Being Charlie

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

He's one of the most elusive, entertaining and unpredictable players in the CFL, with moves that leave you shaking, often scratching, your head.

Heck, it's easier to predict the actions of a teenager than to nail down where this guy's going next.

And we're just talking about what he's like off the field.

Winnipeg Blue Bomber running back Charles Roberts has not only been confusing CFL defences going on six seasons now, he's also been confounding those who've tried to figure the man out.

For every 1,500-yard rushing season, there's either a public pout or a trade demand.

For every all-star selection, a missed flight or team meeting.

For every reason to say, "Wow," another to wonder, "Why?"

"It's just Charlie being Charlie," Bomber GM Brendan Taman will say.

There's no arguing Roberts' ability -- the guy's climbed up the all-time Blue Bomber rushing list faster than one of his patented touchdown bursts.

Averaging nearly 1,300 yards over his first five seasons, "Blink" trails only the Lincoln Locomotive, Leo Lewis, in career yardage in franchise history.

Dubbed "Sir Charles Roberts" by no less than Pinball Clemons, the Toronto Argonauts coach to whom Roberts is often compared as a player, Roberts has been a CFL all-star in each of his five seasons -- and he's planning for a sixth.

At 27, he shows no sign of slowing down. And even though he's one of the smallest players in the CFL -- 5-foot-6, 170 pounds -- he's also one of the most durable, having missed just one start due to injury, going into this season.

The other game Roberts missed came late in 2001, his rookie year, when he walked out on the team as it marched toward a berth in the Grey Cup.

It was the first of several, almost annual, public spats No. 1 has had with the Bombers, outbursts which continue to this day.

Here is a look back at Charlie being Charlie.

THE ROOKIE MELTDOWN (2001)

It's amazing how close Roberts came to bailing out on the Bombers before he even took his first handoff.

A college star at Sacramento, Roberts had a rough ride at his first CFL training camp.

Convinced he was going to be cut, he told personnel boss Brendan Taman he wanted to be traded.

"I said, 'Good -- I want to be the Pope one day, too,'" Taman recalled.

Of course, Roberts made the team. But we eventually found out he wasn't happy.

It was late October, and the Bombers were on a history-making roll, a 12-game win streak that had the city talking Grey Cup for the first time in years.

As the Bombers practised for a game in Toronto, their prized rookie was suddenly conspicuous by his absence.

Initial word was Roberts had suffered a minor back injury, but that was simply a cover-up.

Then 22, Roberts was unhappy with sharing playing time with veterans Troy Mills and Eric Blount, and with what he termed a lack of respect in the locker-room.

He made a decision that would cost the team dearly, not to mention put a major dent in his reputation.

He walked out on the team, and was immediately suspended.

"I feel I'm as big a star here as I was in Sacramento," Roberts told the Sun at the time, as his teammates got ready to face the Argos without him. "I feel I've made plays for this team and deserve respect for that."

Hours later, the Bombers win streak came crashing down in a 12-7 loss, the first of two straight defeats to close out the season.

Their momentum gone, the Bombers never did look the same, eventually losing to Calgary in the Grey Cup.

Although the players were quick to say they forgave their teammate, you can't help but wonder: how would the story have turned out had Roberts not suffered a meltdown?

A STAR IS BORN (2002)

The 2002 season was a relatively quiet one off the field, with Roberts complaining once about being pulled from a game against Saskatchewan. He'd suffered a minor injury, but wanted to keep playing.

"Earlier in my career, in high school or college, I probably would have had a temper tantrum," Roberts, biting his tongue, told the Sun at the time. "I'm irritated. I'm gonna go home now and try to cool off a little bit. Right now is not the time."

On the field, it certainly was his time.

Now the full-time starter, Roberts nearly doubled his output, to 1,162 yards rushing. Adding another 613 yards on 55 catches, he was the CFL leader in yards from scrimmage.

But he wasn't making nearly the kind of money veteran backs in other cities were, and that led to his next public clash with management.

"PAY ME OR TRADE ME" (2003)

The e-mail came out of the blue on Feb. 7, 2003.

That's the day Roberts contacted the Sun to voice his displeasure with the way talks about a new contract were going. GM Brendan Taman, he said, wasn't making him a priority.

"Pay me or trade me," Roberts said over the phone from his California home. "I just don't feel I'm being treated like an all-star. It took him two weeks to return my call ... and I just don't like it."

Told of Roberts' comments, Taman's jaw nearly hit the floor.

"Oh my God! What the hell is that all about?" Taman said. "All I'd like to emphasize, on my end of it, he's got a contract."

Taman's priority at the time was negotiating with players who were about to become free agents. Roberts still had a year left on his deal.

"They can do anything they want," Roberts argued, threatening to sit out a year. "I believe he was trying to short-end me."

Eventually, Roberts got his new contract.

"Don't call me immature because I stand up and say I want more money," he said upon arriving at camp. "I've got a family to feed. It's ridiculous. Anybody on a regular 9-to-5 job is going to ask for a raise after two years ... so why was it wrong for me to say something?"

Roberts also claimed to be settling down, saying he planned to get married and "do the father thing" with his then-fiancee and two daughters.

