ORONO — Raibonne Charles loves being outdoors, surrounded by the natural beauty of his home state.
He intends to immerse himself in it after graduation by putting his forestry degree to work in the Maine woods.
In the meantime, he’s spending fall afternoons outside — albeit on the artificial FieldTurf of Morse Field — with the University of Maine football team.
The fifth-year senior from Windham will don his “work clothes” and take a lunch-pail mentality into Alfond Stadium on Saturday as the Black Bears open their Colonial Athletic Association schedule with a 3 p.m. game against longtime rival Delaware.
“If we don’t show up in conference play, it doesn’t really matter,” Charles said of UMaine’s solid 2-1 start. “The real football starts on Saturday.”
Charles is a stalwart defensive tackle for UMaine, where he is a third-year starter for coach Jack Cosgrove.
At 6 feet, 245 pounds, Charles is among the smallest interior defensive linemen in the CAA. Yet he doesn’t mind spending Saturdays among the “trees,” opposing offensive linemen who routinely stand 4-6 inches taller and outweigh him by 40-60 pounds.
“You’ve just got to play with good technique,” offered Charles, who ranks fifth on the team with 15 tackles. “One thing I always try to do is outwork my opponent and out-effort him.”
Coming out of Windham High, Charles wasn’t offered a scholarship from UMaine. That year’s instate recruiting class included other high-profile players in Jared Turcotte of Lewiston and Chris Treister of Cape Elizabeth (Portland High).
Cosgrove said UMaine targets defensive linemen who are at least 6-2 or 6-3 and 250-260 pounds.
“He was a guy that was a little undersized to play offensive line or defensive line and probably not as skilled,” he said.
Not swayed by scholarship offers from Division II programs in the Northeast-10 Conference, Charles was eager to prove himself at UMaine, which agreed to let him walk on as a nonscholarship player.
Within a year of his arrival, Charles was a starter at defensive tackle. A scholarship soon followed.
“He asked for the opportunity and based upon his desire, his determination, we gave him that chance,” Cosgrove said. “He’s really been one of the great stories, at least since I’ve been here.”
Charles’ success is rooted in his hard work and the relentless pursuit of perfection in what he does.
Charles said his parents, Raibonne and Pamela, have set the example for him.
“My parents are very hardworking people,” Charles said. “They were always doing the best they could to provide for me and my siblings. Seeing that, it was very inspiring for me to work hard.”
Charles is passionate about representing not only his family, but his hometown, the university and the state. He relishes putting on his “hard hat,” lining up and putting his hand on the ground.
“We have a very special dynamic of people here — blue-collar, hardworking people — loggers, paper mill people; a lot of people who don’t always have a lot, don’t always make a lot, but always make due with what they have,” Charles said.
Cosgrove said whatever Charles lacked in size he has made up for with hard work and perseverance.
“He’s learned, studied and developed his technique and he’s become a master of it, which is what you do when you’re not big enough, fast enough or strong enough,” he said.
Charles also has made himself into a good student, despite having arrived at UMaine as what Cosgrove called a “borderline admit” because of his grades and test scores. His love of the outdoors led him to the rigorous forestry program.
Despite being cautioned about the rigors of the major, Charles tackled it head on.
“He made it work there, too,” Cosgrove said. “He works just as hard in the classroom. He knows what he can do and he knows that he can do it.”
Defensive line play is in Charles’ blood. His younger brother Carlton, who is a sophomore at UMaine, started on the line but has been moved to fullback.
Two of the Charles’ cousins, Michael Larro of Rutgers (father’s family) and Jamaul Christopher of Delaware (mother’s family), also play on the defensive line.
Charles relishes his role as a senior for the Black Bears. He’s more of a show-me leader.
“If you do the right things, you’re a leader,” he said. “I think your actions are more important than anything you ever say.”
Charles credits his church pastors over the years and his parents with instilling in him a strong sense of personal values. He pointed to his faith as a key component of his moral fiber.
“I always realized what I had and I’m a strong believer that if God gives you a gift, you’re supposed to maximize it,” he said.
Charles is driven to help UMaine achieve success on the field in this, his final season.
Upon graduation in May, he envisions himself heading into the woods to work as a logging contractor. He also will spend time pursuing the elusive white-tailed deer.
“It’s real peaceful,” he said.
Cosgrove is pleased Charles has excelled at the Division I level despite seemingly long odds.
“We take risks on guys, but Rai wasn’t really a risk because we didn’t put any money into it (initially),” he said. “This is even a greater reward for us and, I hope, for him as well.”