Fading Charles

Imagine if the top college recruit sat out the entirety of his first college season. But not because he was injured, or because he wasn't good enough, but just because he wasn't qualified to play, didn't have the grades. Imagine if Jadeveon Clowney, instead of racking up 8 sacks and an SEC freshman of the year campaign for South Carolina football last year, had to bring cups of Gatorade to Steve Spurrier, and tallboys of beer to Stephen Garcia. Imagine if Doc Rivers showed up to all those Duke games just to see Austin Rivers stuck in dress clothes on Coach K's bench (Still apparently a better use of time than watching your other, less talented, kids, right Doc?). If that happened today, it'd be a omnipresent story all season long, a constant sub-plot brought up in television broadcasts, on blogs, and on message boards. Remember how big a deal Enes Kanter was made into? Remember how big a deal Kyrie Irving was? Now, what if that player had stuck around a few more years and become a total stud in college and a top draft pick? We'd probably never forget that. But I forgot that about Charles Rogers. It's always seemed a little too easy for most people to forget about Charles Rogers.

So it wasn't all that surprising to me when ESPN awarded the best individual seasons of the past 50 years in the Big Ten and there was no C. Rogers on the list.

MSU did have a representative:

Lorenzo White, RB, Michigan State, 1985: There are several work-horse efforts that could be included in this list, but none is more impressive than White's 1985 campaign. The Walter Camp Award winner set a Big Ten record with 419 carries and became the first Big Ten ball-carrier to eclipse 2,000 yards, piling up 2,066. He also ranks second in Big Ten Conference games in both rushing yards (1,470) and rushing average (183.7 yards per game).

But he's not the player that I would have gone with. Which is not, I want to be clear, a slight to Lorenzo White. Lorenzo White was a great college player. And he was many of the things Charles Rogers was not. Lorenzo was a four-year player, a steady, dependable, engine that powered MSU to its last Rose Bowl victory. He put up unprecedented numbers at the running back position. But since then, we've seen quite a few Big Ten players in White's workhorse running back mold: Montee Ball, Ron Dayne, Eddie George, Larry Johnson, Anthony Thompson are name checked in the article. In recent years, guys like Shonn Green, John Clay, Javon Ringer, and Mikel Leshoure have put up similar numbers with similar running styles. Lorenzo's big claim to fame is that outrageous number of carries (seriously, 419 in 12 games!) while keeping up a good YPC (4.9) instead of, you know, dying.

If you watch Lorenzo White run, you see a great running back, but not a player who stands alone in talent, or style, or impact:

Charles Rogers stood alone. If White was a steady engine, Rogers was a rocket, burning fast and bright, and then quickly disappearing out of view.

More after the jump...

Running just ahead of the Hype Machine

From what I can tell, when Charles Rogers committed to Michigan State Nick Saban was the head coach. I say 'from what I can tell', because Google doesn't really turn up much on when exactly he committed. Neither Scout or Rivals existed in their recognizable forms and Google looked like, well, this:

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Welcome to a 'World Wide Wonderland' everybody!

BTN was not around, ESPN wasn't quite the omnipresent entity it now is, the RCMB wasn't as big as it is, and most importantly, TOC did not exist yet. Etc. etc. etc.

But regardless of when he committed, we know at some point he went from being recruited by head coach Nick Saban to being recruited by head coach Bobby Williams. In hindsight, this is not a good swap. But Nick Saban was not exactly NICK SABAN that point, though he had just come off a 10 win season. And Bobby Williams wasn't BOBBY WILLIAMS at that point, having won the bowl game he coached in over a good Florida team (Steve Spurrier!). And, for added momentum, Williams was replacing NFL-bound Plaxico Burress, with a local Saginaw kid named Charles Rogers.

