Charles Rogers never needed long to prove he was a special.
From his days as a three-sport star at Saginaw High to two record-breaking years at Michigan State, Rogers was the elite of the elite, leading to being drafted second overall in the 2003 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.
“He was an incredible talent,” said current Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who was an assistant under Bobby Williams during Rogers’ first season with the Spartans.
Rogers died Monday at the age of 38, and it didn’t take long for the condolences and tributes to start rolling in. From former teammates to former coaches, Rogers was remembered as an out-of-this world talent with a heart to match.
It began in Saginaw, where Rogers starred in football, basketball and track and field. In 1999, he led Saginaw to a football state championship as a senior and then was part of the basketball team that reached the Class A semifinals before losing to Lansing Waverly, a game in which Rogers scored 31 points. He was also a standout on the track, winning state championships in 100- and 200-meter dashes as a sophomore, the 400-meter as a junior and the 200-meter in his senior year.
But it was the gridiron where Rogers made his mark and he started to take off at Michigan State.
“I have nothing but good memories of Charles,” Williams told the Associated Press. “When he looked at you and smiled, you knew he was in a good place.”
Williams, currently the assistant head coach at Oregon, was Michigan State’s head coach during Rogers’ tenure, then served as his position coach with the Lions. He had a front-row seat to some of Rogers’ biggest games on the football field.
Rogers, who won the 2002 Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver, is Michigan State’s all-time leader in touchdown catches with 27 and ranks third in school history in receiving yards (2,821) and eighth in catches (135), totals he accumulated in just two seasons (2001-02) with the Spartans. At one point, Rogers had touchdown catches in 13 straight games spanning the two seasons and had more than 100 yards receiving in 11 games.
“Charles Rogers was a gifted young man,” said Michigan State wide receivers coach Don Treadwell, who was also Rogers’ position coach at MSU. “He had the total package as a premier wide receiver with size, speed and range, topped with an awesome competitive spirit, yet he was humble off the field. It was a privilege to have coached him.”
Those record-setting days led to Rogers’ selection by the Lions. It was a move that was expected to provide a jolt to the franchise, and for five games it did. Rogers had two touchdown catches in his first career game but a broken collarbone ended his season.
In 2004, Rogers again broke his collarbone in the first game of the season. He returned in 2005 and played nine games, the final nine games of his career. When it was all said and done, Rogers had 36 catches for 440 yards with four touchdowns in 15 games.
“Charles was our first draft choice in my time with the Lions, and having the opportunity to select a premier player from Michigan State and a local Saginaw athlete was tremendously exciting,” former Lions coach Steve Mariucci said in a statement. “In coaching Charles, his talent and ability were very evident early on in his career. I feel strongly had he not suffered unfortunate injuries, he would have gone on to become an excellent NFL wide receiver. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and I offer my deepest condolences during this difficult time.”
Rogers’ life spiraled out of control from that point as he battled substance abuse over the years. He had fallen ill recently and former teammates had heard Rogers wasn’t doing well.
“I had heard he was in the hospital a couple of weeks ago,” Rep. Joe Tate, D-Detroit, a former teammate at Michigan State told The Detroit News. “Chuck was younger than me but we played together and it’s just really unfortunate. His life had been made public the last couple years and it’s just sad to see how it has turned out.”
Rogers’ impact went beyond his teammates.
On Monday, Saginaw native Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors talked about what Rogers meant to his generation.
“A lot of people look at Chuck and say, ‘Oh, he never became in the NFL what he wanted to become,’” Green told reporters. “He’s from Saginaw, Michigan. He was the No. 2 pick. He’s a legend.
“He paved the way for a lot of us guys coming out of Saginaw after him to believe that we could make it. You know, that was never really a thing and once Chuck did it we all thought we could do it. So I’m thankful for Chuck and what he was able to do and his time on this earth. My prayers are with his family, his mom and his children.”
Green, who also went to Michigan State and has won three NBA championships, said he’d gotten to know Rogers well over the past few years.
“It sucks, it really does,” Green said. “This is a tough one.”