Richard Rodgers knows exactly where’s he going, and he’s not afraid to talk about it.
“That’s what I’m here at Cal for,” Rodgers says. “They send players to the NFL.”
The sophomore is an anomaly at the tight end position. At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, his size generally implies he is more in tune with blocking schemes than the pass game. Yet his route-running and catching ability is more reminiscent of a receiver than an auxiliary blocker.
The unique combination of elite size and skill makes Rodgers entry to the NFL a near certainty, barring unforeseen injuries.
He’s never been more ready.
“I always thought I was gonna play professional sports,” Rodgers says. “I worked towards that every day of my life.”
Rodgers’ success on the field certainly benefits from his firm grasp on his ideals, which he states with absolute certainty. He recalls the words of his high school basketball coach as essential advice: Don’t get too high or too low; always keep it even-keeled.
He makes a point to credit his parents for his success, too. He chides the hubristic tendencies of the modern-day athlete.
“I think people just really don’t really understand how much work you have to put in to get to the next level,” Rodgers says.
It’s not difficult to see why Rodgers holds his beliefs with such conviction. When your home suddenly vanishes, beliefs are about the only thing that seem absolute.
After New Mexico State fired its head coach, the entire coaching staff went along with him. And for secondary coach Richard Rodgers, Sr., that meant no job and no income to support his family.
“We didn’t really have a place to go,” Rodgers says. “My mom didn’t really have a place because she was helping my sister get a job in the music business.”
The prospect of homelessness loomed heavily on the family. Although his mom couldn’t provide shelter, she gave the family her mother’s number to call.
Thankfully, Grandma had room.
Rodgers and his brother moved in with their grandmother in Clayton, Calif., that spring. The three-month stay allowed Richard Rodgers Sr. time to search for a different coaching job.
Rodgers spent the latter portion of his seventh-grade year playing basketball at the local park with his brother and ditching class.
“We didn’t really know what to expect,” Rodgers says. “Obviously as kids we thought, ‘Oh, no school, this is going to be so fun!’ But there was definitely more to it than that.”
Rodgers remembers the time spent with his grandmother as the toughest time of his life, even more difficult than the divorce of his parents.
Missing school might have seemed fun at first, but it soon became a nagging reminder of his transient and turbulent existence.
With his father’s future in flux, nothing in Rodgers’ life seemed certain. Any athletic aspirations faded behind the enormity of processing the chaos of his day-to-day.
“My Dad couldn’t really take care of us after he lost his job,” Rodgers says. “We just really didn’t know what we were gonna do then.”
But by the end of Rodgers Jr.’s seventh-grade year, Richard Rodgers Sr. was named the defensive coordinator at Holy Cross. And as quickly as he had been uprooted to California, Rodgers was off to Massachusetts, eager to rediscover some semblance of continuity.
After repeating seventh grade his first year in Massachusetts, Rodgers got to work on his athletic aspirations.
Baseball was his first love, a diversion from the brutal sport of football. His father wished to keep his son away from it as long as possible.
“My dad knows, as a football coach, understands the damages involved with the game,” Rodgers says. “My uncle still really wants me to play baseball. I always play catch with him and hit when I see him over the summer.”
Rodgers also excelled at basketball, competing in four consecutive state championships as one of his team’s best players.
But he couldn’t keep his son away from football forever. Despite burgeoning baseball and basketball careers, football was his inevitable path; the athletic talent was there, and he had always admired his Dad’s work.
Rodgers’ dad presented him with an ultimatum: AAU basketball or high school football in the summer entering his sophomore year.
Unsurprisingly, the choice was football.
Rodgers almost immediately received offers from Notre Dame, Oregon and a number of other Division I programs because of his prodigious size and athletic ability. Although his talent was raw, his potential was limitless.
He eventually settled on Cal, his father’s alma mater. Memorial Stadium was the place in which Rodgers Sr. had been immortalized almost 30 years earlier as a member of The Play.
Although his Dad departed for a few months, his influence never grew far from Rodgers’ heart.
Now a sophomore in college, Rodgers is on the verge of breaking out.
After a slow start to the season limited by a nagging foot injury, Rodgers exploded in Cal’s blowout of UCLA. He caught seven passes for 129 yards, repeatedly gashing the middle of the Bruin secondary. Cornerbacks were too small to cover him; linebackers were too slow.
The game was just a flash of Rodgers’ potential. Even after that contest, he admitted he wasn’t at 100 percent.
“It’s an injury that I was supposed to rest, but I just didn’t have the time to rest it,” Rodgers says. “But I want to do whatever I can to get on the field. I never want to sit out.”
With Cal now out of bowl contention, not much else can be done to rectify the poor results of the season. Rodgers acknowledges the season began impotently and the team was unable to recover.
But Richard’s been here before.
Adversity. Turmoil. A lightless tunnel.
These abstractions hurt most when facing them for the first time, but Rodgers has already taken that first punch to the gut. This time around, his spirit is impenetrable; his will is unparalleled; and his skin is thicker.
Maybe at one point his future was uncertain, but nowadays confidence isn’t an issue when it comes to catching a slant over the middle.
After all, he just has to absorb the hit.
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