He fell off the map and resurfaced in an obituary. The short, sad saga of Charles Rogers reached its final frame Monday, when news broke that he had died at 38, reportedly due to cancer and liver issues. Few fans who once cheered him had any idea where he was.
Rogers had never been an overly verbal guy, more like an athlete whose speed and hands did the talking. But his derailed legacy speaks even louder than his gifts, and his early departure from this earth should be a cautionary tale to all athletes who think the world is at their feet.
Because for a brief moment in Charles Rogers’ career, it was.
He came out of Michigan State with more records and trophies than you could fit in a moving van: the Biletnikoff Award and Warfield Trophy as best college receiver in the county, first-team All American, all kinds of Spartan statistical accolades. He was a local kid out of Saginaw who’d stayed local in going to MSU. He’d already fathered two children by the time he got to college, and tested positive for marijuana twice while a Spartan. But hometown stars are often beloved no matter what. And he was.
Then the Lions chose him second overall in the 2003 NFL draft — keeping him right at home — and he signed a nearly $40 million contract with $14.4 million guaranteed.
“We were supposed to be together for a decade,” recalled a stunned Joey Harrington, when I spoke to him from Oregon on Monday.
Harrington was the Lions’ young-gun quarterback at the time, a No. 1 pick himself heading into his second season. Suddenly, he had an equally shiny new weapon.
“He was gonna be my guy. They wrote stories about us. I still remember our first game together, against Arizona. He was great.”
Rogers caught two touchdown passes in that debut. The Lions won big. And Detroit fans were humming, “This could be the start of something big. …”
Rise and fall
Rogers would only last four more games that year before breaking his collarbone. He came back the following year and broke it again on the third play of the season. He was so down about that second injury, that Matt Millen, then the general manager, rather than force Rogers to be around a team he couldn’t play for, allowed him to go home for the season.
In effect, he never really came back.
Oh, sure, he played a handful of games the next season. But his luster was gone. He was no longer the shiny object, no longer Detroit’s newest pro football salvation. Instead, he was that worst of labels: “controversial.”
His effort and practice habits were questioned. To make things worse, his long battle with substance abuse reared its head, and Rogers failed drug tests, prompting the Lions to begin demanding part of his signing bonus back.
He was eventually cut from the team in 2006, and the downward spiral continued. There were arrests for assault and battery (charges later dropped) and jail time for violating probation. He was found once by police passed out and intoxicated inside his car. Another time, he was passed out in a restaurant.
Eventually, years later, he made his way to Florida, and was working in an auto repair shop in the Fort Myers area.
And Monday, as details leaked out, it appeared he was suffering from cancer and liver disease and awaiting a liver transplant. His former high school football coach told MLive.com he’d spoken to Rogers over the weekend from a hospital and Rogers had said, “he was going to the Lord.”
Perhaps then, with its last bend, his journey finally turned uplifting.
‘He was a good person’
Because until that point, Rogers was both the best and the worst that can happen when blessed with athletic skill. The pressure of keeping it up. The millions of eyeballs when you play in your home state. The temptations you can fall into. The belief that the magic carpet is never going to hit the ground.
And then it does.
“I’d want people to know that he was a good person,” Harrington recalled. “I cannot get the image out of my head of his incredible smile, the moment he showed up in the locker room, even with all the stories about his issues already out there. As the local kid, he had so much on his shoulders, but he s
till had just this awesome smile.
“I think all the negative stuff, it was a byproduct of the things that were put on his plate that most of us don’t have to deal with.”
That includes all the pressure of becoming — and remaining — a star in your own backyard. Who knows if Rogers’ burden might have been easier had he not been selected so high in the draft, or by the Lions. Many have pondered that over the years.
It’s moot now.
Charles Rogers had more talent than most. He had more opportunities than most. He had more pressure than most. He had more money than most. None of it, in the end, saved him from a washout tag and a shortened fate.
“Nothing is promised.” It’s a line you hear athletes use all the time. But saying it and believing it are two different things. If any good can come from the too-short flameout of Rogers, a once eye-blinking talent, it’s that some kid with rockets for legs who is out there right now, catching footballs and turning heads, hears his story.
And realizes it could be his.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.