Ben Roberts

Missoula Sentinel’s Ben Roberts, pictured breaking a tackle against crosstown foe Big Sky in 2010, played baseball at Washington State the past four years before returning to Missoula to play football for the Grizzlies.

Missoulian file

There's no surer sign that Ben Roberts is through with baseball than his answer in a light-hearted lightning round of personality questions.

It came moments after Roberts named his favorite athlete, just before describing his favorite food: If you could play one sport other than football, Ben, what would it be?

"Probably golf," says Roberts slyly.

The 6-foot-4 Missoula Sentinel graduate is about a month into his football second-coming, having transferred to Montana from Washington State this summer. He played baseball there, not football.

But after four years and a college undergraduate degree, Roberts felt the pull of home and something that could reinvigorate his once-burning passion for athletics. The Wazzu outfielder approached the Grizzly coaching staff in the spring about a change of direction, enrolling in a graduate program for the fall.

And so far Grizzly head coach Bob Stitt really likes what he sees.

"He looks good out there and we just need to get him coached up in what he needs to do as a football player," Stitt said. "It's a little different from baseball to football, but he's getting better every single day.

"You see those guys all the time coming from college basketball and going into the NFL playing tight end," continued Stitt, referencing among others former Denver Broncos star Julius Thomas, a Portland State hoops standout from 2006-10. "If you're a great athlete, it doesn't take long to get it back."

Despite just a dozen college practices, his first time playing competitive football since the fall of 2010, the redshirt senior is already making the fall camp highlight reel. He had the play of the day during the Grizzlies' first scrimmage Monday.

Roberts went full extension to haul in a pass from quarterback Makena Simis, diving into the end zone for the scrimmage's first score.

"The face mask in your way and running with pads on your shoulders, it's a little bit different," Roberts said of tracking a ball in the air. "But I guess it's the same kind of concept, laying out for a football or laying out for a baseball."

Well sort of, but there's a lot more to completing a catch than just being able to follow the ball in the air, Coach Stitt said.

"When you're an outfielder and a ball goes in the air, you've got to get your eyes on it right away," he explained. "Well in football you're not looking until you've got the corner(back) flipped and then you're gonna find the ball. ... We've got to change him up."

***

Don't count Griz defensive tackle Zach Peevey among those stunned by Roberts's gem this week.

"I saw him on the Top 10 on SportsCenter for a similar catch when he was playing at WSU," Peevey said. "So I'm not gonna act surprised, but I was happy for him."

That catch against UCLA landed at No. 4 in ESPN's nightly highlight package this past March. It's worth a quick Google, too.

Peevey went to Missoula Hellgate, overlapping during most of the years Roberts attended the Knights' crosstown rival. He can attest to the new Grizzly's sheer athleticism.

"I remember him more from basketball, man," said Peevey, a redshirt junior. "He'd be jammin' on us. And I know he broke most every record receiving in Montana.

"The people who knew who he was were real excited (when he transferred). When you play center field for a Division I baseball program for four years, you've got to be a freak athlete. We already knew he was."

Roberts caught 108 passes, a state record, in just 10 games for 1,370 yards and 12 touchdowns as a high school senior in 2010. His career total of 245 grabs is another record and he was believed to be second in career yards (3,298) and TDs (31).

He also caught 18 balls in a game against Butte in 2010, tied for the most all-time.

That was all a long time ago, Roberts can acknowledge, so it has taken a bit of time to get his football legs under him again. Not to mention adapting to the college game's elevated speed and precision.

"Knowing when to break your route and breaking your route off correctly, that's taken the most time," he said.

But the biggest adjustment has been dealing with the contact that comes with one of America's most violent sports. Nobody is trying to tackle you when you're chasing a fly ball in the outfield.

"It's a lot more physical than I remember back in high school," Roberts said, smiling at such an obvious statement. "The DBs are a little more aggressive and stuff and there's a lot more art to running routes than there was back in high school."

Roberts is still waiting on that welcome-to-football moment that he knows is coming. The first big hit, the first slow peel off the turf. But it comes with the territory, he said.

"Luckily these guys aren't out to kill me; they're my teammates," he said. "I'm sure it'll happen in a game, I'll take a good pop, but that's just how it goes."

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