You'll never make it.

The words have resonated with Mike Roland from the day he first talked about playing major college football.

"A lot of people didn't believe in me," the 2015 LaPorte graduate said.

Three-plus years later, the former Slicers backup is bound for Division II power West Alabama, by way of College of the Desert in California, and he's not the least bit inclined to tell the skeptics, I told you so.

He's too happy.

"It's been a long journey, lots of ups and downs," the 6-foot-3, 300-pound offensive lineman said. "There was a point in my life when I didn't think I'd play again. I thought I was done. Football's my passion, so it was sort of hard for a while. Just having someone believe in me and want me means the world to me and my family."

There were no real gripes over his time at LaPorte. Roland was grateful to be a part of the memorable run to the 5A state finals. While he thought he should have played more and was overlooked at times, he can't say he wasn't given a chance. Barely seeing the Lucas Oil Stadium turf in a 56-7 loss to Indianapolis Cathedral did hurt.

"I'm a competitor. It was hard to watch, thinking it might be the last time I'd be playing," he said. "I wanted to be on the field."

In a few months' time, Roland posted a senior tape and began looking into junior college possibilities. Ironically, it was a player from rival Michigan City, Java Oliver, who messaged him about College of Desert, an NAIA last resort type of place in a league with no scholarships.

"He said, it's tough, it's not what you think it is, but it's a second chance if you want to keep playing," Roland said. "We were crazy rivals and ended up roommates for two years. Now we're really good friends."

For a period of time, Roland and five others shared a two-bedroom apartment with sketchy electricity. He had to float a loan to make ends meet. Critics were saying it was a waste of time and while Roland wavered, he didn't listen to the voices.

"My mom was really opposed to it," he said. "A lot of kids come out here and it's too much to deal with. They can't handle it, they give up and go home. You're on your own, hundreds of miles away, eventually people stop caring. I wasn't one to come out here and fall short. I found out who I was."

Roland was thrown right into the deep end. Quarterback Steven Johnson, who started his college career at Kentucky, provided invaluable guidance to the 18-year old kid. He held his own in his first game, blocking a Division I bounce-back from LSU, and his ability to play all three line positions has served him well.

"I'm a details guy," Roland said. "I love knowing my reads. I'll play whatever they want to earn a spot. They gave me a role and I jumped into it. I learned and just kept developing."

Another hurdle popped up when Roland tore meniscus in right knee. He finished out the season playing and not practicing. His subsequent arthroscopic surgery went well, but Roland veered off course during his red-shirt sophomore season.

He came home during the winter, fueling the naysayers who said he was going to bail and fail. His coaches were unhappy and Roland even considered transferring before he thought better of it.

"I'm a social kid. I had to realize what I wanted to do, keep playing football or being around my friends," Roland said. "I had to face facts, buckle down and focus on myself. I started training with people. There are people here, teachers who really care, who have done wonders. Professor (Heather) Benes helped me figure out what I wanted to do in life. I learned how to study right, how to do what I had to do. I'm really grateful. If I leave with my associate's degree, my mom will be happy."

As Roland got back onto the field, four-year schools began to take notice. He took an unofficial visit to Fresno State. Northern Colorado, Emporia State and Morehouse College all showed degrees of interest with Delaware State coming into the picture just before Roland took the West Alabama offer.

"I'm blessed with a full scholarship," he said. "There were some tough times. When I told my dad, I could tell how happy he was."

UWA was 10-3 last season and reached the D-II national quarterfinals. Roland will report to the Livingston campus in early July.

"Mike Roland is an excellent example of what is right about high school athletics." LaPorte offensive line coach Bob James said. "Although he never really accomplished much while he was with the Slicers, he never gave up on his dream of earning a college scholarship to play football. The University of West Alabama made that dream a reality for Mike and we couldn't be more proud."

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at james.peters@nwi.com.


Sports reporter

Jim was keeping standings on his chalkboard from the time he could print and keeping kickball stats in grade school at St. Bridget's. He covers all manner of prep sports for The Times and is a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan.