Just days after the death of the legendary Walter Payton, a Big Sky junior running back accomplished something no one in Division I football had ever done before.
Sacramento State's Charles Roberts, who stood just 5-foot-6, rushed for 409 yards. Yes, in one single game. No one in Division I football had ever eclipsed 400.
"I wanted to try and come out and run hard like he ran,'' Roberts said after the game, referring to Payton.
Roberts' amazing 409-yard game in a 41-20 victory over Idaho State on Nov. 6, 1999 ranks 26th on the list of the Big Sky Conference's "50 Greatest Men's Moments.''
The Big Sky's all-time leading rusher rarely wanted to come out of a game. Late in the Idaho State game, however, was one of those times.
"I knew I had run for a lot of yards because I was tired enough,'' Roberts recalled. "I had no idea I was approaching a record. Coach (John) Volek told me I wasn't coming out, that I was on the verge of history."
"That's exactly right,'' said Volek, Sacramento State's head coach from 1995-2003. "We were winning the game, but it wasn't a blowout against Idaho State. I wasn't feeling good yet. I brought him over, and asked him if he had some more. He looked at me, and said, 'Yep.' He never denied me. He always knew I was looking out for him, at least I hope he did.''
Roberts carried the ball 39 times and set a school record with five touchdown runs. He scored two 1-yard TD runs, added another from 18 yards out, and hit big from 59 and 69 yards.
In the first quarter, Roberts had 10 carries for 97 yards. At halftime, he had 179 yards. His biggest quarter came in the third when he busted off the 69-yard TD run, added a 33-yard jaunt, and finished the 15 minutes with 138 yards to hike his total to 317 with 15 minutes to play.
On his first carry of the fourth quarter, he scored on an 18-yard touchdown run. On his next touch, he raced 59 yards for a touchdown to put him at 394 yards.
With that run, he broke the single-game I-AA record of 379 yards set by Siena's Reggie Green against St. John's in 1996. Kansas' Tony Sands held the I-A record of 396 yards, set in 1991 against Missouri.
The Hornets led 38-20 at that point, and more than 12 minutes remained in the game.
"We weren't trying to rub it in or anything,'' Roberts said. "But I think Idaho State was frustrated. I started taking some hits that wouldn't be allowed in today's game. I was happy Coach Volek kept me in the game. I only had one opportunity for this, and a lot of us never get that.''
Roberts eclipsed the 400-yard mark with a 7-yard run in the fourth quarter, putting him at 401. He carried the ball five more times for eight yards.
Sacramento State rushed the ball 57 times for a total of 470 yards. The Hornets finished with 608 yards of total offense. Quarterback Ricky Ray, who is still a star in the Canadian Football League, threw for 112 yards.
Roberts is quick to give credit to his offensive line, which went by the nickname "The Hammerheads." The unit consisted of Jon Osterhout, Doug Hollingsworth, Lonie Paxton, Terance Wager, Tim Conley, tight end Chris Kelly and fullback Mike Wooster. Paxton earned three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots.
"I had NFL-type lineman blocking for me,'' Roberts said. "The focal point of our offense was running the ball, especially prior to Ricky Ray getting there. We were running the ball, and everyone knew it. It wasn't a big surprise."
The 409 yards remain the most ever in a single-game by a Big Sky back. A couple of weeks later LaDanian Tomlinson of TCU became the first I-A back to rush for 400, gaining 406 against UTEP. On Oct. 6, 2001, Maruice Hicks of North Carolina A&T broke Roberts' Division I record by gaining 437 yards against Morgan State.
Roberts finished his collegiate career with 6,553 rushing yards, a Big Sky record. In 1998, he rushed for 2,260 yards, the most ever at the time by a I-AA running back. In 1999, he gained 2,082.
After his college career, he starred for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL. He is one of five running backs in league history to rush for more than 10,000 yards. Roberts currently works for the U.S. Postal Service in Orange County.
"I haven't looked at that game in many years,'' he said. "But a lot of the runs I still remember. I remember diving into the end zone on one of the runs. I remember a small blip on ESPN. It was a really exciting time for me.''