Charles Rogers walked into the Michigan State University football building for the first time in 15 years on a cold cloudy day last November.
He'd been reluctant to return to the campus where he’d been a star, worried that the disappointments were all anybody would remember.
Without prompting from former MSU teammate TJ Duckett, he might not have come.
“I was facing my fear, bro,” Rogers said, skinny now, emphatically throwing his tattooed arms into the air.
But inside the Skandalaris Football Center that day, he and Duckett found themselves in front of a pillar encased in glass. Rogers' photo was inside along with a replica of the 2002 Biletnikoff Trophy, given to the nation’s top wide receiver.
Two of his former coaches, Mark Dantonio and Ken Mannie, were in the building. Mannie, the Spartans strength coach, greeted him with a hug.
“It was a beautiful thing,” Rogers said, wiping a tear off his left cheek. “It took so much off my shoulders, man. The joy I felt to see everybody, and no one throwing judgment on you was like I never left. I was just touched. I was in tears, man. I was really crying. Just the shit I have been through, I didn’t know how they would respond to me.”
“They said, 'MSU is your home. You are always welcome.'”
That was the moment Rogers realized he wasn’t alone, Duckett said.
“No matter what happened or what he thinks is the worst possible thing, that’s not the case," he said. "There are a lot of people who still care and love him. I could see him and what it meant to him.”
The trophy case was a reminder of what Rogers once was. Of spectacular leaping touchdown grabs and roaring crowds at Spartan Stadium on Saturdays. Of the fact that, in two seasons, he hauled in 135 passes for 2,821 yards and a school record 27 touchdowns.
“Meet college football’s best player” it read in bold white letters.
It was the smaller headline on the front that kept Rogers away for all these years.
“Size. Speed. Hands. Charles Rogers has it all – including a very bright future in the NFL.”
That was true — once.
A fallen star
His business card says he’s the general manager, but, admittedly, he doesn’t know much about cars.
He’ll help with taping up wheels for painting or help lift a motor here and there, but as far as day-to-day maintenance, Rogers said he likes to be more of a “PR guy” for the shop, which is owned by his childhood friend Mel Washington.
The building is painted black, scalding hot to the touch in the Florida sun and surrounded by a privacy fence and razor wire. Rogers is eager to show off a pair of pit bulls that sit in a cage on the hot concrete out back. There are more dogs inside that he glowingly refers to as “the hyenas.”
“You can’t touch these ones.” He smiled.
Rogers is 35 now. He’s wearing $600 shorts and a Wal-Mart T-shirt. He has tattoos on his arms that together spell out "Sag Nasty," an homage to his hometown. He is nearly 30 pounds down from his MSU playing weight of 205. He is shaky. His hands never seem to stay still.
He was the No. 2 pick in the 2003 NFL Draft. He signed a $39.5 million contract with the Detroit Lions. It included a guaranteed signing bonus of $14.4 million.
That party has been over for a while.
He says injuries derailed his career: two broken collarbones in his first two seasons with the Lions. But a pain-killer addiction, coupled with failed drug tests and NFL suspensions for marijuana use aided his premature exit from the league. He is considered one of the biggest busts in NFL history.
He still smokes marijuana every day. In his mind, injuries and Vicodin ended his career. Marijuana didn’t.
The auto shop, he says, is his first “real job.” He likes it.
Around the corner is Basil’s, a pizza and sub shop near the end of a long strip mall where he goes to play Mortal Kombat and drink free soda on his breaks.
Sitting at a high-top table, leaning forward on a bar stool, he wanted to chat about the past and how he got here.
It’s empty now. But it was once the site of a middle-class home in the heart of a blue-collar neighborhood.
Beagle hunting dogs roamed the backyard. The trees near the sidewalk served as a blockade from the busy traffic that made its way down Hess Avenue from the other side of the Saginaw River.
Rogers’ maternal grandparents, Benjamin and Eula Rogers, lived there. It used to be his safe place.
“My grandfather raised me,” Rogers said. “He was my rock.”
Like most in the neighborhood, Benjamin Rogers worked for General Motors. He was a church-going man. Rogers said he brought structure to his life. Benjamin Rogers also loved to hunt and fish, something he passed down to his oldest grandson.
Rogers' relationship with his mother was more chaotic. Cathy Rogers did a brief stint in prison for welfare fraud when Rogers was just 6. He said his mother was never the same after she was released. Sometimes he would stay with her on the north side of town.
In 2012, Rogers was arrested for threatening his mother after he said she “stole” $100,000 from him. According to a police report, he threatened to “blow her mouth out” and said he was willing to do “the time” for it. The only time he did for the threat and a handful of other misdemeanor charges was a short stint in a rehab facility.
“I have a problem with that,” he said. “I said some things, I was hot.”
They still don’t speak.