It's tough for me to exactly imagine how Spartan fans and the CFB world at large would react to getting a player of Rogers caliber today. The accolades were numerous:

Consensus prep All-American . . . rated the nation’s No. 1 prospect by ESPN.com recruiting analyst Tom Lemming . . . also ranked among the country’s top players by SuperPrep (No. 8) . . . listed among the nation’s top receivers by Lemming (No. 1), PrepStar (No. 2) and SuperPrep (No. 3) . . . labeled the No. 1 player in the Midwest by PrepStar, SuperPrep and the Detroit Free Press . . . named Midwest Region Offensive MVP by PrepStar . . . rated the state’s top player by the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News and Lansing State Journal . . . three-time all-state selection

Imagine the hype around Will Gholston or Lawrence Thomas, but like, moreso, and that was Charles Rogers.

But as alluded to, the highly regarded receiver got delayed for a year. For his entire freshman season, Rogers sat out for what his MSU bio simply calls "academic reasons". The Spartans struggled to a 5-6 year after starting 3-0 (including getting shredded at home by Northwestern on their way to a four game losing streak, just a week after beating Notre Dame. This stoked along a Same Ol' Spartans meme that would last most of the decade.)

But the year away from the field maybe did something that would otherwise be impossible. It seemed to make other teams forget about the nation's top receiving prospect.

Rogers' started off his Sophomore year with a 3 catch, 72 yard performance vs Central Michigan. Impressive, but by no means unprecedented (remember that a Sophomore Mark Dell led off the year with a 9 catch, 202 yard performance vs Cal in 2008). But Rogers followed that up with his first 100 yard performance against rival Notre Dame, including his first touchdown catch. Then he had a solid, but TD -less, game vs Northwestern the next week, and a 1 catch, 1 TD performance vs Iowa the next week. That Iowa game was the start of 13 straight games with a touchdown catch for Rogers, a streak which broke the record of some guy named Randy Moss. Included in that streak was a 5 catch, 206 yard, 2 TD performance vs Wisconsin (41 yards a catch on five catches, good God), and a four game stretch to end the 2001 season where he averaged (averaged): 8 catches, 184.3 yards, and 1.75 touchdowns a game. Rogers, as a first year player was monstrous in 2001: 14 touchdown catches, and 1470 yards on only 67 receptions (21.9 yards per catch!!!). Statistically the best WR receiver season in MSU history. Hands down.

So wow, pretty awesome year. But is that the year I'm lobbying for? No. Rogers was so good that his statistically best year (2001), isn't even the season that makes me outraged (OUTRAGED I say) at his exclusion from such 'all time greatest' lists. No, it's 2002 that gets me going. Let me explain.

Let's recap the situation going into 2002: Charles Rodgers had just had an amazing season, was getting talked about by everyone, and would naturally be a major focus for defensive coordinators; moreover he'd lost three NFL caliber running mates in T.J. Duckett, Chris Baker, and Herb Haygood. But he'd probably be OK if other players could step up, right? Well...

For support in the running game in 2002, he could turn to Dawan Moss (who?) and David Richard (WHO?), neither of whom could manage more than 700 yards, 5 yards a carry, or 5 touchdowns.

The team's second leading receiver was a sophomore tight end, Eric Knott. The other primary receiver was BJ Lovett who was not quite as good as the receiver who would share his first name some years later. Neither of these men could manage more than 35 catches, 350 yards, or 4 touchdowns.

And who was throwing Chuck the ball? Well, on comparatively good days, it was Damon Dowdell, who was probably a much more competent quarterback in 2002 than you remember him being (10 TDs, 4 INTS) but still like, not very good (just 6.6 yards per attempt). On bad days, it was at-the-time Rampant Substance Abuse Jeff Smoker who, as it turned out, was way, way, too high in the Fall of 2002 to competently get the ball into the hands of one of the greatest WRs in Big Ten history with any consistency.

The defense, almost needless to say, was terrible, giving up 33 points and a little over 400 yards per game.

So he entered 2002 as a marked man, with no running game, no help in the receiving corps, no defense, and mediocre QB play at best. This team went 4-8. Charles went about his business.

