Jaleel Roberts has played under Ian Shields for three seasons, but only one of those were in a Jacksonville University uniform.
Their journey began at Lenoir-Rhyne in 2014, with Shields transitioning into his new head coaching post and Jaleel uncertain about his future on the team. The young offensive lineman was forced to redshirt his freshman season, and worried how a new coaching staff would approach the setback.
"Shields came in that January, and obviously, as a freshman it was really scary having a new coach," Jaleel recounts. "He came in and I remember the first meeting. He told us, 'You guys are the right group of guys, and by the end of spring, I want you to be my guys.' By the second week, he knew everyone by name, and so did [Tom] Simi and the rest of the coaches.
"It's crazy because that year, I had just came off of injury and they gave me a chance."
That "chance" eventually led to Jaleel earning the starting position at right guard during the 2015 season.
"At LR, the football offices were in the weight room so you kind of got really close to every single coach, from Shields all the way down to the GAs. Everyone's door had to be open. It was like a family.
"I know Shields' wife and all of his kids and they know me. Simi's wife, Mrs. Kat, loves me," Jaleel smiles. "She's like my second mom. They treated all of us like this."
At both Jacksonville and Lenior-Rhyne, the coaching staff enforced a creed of WADL or 'winning all day long'. The sentiment upholds the belief of being the best not only on the field, but off of it as well, and that meant connecting with each other outside of football.
"We do our academic game plan everyday with our players, and we meet with them and spend time with them away from football," said Simi, the Dolphins' Associate Head Coach. "We're connecting with their life, and it leads to more personal interactions that are the foundation of building relationships.
"Maybe a kid's not traveling; getting to see what he does over the weekend or about his family or other things that interest him, those connections, over time, strengthens your bond."
With the Bears, Jaleel won back-to-back South Atlantic Conference championships – the 2014 campaign saw Shields guide LR to a perfect 7-0 mark in league play, its first undefeated season in 52 years – but after his coaches decided to leave for Jacksonville in 2016, Roberts knew he would finish his collegiate career in the Sunshine State.
For him, chasing a winning system, the opportunity to earn his master's degree, and the University's location were no-brainers. Home cooked meals by Mrs. Kat and hugs from Shields' children were the deciding factors.
"As far as building bonds, and not just with the offensive line, but the entire program, it begins with Coach Shields. We want it to mean more than what they did on the field for four years. You want there to be a greater impact on that young man's life," said Simi. "Obviously, winning is a big part of that, let's not kid ourselves, but it's also as [Shields] talked about. It's winning in life. When you look back on these years these are going to be special relationships."
Jaleel smiles as he recounts stories like Shields' young son running up to him during lunch at the cafeteria and offensive line cookouts at Simi's house.
"We bonded on a family level, and not just a coach to player level," said Jaleel. "When there was an opportunity to come here, I was excited to be coached under Simi, and be with Shields, and [Alan] Darlin and all of them. [Jake] Copeland is my bud, and I played with [Joe] Anderson. They all came from LR. Again, it's family."
The familiarity has helped Jaleel transition into the present.
In his first season at JU, he has started all six games at center, and is settling in nicely with his new Dolphin family.
"We have worked hard to develop a family atmosphere and a culture that quality young men will choose to be a part of," said Shields. "Jaleel is a special young man and one heck of a football player. He's a great teammate and a great fit for our program – a positive personality, high character, a serious student, passionate about the game, and a relentless competitor. His leadership and football knowledge within our system has been a real asset this season."
"He has experienced the culture that we're trying to build here," added Simi. "He's been in it, so he understands the importance of it, and sets an example. It's been a blessing to have him be in my life. He's like part of the family."
Jaleel is looking forward to "the next six weeks of guaranteed football before graduation", and hopes to stay with his Jacksonville family as a graduate assistant next year.