Cathy Rogers didn't respond to messages sent through Facebook and over email.
Don Durrett, Rogers’ football coach at Saginaw High School, remembers the bickering. Rogers and his mother both leaned on the coach for guidance from time to time.
It wasn't until three years after Rogers graduated from high school that Saginaw became the most violent city in America. But it was already on its way.
“One side of town is for guys who like to shoot, the other for thieves,” said Washington, Rogers’ close friend and now his boss. He said he joined the Sunny Side gang as a kid, got shot in the back when he was a teenager. One brother was murdered in a drive-by shooting. The other brother was shot in the neck and paralyzed.
“If you make it past 25, it’s a blessing,” Washington said. “Saginaw is bad. Now, it’s even worse. I come from the bottom of the streets. South Saginaw is the worst neighborhood in America.”
At Saginaw High School, photos of Rogers still hang in the hallways. A large yellow banner on the gymnasium wall features his No. 22 jersey and celebrates his status as a high school All-American.
Draymond Green and LaMarr Woodley are the only other athletes to have their jerseys retired at Saginaw High.
Inside Durrett’s office, an old newspaper clipping sits just below the clock. “Home Groan” is the headline. The photo shows Rogers breaking a tackle in his Lions’ uniform.
Not a day goes by that Durrett doesn’t think about Rogers. He called him the best athlete to ever come out of the city. No one comes close in his eyes. Track coach DeEddie Sanders agrees. So does Woodley.
“We used to just throw it out there, and he would go get it,” Durrett said, inside his office at the high school, where he now serves as a behavioral specialist. “He made us proud.”
Woodley, who went on to play linebacker at the University of Michigan and spent eight years in the NFL, was a freshman at Saginaw when Rogers was a senior. They were teammates for one season, but Woodley said he was Rogers' fan more than his friend.
He said he will never forget the stands being filled with college coaches and the day Rogers’ number was retired. He wanted that for himself. He thought of Rogers as a role model.
“I will always be a fan of Charles Rogers,” Woodley said from his home in Novi. “That will never change. The things he showed me, positively and negatively, had an effect on my life. I made it because Charles Rogers motivated me. He is the best athlete I have ever seen. He is a great guy and helped a lot of people.”
Rogers has yet to be inducted into the Saginaw County Sports Hall of Fame. Durrett has sent the paperwork to Rogers, but never receives an answer. He is on the ballot again this year. Durrett hasn't heard from him.
The Hall of Fame is housed in the Castle Museum on the outskirts of downtown. It features photos, trophies and jerseys from the best athletes to come out of Saginaw. The 1999 state championship Trojan football team led by Rogers is enshrined there. It's still the only state title in the program's history. Rogers is front and center in the photo that dominates the Saginaw High showcase, smiling and holding up his left pointer finger.
There is also a photo of Rogers taken when he signed with the Lions. Holding up his Honolulu blue jersey, it was the biggest day of his life. It’s just a few rows away from a framed shot of him blazing down the track, breaking one of the two county records he set in 2000.
“Ain’t nothing but love for him around here,” Woodley said.
Trojan to Spartan
On the road in South Bend in 2001, the Spartans were tied 10-10 with less than 2:00 on the clock and facing a 3rd and 6 from the Irish 47-yard line. Quarterback Ryan Van Dyke took a four-step drop and hit Rogers on a slant pass. The rest is history. Rogers beat the entire Notre Dame secondary before leaping into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
“We had to have a play,” said Vickerson, who played defensive tackle for the Spartans from 2001 to 2004. “He went and got it. That’s Chuck Rogers.”
Rogers was the top-ranked wide receiver in the nation coming out of high school. People thought he’d land at Michigan, Florida State or Tennessee. Bobby Williams and the Spartans won him over late.
Grades and low ACT scores kept Rogers on the sidelines during his first season in East Lansing, but he proved to be worth the wait.
In two short years, he re-wrote the school’s history books. As a junior in 2002, he became the first receiver to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and broke an NCAA record, catching a touchdown pass in 13 straight games for the Spartans.
Vickerson, who spent 10 years in the NFL, has played with some of the best receivers in the league: Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Moulds. He said Rogers is still at the top of that list.
“I still tell people to this day, he was still one of the best wide receivers I ever played with,” he said. “A healthy Charles Rogers, I’ll take him over anyone.”
It was another miraculous catch against Notre Dame that cemented Rogers’ legacy. His life would change forever that week – for good and bad.
On Sept. 15, 2002, Rogers received a call that his grandfather had died.
The man who raised him, instilled discipline and taught him to hunt and fish was gone.
“I think about him every day, especially on Sundays,” Rogers said, staring down at the table inside the Fort Myers restaurant. “He was a church man. If I am going through the TV and I see a hunting show, I think about him. He is in my heart.”
He called it a money game. That November, he declared for the draft.
