BIG GUY, BIG GAME, BIG HEART
Before all of the very legitimate oohing and ahhing over the man-among-boys stature of Miami Heat forward LeBron James, there was an incredible hulk of a guy named Rodney Rogers.
“He was 6-7, but he played like he was 7 feet,” former Wake Forest running back John Leach said.
Leach was tearing up turf on Saturdays when Rogers was the big man on campus at Wake Forest.
“To know Rodney Rogers is to know humbleness and humility,” Leach said. “He didn’t act like a star.
“Once he left the court, he was just Rodney all over again.”
Rogers averaged 19.3 points a game at Wake Forest, where he was the rookie of the year in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1991. He was the ACC player of the year in 1993, when the Denver Nuggets made him the ninth pick of the NBA draft. Rogers played for several teams during a 12-year career that included his distinction as the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2000.
Now Rogers is poised for membership in the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, joining the 2014 class that includes Eddie Biedenbach, A. J. Carr, Bob Colvin, Randy Denton, Lee Gliarmis and Marshall Happer. Bob Waters and Frank Weedon are entering posthumously.
Biedenbach coached at Davidson and UNC-Asheville and now is an assistant coach at UNC-Wilmington. Carr is known as a veteran sportswriter and was a fine athlete at Wallace-Rose Hill High School. Colvin as a coach won 11 state championships at Robbinsville High School in western North Carolina. Denton played basketball at Enloe High School in Raleigh and was a center at Duke University before playing professionally in the ABA, the NBA and Italy. Gliarmis was invited to play both basketball and soccer at North Carolina before a fantastic career as a football coach at Fike High School in Wilson. Happer, from Kinston, was a two-time state champion in tennis. Waters, regarded as the NFL’s first shotgun quarterback in his No. 2 role with the San Francisco 49ers, coached at Western Carolina University for 20 seasons. Weedon was the longtime sports-information director at N.C. State.
Those men will be enshrined May 9 at the Raleigh Convention Center.
In 2008, Rogers was paralyzed from the neck down during a dirt-bike accident. He’s since established a foundation to help other people with spinal-cord injuries.
Which is exactly who Rogers is — that guy who’s always looking out for other people, according to those who know him.
Rogers grew up in Durham’s McDougald Terrace. That’s public housing. There were a lot of rough situations there that could have stopped him from dreaming. But he pushed past that, like he’s doing now in his paralysis.
Former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom knew he’d landed a big one when he got Rogers.
“I know I speak for Wake Forest as a university in saying that we are so proud of Rodney’s induction in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. It is highly, highly, deserved,” said Odom, himself a member of that club.
Odom said Rogers was the first notable McDonald’s All-American that he’d successfully recruited to Wake Forest, and that let guys like future San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan know that the school was serious about winning championships.
“Rodney’s legacy as a Wake Forest player affected everybody, including Tim,” Odom said. “(Rogers) was our first big recruit.
“Randolph Childress will tell you that he’s the reason that he came.”
Childress was a Wake Forest guard who could score in bunches.
Larry Parrish was the head coach at Southern High School when his Spartans beat Rogers and the Hillside Hornets.
“But let me tell you the rest of the story — he was a freshman,” Parrish said. “He was a freshman, and we got him in foul trouble.”
Parrish said he’s bumped into Rogers over the years. Rogers never forgot him, Parrish said.
“He’s a class person,” Parrish said.
“He was that gentle giant,” Leach said.
Not on the basketball floor.
“He was a beast on that court, now,” Leach said.
Rogers had this habit of slam dunking on dudes, Leach said.
Yet Rogers had a total game, Leach said.
“You really didn’t know anything about his outside game until he got to the NBA,” Leach said.
Odom said Rogers’ outside game wasn’t ready for prime time when he arrived at Wake Forest, although opposing teams certainly would have had an easier time guarding him out there on the perimeter, Odom said.
But it wasn’t like Rogers was demanding more touches outside the paint, Odom said.
“Every situation is determined by need, and Rodney was in the first recruiting class that I had at Wake Forest,” Odom said. “We needed a physical presence inside, and Rodney had one of those God-given bodies that you just didn’t want to mess with.”
Rogers was a 235-pound Demon Deacon.
“He was just a very unselfish player — very, very unselfish, unassuming, always concerned of what was best for our team,” Odom said.
From time to time, there is talk about how “King James” would have been this terrific tight end for somebody’s football team.
Well, Rogers put on the pads at Hillside. Leach was a linebacker for Garner High School when both he and Rogers were juniors. And there was a play when Rogers peeled off the line of scrimmage from his tight end position and reached out and touched Leach.
“He blocked me out of the wide camera angle,” Leach recalled.
Leach is 41 years old. He still remembers that hit.
“And the (Hillside) quarterback got hurt, and (Rogers) played quarterback,” Leach said. “He threw one ball — and he was off balance — and he threw it 60 yards downfield, lefty.
“When you talk about one of the most gifted athletes to come through North Carolina, that’s Rodney Rogers.”