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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."

The money went to his family and later allowed Greg to attend a private high school — a reflection of his mom's emphasis on education.

Roman doesn't look back with much outward angst. He matter-of-factly explains that he didn't own his first pair of jeans until he was in college. As an athlete, he says, he just wore sweatpants. It helped that his family was exceptionally close and remains so today.

"We didn't have a lot," Roman said, "but we had plenty."

Thanks to his uncle, Jack Clary, Roman did have a unique opportunity that sparked his passion for football.

Clary is an award-winning author of more than 50 sports books, including co-writing an autobiography of legendary NFL coach and owner Paul Brown. Due to his uncle's connection, Roman, starting at 11, was a go-fer for Brown, the Bengals president, during several of Cincinnati's training camps. In high school, he shagged the Bengals' practice kicks in Miami leading up to Cincinnati's loss to the 49ers in the Super Bowl of January 1989. In college, he sat with Brown in his luxury box during several Bengals games.

Brown enjoyed the engaging, fire-hydrant-shaped kid he affectionately termed his "Little Chunk." And Roman learned from one of the league's greatest innovators.

Inspired by the relationship, Roman became a voracious reader of football books, many of them coaching tomes on legends such as John Ralston, Tom Landry and, of course, Paul Brown. Roman's collection has grown to over 500, causing him to recently Super Glue one of his sagging bookshelves at home.

"I got exposed to one of the true icons of football and I got to see how this guy went about his business," Roman said of Paul Brown. "It gave me a real clear idea of what you could be. That was always a motivating kind of flashpoint for me in my life. It was always in the back of my mind that I would get into coaching."

Another seismic shift in Roman's life occurred when Clary met with Leistner, Greg's soon-to-be surrogate father, through a mutual friend. Leistner, a longtime strength consultant to the NFL and a licensed chiropractor, has trained NFL players and a legion of New York inner-city youths.

Clary mentioned his nephew needed a strong male figure in his life and Leistner, who was abandoned at birth and adopted, quickly bonded with the 13-year-old. Greg began visiting Leistner and his family on weekends. Then holidays. Then he spent the summers with the Leistners during college, bringing teammates to work out and prepare for the upcoming season with "Dr. Ken."

Greg was soon calling his mentor "pops" — what Leistner's three children called their dad. Leistner and his wife, Kathy, didn't blink. Greg, they explained to those who asked, was their son.

Leistner immediately recognized the bitterness and life-isn't-fair outlook developing in Greg. He counseled him to draw strength from his past and not let it sabotage his future.

"I tried to make him understand, there's no free ride," Leistner said. "If you screw up, all people know is that you screwed up. You could have a legitimate reason or you could be a crybaby ... So complete your task, do what you've got to do, do it to the best of your ability and shut up. That's essentially what he got from me. And that's what he needed. He responded very, very well."

At John Carroll, Roman became a two-year starter as an athletically challenged 5-foot-8, 255-pound nose guard, earned a 3.5 GPA and had a consulting job during his final semester of college. Inspired by Matthew, he founded Project H.O.P.E., a one-day event in which developmentally disabled children met with John Carroll students and participated in sports. The annual event is still being held at the school.

Stanford special teams coordinator Brian Polian, who was two years behind Roman in college, said his mentoring of younger players, exhaustive film study and passion for the game hinted at his future in coaching.

"Even by Division III standards, he was undersized for a defensive lineman," Polian said. "But the guy made up for it with a desire to be great. And that came through in Greg's approach to everything he did."

After college, Morton, who had met Roman through Leistner, called with a proposal. He was the strength and conditioning coach of the expansion Panthers. Did Greg want to become his assistant?

Roman ditched his consulting job and entered the NFL on the ground floor, which he mopped as part of his weight-room duties. He didn't get a paycheck, but Morton recalls the Panthers gave him a pair of shorts and a used T-shirt.