2002 was a bad, bad, year to be a Spartan football fan. MSU got drilled by Cal. MSU got drilled by Iowa. MSU got drilled by Minnesota and Wisconsin. Michigan beat us by 46 points. Penn State beat us by 54(!). This is where you as a fan begin considering just how abusive your relationship with college football is. Where you stop debating and bantering with your rivals about your respective places on the CFB totem pole, because how fucking stupid do you really feel like sounding that day? Where 'wait til next year' becomes 'wait til next coach'.

But I and many others stuck with the team, not because we thought they could turn it around (a four game losing streak where the average margin of loss is 28.25 points will do that to a fan base), but because one player gave us a reason to watch. On that piece of crap football team, Charles Rogers was still so good.

In a year where most everything was going wrong, Rogers hardly missed a beat: 68 catches, 1351 yards (just a shade under 20 yards per catch) and 13 TDs. He won the Biletnikoff award for the nation's top wideout on a team that finished four games below .500.

He was so talented, that even if you as a Spartan fan were pretty sure the team was going to lose (and let's face it, as 2002 stretched on, you were), you would even tune in anyway, just for the chance he would do something like this:

He was so good, that the foxholes available to MSU fans for protection from the slings and arrows of rivals increased from: 1. Wait 'til basketball season; to 2. We have Rogers and you don't *sticks tongue out*. At a time in which school bus sports arguments accounted for about 20% of what was most important in my life, this doubling was a big deal.

And not only was Charles statistically dominant, he was a unique wide receiver. A legit 6'3, a legit 200 pounds. And so fast, faster than human beings should be at that size. And agile, and with great hands. Recruiting websites or school's pro days will lead you to believe that just about every football player can run a sub 4.5 40 yard dash, even a sub 4.4 40, but the vast majority of players cannot, and vast, vast, majority of 6'3 players cannot. Charles reportedly ran a sub 4.3 40 yard dash at the NFL combine. And I don't doubt for a second that he did. He was really an intimidating physical specimen, and produced on the field in a way that I'm not sure any receiver in the Big Ten has truly equaled, before or since. He was a prototypical NFL receiver, and with Williams fired at the end of the season, he understandably jumped to the NFL with his potential sky high. Rogers was supposed to be the next Randy Moss. Calvin Johnson was supposed to be the next Charles Rogers.

He was memorably drafted 2nd overall by the Detroit Lions and his NFL career was off to a quick start. In 2003 the Lions were only three seasons removed from their last playoff appearance (LOL), had an exciting new coach in Steve Mariucci (LOLOL) and in Rogers finally had the player to help out franchise quarterback Joey Harrington (LOLOLOLOLOL).

And everything started out fine. Read some of these quotes from a Sports Illustrated piece from 2003:

It didn't matter that Charles I Rogers, the second pick in the 2003 draft, dropped the first pass thrown to him during the Detroit Lions' 42-24 victory over the visiting Arizona Cardinals on Sunday... What did matter were Rogers's two gravity-defying, first-half touchdown catches, which raised the bar even higher for a guy from whom much was already expected.

"He's big and incredibly fast—he's outrun my arm a couple of times," Harrington says. "I'll throw it and think I've got him beat. Then he drops into another gear, and it's, God, I should've thrown that a lot farther."

By the second quarter of Sunday's opener, the Cardinals were already doubling the 6'3", 202-pound Rogers, who finished with four receptions for 38 yards. "They were shading toward him. Even if he's not catching the ball, he draws coverage," said Harrington, who completed 17 of 30 passes for 195 yards and four scores.

Whoa mama.

After five games of good rookie production, he separated his collarbone in a practice drill and was out for the rest of the year. But collarbones are easy to break and not considered career threatening injuries, so he'd be back right? Well, not three plays into the Lions first 2004 game he separated his collarbone for the second time. Out for the rest of the year. Again.

