North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
When an athlete plays with passion and shows resilience in the face of adversity, especially when it comes to overcoming obstacles such as a lack of size, he or she is said to “play with heart.”
Brian Roberts is one of those athletes, in more ways than one.
When he was 2 years old, Roberts was diagnosed with an atrial septal defect, a hole in his heart. He had open-heart surgery to repair the problem when he was 5.
Roberts needed all the heart he could muster as an athlete. Not only did he have to overcome those early health issues, but he was also small in stature at 5-foot‑9 and barely 170 pounds. His size kept many college baseball coaches from taking a chance on him and offering him a scholarship despite a standout career at Chapel Hill High School.
The only offer he got was from his father, who happened to be the coach at North Carolina at the time.
As it turned out, Mike Roberts’ faith in his son was more than just fatherly love. As a freshman for the Tar Heels, Brian broke school records with 102 hits and 47 stolen bases while hitting .427 with eight home runs and 44 RBI. He was named national Freshman of the Year by the Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. A year later, he earned ACC Player of the Year and first-team All-American honors by hitting .353 with 13 homers, 49 RBIs, 21 doubles and 63 steals.
When his father was fired by UNC after his sophomore year, Roberts transferred to South Carolina where he put together another All-American season while setting an SEC record with 67 steals. He was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the first round of the June 1999 draft, made his major league debut two years later against the New York Mets, and by 2005, he was an All-Star for the first time.
The switch-hitting Roberts played 13 seasons with the Orioles, leading the American League in stolen bases and earning a second All-Star selection in 2007, setting a franchise record with 51 doubles in 2008 and being named the team’s Most Valuable Player in 2009. He was later inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame.
After playing one final season with the New York Yankees, he rejoined the Orioles as a member of their broadcast team. As a way of helping others overcome the kind of obstacles he did, Roberts and his wife, Diana, have also raised more than $750,000 for the University of Maryland Hospital for Children.