“I knew I was going to be drafted in the top 5 after that one,” Rogers smiled.
Benjamin Rogers wouldn't be there to see it.
The day Rogers signed with the Spartans had been one of the happiest days of his grandfather's life.
“There was a glow to him,” Rogers said. “He would go to work at GM and tell everyone about me. He got him some MSU gear. It’s something that I miss. I was his pride and joy."
Rogers was silent, just for a second.
“He was mine.”
Motor City meltdown
Rogers never Googles himself, so he didn’t know that there is a YouTube video called “Detroit Lions Fans Burn Charles Rogers Jerseys." It takes place in the parking lot outside Ford Field before a game in 2012, a way for fans to purge past draft debacles.
“You have to try and imagine the pressure he was feeling,” said Joey Harrington, a former Lions quarterback and someone who knows about the pressure of underperforming. There are also internet videos with his No. 3 jersey going up in flames. “What happened to Charles is partly his fault. You have to take ownership for your life. It’s also partly the Lions' fault. And part of it is just a fluke.”
Rogers called being drafted by Detroit a “blessing and a curse.”
The blessing: He was an NFL player, making millions of dollars, living his dream.
The curse: He was less than two hours from his hometown, which meant only 100 miles from “leeches,” people who wanted a piece of Rogers’ pie.
“It was like a party all the time,” Rogers said. “Maybe if I wasn’t close to home it would’ve been better. No distractions.”
The distractions came early and often in his rookie season.
At the NFL combine, Rogers tested positive for a urine-masking agent, which showed excess water in his diluted sample. It was later confirmed that Rogers had also failed two drug tests during his time in East Lansing.
But, a month later, his season would end with a broken right collarbone sustained during practice. He'd been the team’s leading receiver with 243 yards on 23 catches and three touchdowns, all three thrown by Harrington.
Harrington, who was selected No. 3 overall in the 2002 draft, expected “Harrington to Rogers” to become the next great pass-catch combo in the NFL. He called Rogers “unconventional,” but added that when the lights came on, he showed up. He used words like "trust." If the Lions needed to move the chains, he said, he was looking for No. 80.
Instead, they played a total of six games together.
“The times Charles was on the field, he was fantastic,” Harrington said from his home in Portland, Oregon. “Everyone talks about ‘gamers.’ Charles was the best definition of a gamer that I came across in my career. He had a knack for making big plays.”
Harrington believes Rogers’ tendency to catch the ball in his body led to his second broken collarbone, suffered during the opening game of the 2004 season. Only three offensive plays into the game, Rogers’ season was over.
“It was basic route, and instead of catching the ball with his hands, he cradled it,” Harrington said. “It put him in an awkward position, and he snapped it again. Obviously, his career went sideways and my performance went sideways because I didn’t have him on the field. We struggled on offense. Had he stayed healthy, would it have been a cure-all for all our issues? No. But things would have been on a very different trajectory.”
The Lions sent him home to regroup and rehab in the fall of 2004. That, Rogers said, is when he started down a dangerous path.
“After I got hurt, I got hooked on them damn things,” he said.
He was talking about Vicodin, an addictive pain medication.
“(The Lions) were giving them out like candy," he said. "Whatever you want, man. Whatever you want. (They) weren’t even questioning as long as you are on the field. They were passing them out like Skittles. I was straight hooked on them things for 3 or 4 years.”
Rogers’ 2005 season got off to yet another rocky start. Only this time, it was self-imposed. In October, he was suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. It meant Rogers had failed at least three drug tests. He also returned to the team overweight and without his trademark speed. A little more than a month later, the Lions filed a grievance, demanding more than $10 million of his $14.4 million signing bonus be returned for breaking his contract.
Rogers was released by the team the following September.
He is defiant when it comes to his dealings with the Lions. He said injuries, not drug abuse, derailed his future, although he admits he smoked marijuana every day in the NFL and while at MSU.
“Everybody knew I smoked,” he said, raising his voice and smacking the table. “It wasn’t a big deal. It didn’t even hinder my play. I get to Detroit, it’s a whole different story. I understand it. You can say it’s a maturity thing, but I was just playing ball. That’s probably where I went wrong at. It’s a guidance thing, man.”
The Detroit Lions did not respond to request for comment for this story.
Rogers left Detroit with millions in the bank and a Vicodin addiction.
As for as paying back the $6.1 million he still owes the Lions — the NFL Players Association negotiated the price drop — “I ain’t got nothing to pay them,” he said, shaking his head in defiance. “I am going to file for bankruptcy anyway.”
He was blowing through money, making bad investments in car washes and barber shops. He once gave a friend $10,000 to open a business and didn’t even ask what the money was for.
Rogers was arrested six times between September of 2008 to October of 2012, on charges ranging from assault and battery and probation violations to DUI, open container violations and marijuana possession.