In 2005, Rogers was caught violating the leagues substance abuse policy for the third time. Four game suspension. He played sparingly the rest of the year, looking nothing like the rare talent he'd been in college. In 2006, with Mariucci fired, and not three seasons after his breakout game vs Arizona, Rogers was released from the Lions. He tried out for some NFL teams, including the Miami Dolphins, then coached by Nick Saban (and Bobby Williams, and Charlie Baggett). They all neglected to pick him up. In three seasons he'd gone from NFL's 2nd overall pick to out of the league.

Part of the reason was the injuries, part of it was his inability to handle himself outside of football, part of it was the slide into drugs and painkillers brought about by the surgery. But the addictions and ravages of drugs were not the end of his troubles. In 2008, he was arrested for an altercation with his wife and sent to rehab.

He sat down for an interview with Jemele Hill and ESPN in 2009 (DANGER, DANGER- Matt Millen is also interviewed), and sounded sad and regretful about his past, but hopeful about his future.

I remember watching this at the time, and thinking two things: first, how sad, what a waste of an unparallelled talent; and second, I really hope Charles can get his life back together. And I was somewhat hopeful, because there he was working out, saying his speed was back, saying he was done with drugs, and that he was trying to get one last shot at the NFL.

Well, it's now about three years later, and we're here:

Frank last week appointed Saginaw attorney George C. Bush to represent Rogers, who is charged with making a malicious phone call and conspiring to commit that crime March 5 and March 6 and possessing marijuana, possessing an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle, and operating a motor vehicle on a suspended or revoked license Dec. 2 at South Fayette and Dearborn in Saginaw.

...

If convicted of the marijuana charge, Rogers would face up to a year in jail. The malicious phone call and conspiracy charges carry six-month maximum penalty.

The December traffic stop was Rogers' third alcohol-related incident. Rogers pleaded guilty in September 2009 to operating a motor vehicle while visibly impaired after he was found passed out in his car in Novi, and in January 2010 was sentenced to 93 days in jail for contempt of court after passing out at a restaurant in Novi.

You start to see the same mistakes repeated over and over. Those legal incidents are obviously the saddest part of this story. And his washing out of the NFL and the deterioration of his prodigious talent are probably the next saddest parts. But here's another: The Charles Rogers I remember, from MSU, seemingly missed everything that might have helped him by only a handful of years. What would happen if he was under the guidance of JLS or Dantonio instead of Williams? What would have happened if he was drafted by the current Lions organization instead of the past one, or more relevantly, another team entirely, that might have moved him away from his home state? What would have happened if he played in a NFL with more of a focus on player safety, better athletic gear, or with better medical help? What if he'd entered rehab a few years sooner? No one can say for sure, but thinking about the possibilities leaves a sour taste.

And why did Charles Rogers seemingly just miss, and then be left behind by, the Youtube revolution? If there was ever a MSU football player built for a quick, viral, 30 second Youtube clip, or a 4 minute career montage, it was Charles Rogers. But try throwing his name into a video sharing network. You'll find a few scattered highlights of his time at MSU, but you'll probably see many more videos of his recent let-downs. I found a particularly notable example involving the bowl game against Fresno State. In that game Rogers caught ten passes for two touchdowns and... wait for it... 270 yards. Youtube has a 9 minute and 28 second video of the game. I was sure it would at least have some highlight of Rogers' record breaking performance, if not all 10 of his catches.And the video does show a record breaking receiving performance, it's just that it's of Fresno State's Rodney Wright, not MSU's Charles Rogers.

I want to remember Rogers as both a once in a generation college athlete, and a chilling warning of potential unreached. But memories fade with time, and once you can't see the spectacular leaps, jukes, and grabs quite so clearly in your mind's eye, what comes to mind most sharply is is the disappointment. While I want to be reminded of his high points, most of what I can find are just his shortcomings. And at some point, even if Spartan fans can still remember his unique talents, everyone else will only remember his failures. That's depressing to me.

Charles Rogers reminds me that some of the greatest works of all time turned out to be tragedies. I hope he can still turn his life around.

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