His new-found maturity didn't stop him from showing up late for the first team meeting of the season.

He missed a flight, he explained, a story that would become all too familiar. He missed another coming back from Ottawa in the pre-season, drawing the usual fine from coach Dave Ritchie.

Nonetheless, Roberts was spectacular on the field, winning his first CFL rushing crown with 1,554 yards.

"He's as dynamic a player as it comes," Clemons said.

THUMBGATE

The '03 season also contained a strange little sidebar, revolving around Roberts left thumb.

He hurt it in a game against Calgary in August. But instead of getting X-rays, he left town for California, as the Bombers had a break in their schedule and gave the players some time off.

When Roberts returned, he wanted to miss practice to have the thumb checked out, but Ritchie would have none of it.

"They won't allow me to get no X-rays," and angry Roberts said. "I don't even want to talk about it, seriously, because I'm ticked off about it."

A day later, he missed an appointment to have his X-ray, and never did get the thumb checked out before the next game.

It was all thumbs up in the end, though, as Roberts ran for 124 yards in a 36-18 romp over Saskatchewan.

What Time's That Plane? (2004)

The following off-season saw Roberts sign a new three-year contract with the Bombers -- without any public tirades.

Now with a salary that topped $100,000, he set his sights on a 2,000-yard season.

He'd settle for 1,522, second to Hamilton's Troy Davis. But that didn't diminish his reputation.

"He's the best first-year guy I've ever found," Taman said. "Every time I go looking at a running back now, I pattern my looking to Charlie."

Roberts also managed to polish his reputation for being tardy.

He missed the flight to Regina for Winnipeg's Labour Day weekend game, and missed a flight back from California after another break in October.

Last year, Roberts publicly addressed the issue for the first time, saying he simply over-sleeps.

"I don't think that has anything to do with maturity," he explained. "I don't hear alarms. I'm a heavy sleeper. The buzzer doesn't work -- I've got to put it on the loud radio and have it scare me in the morning to wake me up.

"It's no disrespect to the players or the coaches or anything like that ... it's just something that happens and you've got to live with it sometimes."

TRADE ME, THE SEQUEL (2006)

Roberts enjoyed a quiet year off the field in '05, and another hugely successful one on it, as he regained the CFL rushing crown with a career-best 1,624 yards.

There were no trade demands, no missed flights (that we heard about, anyway) -- he was even praised for the way he handled himself in signing a contract extension.

So you knew something was coming as 2006 approached.

Sure enough, asked a simple question by the Sun about the potential presence of former NFL running back Onterrio Smith in training camp, Roberts erupted again, calling it "a slap in the face."

"If that is the direction they want to go... they should make him the man and trade me up out of there," Roberts said on May 2. "With the direction the offence is going, my touches seemingly were going to be down this year as it is. I think it would be better for both sides if I were moved."

That last comment irked new head coach Doug Berry, who pointed out how his offence in Montreal last year ran the ball more than Winnipeg.

"When somebody says that I'm not committed to the running game and hasn't even talked with me about that, I gotta look that number up," a stern Berry said. "Don't tell me I'm not committed to the running game."

Roberts didn't leave his GM unscathed, either.

Told Taman still considered him the team's No. 1 back, he took a shot at the man who brought him into the CFL.

"As you can see with Kyries Hebert, Brendan doesn't really care how a player feels," Roberts said, referring to a then-dispute between the linebacker and the Bombers. "I don't know if he's ever strapped on the football pads and knows the real emotion that a player has."

A Sun poll asking what the Bombers should do with Roberts drew a startling 453 responses, only 9% saying they should trade him.

Remarkably, Roberts and Taman kissed and made up, the little guy dropped his trade demand and Onterrio Smith is long gone.

Asked recently to explain his colourful history, Roberts, who finally got married this spring, was happy to oblige.

"I'm an entertainer, man," he said. "It's all fun and games most of the time. Only some of the time am I serious. I was serious about the Onterrio thing this off-season. I'll say that to the end. I thought that wasn't right.

"A lot of times the first comment you hear from me is probably exactly what I'm feeling. And then after that is a little make-up here, a make-up there, just to keep it interesting."

DON'T LOSE THAT NUMBER

One game into the current season, and Roberts let off another round of steam.

Standing up on his stool in the Bomber locker-room, the fan favourite announced his No. 1 jersey was up for sale and he was going to switch to No. 32, the number he wore in college.

The move was, in part, fueled by the fact he didn't get the ball a lot Week 1 in Montreal.

"They forgot about the No. 1, so I gotta do something."

A few days later, Roberts changed his mind, implying he got advice from above.

"He came and told me one night that I need to stay No. 1," he said, pointing up.

Berry was so unimpressed, he wanted to ban the media from the locker-room to prevent similar incidents in the future.

All we can say is, let Charlie be Charlie.

The guy's worth the price of admission, on and off the field.

As for figuring him out, Roberts says we won't -- until he's gone.

"At the end you're all gonna find out I was the best running back to touch this league," he said. "I'm still out there to prove it right now, but in the end that's what you're all gonna say who Charles Roberts was."


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