“People like you end up in my courtroom because you are addicts,” Saginaw County District Judge A.T. Frank told Rogers at a hearing in the summer of 2012. “Not because you are bad people. You have a serious addiction problem.”
Rogers said he kicked his prescription drug habit after a stint in a Houston rehab facility and has not touched a pain pill in years. He said his last DUI in 2009 “scared him straight,” though he was arrested for alcohol-related issues two more times.
The judge "saved my life by putting me in the right situation," Rogers said.
That doesn't mean he is exactly sober.
“I don’t think marijuana was my downfall, but I can’t narrow it down, man,” he said. “I have a beer watching the game or a fight, but I smoke every day though. I smoke every day. Not even going to lie to you. But I am drug-free other than that."
He said he might also turn his love of weed into a legal venture in the future.
"You can make a lot of money off it, too," he said. "I know it inside and out."
His high school coach thinks he simply had too much freedom in Detroit.
“I wish he had someone to lean on when he was in college and the NFL,” Durrett said. “That hurts quite a bit for me sometimes. He could’ve leaned on me. I am his No. 1 fan.”
His college teammate Duckett said he was too lost in his own world to lend Rogers a helping hand.
“He struggles to ask for help,” said Duckett, who now goes by Todd. “He fell off the map. He didn’t have to contact anyone. He didn’t have to do anything. He didn’t have to talk to you or me.”
The next chapter
Rogers wasn't lonely when he was at the top. Things are different now that the money's gone.
He is bitter about the generosity he shared with the so-called friends from his old neighborhood. He got emotional talking about the support system he thought he had. The day he was drafted, Rogers bused more than 50 people from his hometown to Madison Square Garden to share in the moment with him, acknowledgment for those who helped him reach the top.
“I’ve done so much for so many people, and I can’t ask them for shit, that’s the killer. Man, that’s the killer,” he said, with a few more expletives in between. “That hurts, bro. They can’t never say Charlie Rogers was a selfish guy. I didn’t have that wisdom, man. I blew some cash.”
He learned from those mistakes, he said. He keeps his inner circle small. He has stayed out of the spotlight for nearly five years. He barely keeps in touch with old teammates and coaches. Durrett said he hears from Rogers on occasion, but it’s typically late at night and he said it often seems like Rogers has been drinking.
Rogers sees a therapist at 1 p.m. every Wednesday. He isn’t clinically depressed, but has given himself that diagnosis for years.
“Hell yes I was depressed.” His voice was emphatic.
Rogers has little family to speak of. He has eight children — four boys and four girls, ages 10 to 19 — with four different mothers. None of his children live with him in Florida, but he said he keeps in touch. He says he’s a good father, but knows that he needs to work on himself before he can play a bigger role in their lives.
He is single — kind of — he jokes, but added that he doesn’t want to settle down.
He lives with a friend in a white townhouse in a rough part of North Fort Myers. He warns that it's "the slums." It's a far cry from a $1.3 million home he once owned in Novi.
Rogers smiles and laughs with employees of the pizza restaurant. This is where he goes to “chill” and watch sports. But he admitted that, when the lights go out, he doesn’t have many people to fall back on. His phone used to ring off the hook, now, it’s mostly Sports Center updates buzzing.
Aside from Washington, Rogers said his list of allies is a short one.
“I have been my own support system,” he said. “Sometimes I sit back and shed a tear. Sometimes I feel like, where’s the love?”
Then in a soft-spoken voice, he named the one person he will always have – “Duck.”
“The years that we did not talk, that might have been how long it took me to get where I need to be,” Duckett said, fighting back tears. “We both had our struggles. It’s tough. I look back, I was fighting for my own life. Now you hear a guy that I looked up to, the guy who, when he committed to MSU, I was probably happier than the coaches … It’s hard to hear.”
Durrett isn’t buying the notion that Rogers doesn’t have anyone in his corner.
For years, his former coach has tried to lure Rogers back to Saginaw to work with kids and share his experiences the way Woodley and Green do. He has even asked Rogers to become an assistant football and track coach.
“We love him here,” Durrett said, choking back tears over the phone. “When I am praying for my family, I pray for him, too. He is always in my prayers and I think about the kid. That won’t ever go away.
“I wish the best for him. I wish I could cry with him and let his feelings out. He needs to find that explosion within and find out who Charles Rogers really is.”
But Charles Rogers is still looking.
“I am getting my life together… A fresh start,” he said as he stepped out into the Florida heat and pulled down his sunglasses. “Do I need a little love? Yeah. Am I still trying to find Charles Rogers? Yeah. I stay optimistic and positive. I’ve been to hell and back, but I stay strong. I still have faith. I’m still a young man. It ain’t over. I’m going to be all right, you know? I’m going to be all right.”
Contact Cody Tucker at (517) 377-1070 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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