputian all-conference nose guard have fueled his rise through the NFL coaching ranks.
Sixteen years after breaking in as an unpaid assistant strength and conditioning coach with the expansion Panthers, Roman is in his first season as an NFL offensive coordinator.
And speak to Roman's bosses and colleagues — past and present — and a steady drumbeat explains how the NFC's third-youngest offensive coordinator has gone from there to here.
Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers, his boss in Carolina and Houston, labels Roman a "grinder."
Niners coach Jim Harbaugh terms him a "jackhammer."
Bengals strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton, an 18-year NFL veteran whom Roman worked under in Carolina, calls him "one of the hardest-working coaches I've ever seen."
And former Ravens coach Brian Billick says his onetime assistant offensive line coach is as gritty as the grunts he tutored in the trenches.
"Greg has built a career out of &‘OK, you best not underestimate me because I'll kick your ass,'" Billick said.
Roman's rugged ethos was born out of his childhood in Ventnor, N.J.
The youngest of three brothers, Roman's parents divorced before he was born and he never had a relationship with his father, who is deceased. His mom, Carol, was a reading specialist who worked baby-sitting jobs after school to support the family.
John Roman, now 42 and a United States Attorney in Pennsylvania, and Greg often cared for Matthew, their middle brother who has Down's syndrome. And as John entered high school, those responsibilities increasingly fell to Greg, who prepared Matthew's meals, got him to bed and, later, became immersed in his Special Olympics activities.
Greg also took on responsibilities outside the house. Before he was 10, he began rising at 5:30 a.m. to deliver the Atlantic City Press, the first of a string of jobs he held as a child. During summers, he was a runner on the Jersey Shore — crisscrossing the beach to restock the ice-cream containers of distinctly Jersey salesmen such as "Leo the Lion."
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