Gilman graduate Jelani Roberts talks about his football and track seasons. (Tom Worgo, Baltimore Sun Media Group)
Gilman senior Jelani Roberts doesn't appear to be your typical star athlete -- given his 5-foot-8, 160-pound frame and low-key demeanor.
"He is not an overwhelming physical specimen," Gilman track and field coach Johnnie Foreman said. "If you would look at him, you would say, 'This kid is too short and he is this and he's that.' Then he will blow you away."
With his speed, that is.
The 2015 Baltimore Messenger Male Athlete of the Year won four Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference indoor and outdoor sprint championships as a senior.
He also scored 16 touchdowns as a wide receiver, running back and kick returner for the Gilman football team.
Roberts has been clocked at 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
"He might be the fastest guy I have coached in 18 years," said Gilman football coach Biff Poggi, whose Greyhounds have won 11 Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championships during that span. "He is not just a straight forward blazer. He is very agile and can really cut. If you look at the tapes from last fall, he was a real workhorse."
Roberts chose to play football at Northwestern University in Illinois over offers from Boston College, Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Navy.
He carried a 3.94 grade point average and plans to major in engineering.
"I just wanted to play football at the highest level," Roberts said of the Big 10 Conference.
"He really worked on getting stronger," the coach said. "He could physically withstand more and that was the biggest difference from his junior year."
Gilman associate football coach Henry Russell said Roberts was a role model for younger players.
"His work ethic is just unbelievable," Russell said. "He works harder than anybody in practice. He takes every rep like it's the real thing. In the weight room, he pushes himself to the limit. He doesn't say a word. He just brings his lunch pale and goes to work."
Roberts had hopes this spring of breaking the track and field MIAA records in the 100 (10.54) and 200 (21.54) meters set by McDonogh graduate and former Maryland player Darius Heyward-Bey.
Heyward-Bey has played in the NFL for the last six years with Oakland, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh as a wide receiver.
"He is definitely a guy who is legendary for his speed around this area," Roberts said. "I really wanted to take a shot at breaking his records. It was in the back of my mind all season. I was close to his records."
Roberts best times were 10.68 and 21.60.
Running that fast made Roberts one of the top track athletes in the MIAA.
He won league championships in the 100 and 200 in mid-May to help the Greyhounds take the team title.
"He is just a winner," Foreman said. "He can just really execute. As he moves onto college, everyone is bigger, stronger and faster. But knowing Jelani, he will work his rear end off until he is the best."
Foreman was tempted to use Roberts in the long jump.
"I would have loved to have tried him because of his trajectory of when he hits and takes off," the coach said. "He had slight injuries all spring long so we had to back off on some training."
Roberts' stellar spring season followed a winter season that saw him repeat as MIAA champion in the 55 dash. He ran in the 300 dash for the first time and won a title in that event, too.
Roberts talks about tying Heyward-Bey's time of 6.2 in the 55 in a regular-season indoor meet against Loyola Blakefield in mid-December.
Whether it was track or football, Gilman coaches constantly rave about Roberts' athletic ability.
Russell, who also coaches the Greyhounds' linebackers, and said the Gilman coaching staff though seriously about using Roberts on defense.
"His jumping ability is crazy," Russell said. "You see him do squats in the weight room and you are like, 'Oh my God.' He is just an incredible athlete. He has to be one of the top athletes Gilman has ever had. We will just miss him big time."