EAST LANSING – She was always “the big girl” right from the start. In kindergarten, she towered over the boys. By second grade, she was shopping in the women’s shoe department. At her 11th birthday party, the McDonald’s manager banned her from the play area, saying, “It’s only for kids.” And at her senior prom, she was seven inches taller than her date – and that was after she removed her heels.
“I remember as a kid thinking, Is this ever going to stop?’ Will I keep growing? Will I always be bigger than everybody?”
She pauses, then laughs.
“I was a little self-conscious.”
But big girl, big dreams. Kelli Roehrig now may be too tall for the carnival rides she was once the only one tall enough to ride, but she has compensated. Go ask the women who have to play against her on the basketball court. Go ask Janel McCarville from Minnesota, one the most dominant players in the Big Ten, who faced Kelli in the tournament final and finished 1-for-17 from the floor. One-for-17?
Go ask any of the college teams now charting a collision course with top-seeded Michigan State in the NCAA basketball tournament. Who would want to face Kelli Roehrig these days?
Well, actually, anyone would, as long as it is like this, across the table in a lounge in the Breslin Center. There, sitting down, dressed in Spartan green from head to toe, she is just another blonde-haired, bright-eyed, easy-to-make-laugh college senior, whose disposition is as sunny as a cloudless sky over her native Nebraska plains.
“Oh, I wanted to be the cute little girl, sure,” says the 6-foot-4 center. “The cute clothes. Cute shoes. But I was just too tall. I mean, my prom dress? I had to have my mom’s friend make it. The other dresses only reached my calves!”
She’s no ogre, of course
Roehrig comes from pretty big stock. In fact, if bloodlines were trees, she’d be a redwood. Her father, a firefighter, is
6-feet-11 and played pro ball in Germany. Her mother, a nurse, is “only” 5-9. Given the DNA, she’s a logical midway point between parents.
She also has inherited both the courage and the patience of their respective professions. It isn’t easy to go through life looking down at craned necks, especially as a young woman.
“The worst assumption people make is that I’m mean,” she says. “They see my size and they think I’m beastly. That I’m Shrek-like.”
“Have you ever played up to that image?” she is asked.
“Oh, no!” she says, exploding in laughter. “No, no. I really don’t have a mean bone in my body. Except maybe when I get on the basketball court.”
If you called Kelli Roehrig on the phone, you might guess, from her high, girlish voice, that she was a slight, bouncy, excitable college kid. And she is. She just happens to be inside the body of a 200-pound-plus center on a highly ranked basketball team. Her defense, her rebounding, and her ability to get the ball and make the classic big man’s turn -er, big woman’s turn – have made her stock rise not only as a college force, but as a potential pro player.
“I don’t think it’s hit me that any game now could be my last at Michigan State,” says Roehrig, who is averaging 13.7 points and 7.5 rebounds. “I’m not ready for it to end yet.”
She won’t talk any trash, either
Once, in high school, Kelli scored 42 points in a game – more than the entire opposing team. She got used to being the biggest player on the court and making lots of “two-foot shots.”
When she arrived at MSU, she was, by her own admission, “pretty naïve.” But a few years ago, “there was this girl who played for Northwestern, and she was really rough. She pulled on my jersey, elbowed my back, kneed me in the thighs.
“I didn’t say anything. But I remember thinking, Is this how it’s going to be up here?’ “
It was. And she adapted. She is bigger, stronger – and faster – than she ever was.
Still her small suburban Nebraska roots won’t let her get too down and dirty. She won’t trash talk, for example.
But she will talk. One of those small but wonderful moments in college sports comes after the games, when tall, gawky teenagers wait for Kelli in the tunnel, and lament being female and being so big.
“I always tell them, Listen, I know it’s really hard right now, but you see what I’m doing, right? Whatever you have a passion for, keep doing. Don’t worry about your height. You have to think of yourself as beautiful or nobody else will.’ “
After basketball, Kelli hopes to teach elementary school. She is asked what she would do if, in her first class, there was a 6-foot girl with a size-10 shoe.
“I think,” she says, smiling, “I’d have to take her under my wing.”
It’s a big wing, with a lot to offer.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).