Roman didn't have a burning desire to be a strength coach, but Carolina's coaching staff wasn't complete. He volunteered to be a defensive quality control coach — a second job that resulted in 120-hour work weeks and highlighted his drive and confidence.

What gave him the belief he was remotely qualified to jump into NFL coaching?

"I was going to make it work," Roman said. "I was going to go in and just make everyone else's jobs easier. At that time, it was just producing work. Drawing cards. Learning how to break down film. Helping produce playbooks. All the while trying to learn about coaching. I didn't sleep much in those days."

And when he did, he usually did so at the facility. After his alarm clock failed him one morning, he enlisted Dr. Ken to begin calling him daily at 5 a.m. from New York.

In his first year, he was part janitor, part strength coach and a full-time work-producer for Capers, one of the most detail-obsessed coaches in a profession stuffed with Type-A personalities. Capers, for example, has kept a color-coded daily journal since 1982, which includes everything from coaching notes to his resting pulse rate.

"Greg is my type of guy," Capers said. "That first year we started giving him projects and he would take them and go above and beyond with them. I always tell our young guys, do such a good job that at the end of the day we say, we can't do without this guy. And that's what happened with Greg."

Impressing Capers was one hurdle. In his second year, Roman, elevated to defensive assistant, faced a more daunting challenge: Commanding respect from stars that were in the NFL before he was in high school.

In 1996, Roman, 23, helped coach a linebacker corps that included Sam Mills, 37 and Kevin Greene, 34 — a duo that had accounted for seven Pro Bowl appearances.

Roman's baptism-by-fire coaching philosophy: Greg, you better be right. According to Greene, he was.

"You knew he was a young kid, but nevertheless he was standing tall and holding people accountable for their work," Greene said. "I just thought this kid was going to one day move on and eventually do something special."

Greene is among countless players who have seen another side of the workaholic coach's personality through Roman's relationship with his developmentally-disabled brother.

Matthew Roman, now 40, still lives with his mom in New Jersey, but he's been a regular companion at practices, team meals and game-day bus trips during Greg's five-team, 16-year journey.

Former NFL tight end Billy Miller, whom Roman coached with the Texans, says witnessing the interaction between Greg and Matthew had a profound impact.

"Just watching Greg really changed my perspective," Miller said. "Matthew was there all the time and Greg always made time for him. He was never a burden ... As a society, when we see someone with Down's syndrome, we feel like we have to talk slower. Or we have to lower our standards and expectations. Greg didn't. He treated him like his brother. He gave him hugs and kisses and it was special for me to see that."

Roman, who has done an internship in Washington, D.C., for the Special Olympics, says Matthew has provided life-altering lessons in loyalty, perspective and unconditional love. In return, Matthew has flourished, thanks, in part, to Greg's lifelong support.

Matthew has worked at the Shore Mall for the past 14 years, first at an Auntie Anne's Pretzel stand and, more recently, at a children's museum where he became its first disabled employee.

Clary, their uncle, says the brothers' relationship is, well, normal. Matthew has complained that "Gregory is too bossy. I can do what I want."

"He's got a great vocabulary," Clary said. "He's got a great sense of humor and he sees things and puts things into his own perspectives, which are damn interesting. I give Greg a lot of credit for that because he really took him under his wing as a kid. Greg watched over him and still does."

Roman is fiercely proud of his brother, but he tends not to linger over the more personal areas of his life. Clary and Leistner, his two father figures, say he's never discussed the absence of his biological father with them.

In terms of his coaching career, Roman, in keeping with Leistner's advice to do his job and shut up, is the antithesis of a self-promoter. Universally described as a team player, Roman was initially hesitant about being interviewed for this story.

He also politely declined to have his mom or wife of nine years, Dana, interviewed. By way of explanation, he said he'd prefer to be known simply as a hard-working football coach.

"I want to be underestimated," he said.

Why not? It's worked out pretty well so far.