Suzy Merchant opens up on crash, life after MSU basketball: 'I feel like myself again'

Get to know Lions beat writer Justin Rogers: Culinary dreams on back burner as he cooks up copy

The Detroit News

Editor's note: As coronavirus sweeps the globe, shutting down so many entertainment options including sports, we thought this would be a good opportunity for you to get to know a little bit about us. Up today: Lions beat writer Justin Rogers, who can be followed on Twitter @Justin_Rogers.

►1. Game 3 of the 1999 World Series played a pivotal role in my journey into sports journalism. At the time, I was a freshman at Kettering University, studying mechanical engineering and working at a valve manufacturer as part of my co-op internship. It was a good job for a rookie, but I didn’t mesh well with my more buttoned-down colleagues.

Justin Rogers has been The News' Lions beat writer since 2016.

Despite the job’s 6 a.m. start time, I had stayed up late the night before, watching the New York Yankees take a commanding 3-0 series lead on a walk-off home run in extra innings. At lunch, I tried to talk about the thrilling finish and got only incredulous condemnation for sacrificing sleep to watch sports.

I was eventually let go from the company because I was a bad fit. While I agreed with that decision then and now, it still hurt. But it gave me time to reassess my career choice while I still only had a toe in the water. After another semester of differential equations and organic chemistry, I transferred to Eastern Michigan and changed my major to English Language, Literature and Writing.

►2. After transferring schools, I planned on teaching. But after graduating, I opted to explore opportunities in journalism while I paid the bills bartending. Without any practical experience, getting a foot in the door wasn’t easy. I couldn’t even convince my local weekly paper to give me shot covering high school games.

Aggressive networking led me to Eric Braun, the online editor at MLive. After bombarding him with writing samples and some self-taught Photoshop work, he gave me a four-hour data entry job, probably so I would leave him alone. That’s all I needed.

That four hours quickly turned into eight, then 16, 20, 32 and finally 40. I was the king of odd jobs around the office — updating event and real estate listings, our restaurant guide, and editing and posting high school sports galleries. Whatever I could do.

My first sports assignment was covering Michigan State basketball and football. I would go out to the weekly press conferences with John L. Smith and Tom Izzo, record audio, chop it up and post segments to the web.

►3. At the time, MLive had a policy: After six months, temporary employees had to be hired full-time or be let go. Fortunately, I benefited from good timing. With the Super Bowl in Detroit that year, one of the two full-time sports staffers was credentialed to cover the week’s events, while the other was going to run point from the office. Instead, her baby arrived a couple weeks early.

Although I didn’t have much experience, I volunteered to take over her role. I worked more than 80 hours that week, capping things by heading downtown to cover a few events over the weekend, including Biz Markie and Snoop Dog performances. My efforts earned me a full-time offer with the company with a $24,000 salary.

I was making more bartending, even after I negotiated up to $26,000. Still, I accepted the job and two years later I was the head of the sports department. Then, when the company restructured, merging its web and print entities, I got moved into a full-time writing role.

►4. The opportunity to cover NFL football was never designed to be permanent. When Tom “Killer” Kowalski tragically passed away during training camp in 2011, I was asked to fill in while the company searched for a permanent replacement.

Kowalksi was an unofficial mentor and the gold standard for flawlessly blending top-notch reporting with personality and fan interaction. I’ve never tried to fill those shoes because I don't believe it’s possible.

Growing up, I read Kowalski in the Oakland Press. The paper used to run a contest where you phoned in your NFL picks, trying to best the beat writer. Since I wasn’t eligible for the contest at 9 years old, I would call in and enter under my mother’s name. Besting Tom and winning a prize pack that included some Kowalski Sausage was one of my great childhood triumphs, and something I made sure he knew and remembered as long as we worked together.

The last photo taken of Justin Rogers' father, right.

►5. More so than Game 3 of the 1999 World Series, the most transformative event in my life was my father’s passing. I was 5 years old and we were driving home from my uncle’s wedding. My dad had too much drink at the reception, nodded off at the wheel and crossed into incoming traffic.

I had fallen asleep and woke to the lights and sounds of sirens. I remember everything, from the Jaws of Life tearing open the passenger door to being loaded into the ambulance to seeing my grandmother, my dad’s mom, at the hospital.

I spent two weeks there. I had some internal injuries and a broken hip. I was supposed to start kindergarten during the middle of that stay. Instead, I was moved to a different school. Not only did I lose my father, but the entire course of my life was changed, down to the friends I would have growing up.

►6. Those internal injuries had lingering long-term effects, which prevented me from playing contact sports, including football. Knowing what we now know about brain injuries, maybe I dodged a bullet, but I’ve always loved the game.

I still have serious intestinal issues to this day. I was rushed in for emergency surgery the summer before my senior year of high school and have continued to battle intestinal obstructions due to scar tissue. I’ve been hospitalized more than a dozen times, including the morning of the first game I covered for The Detroit News. I’ve had my stomach pumped on six occasions.

In 2018, days after the Lions hired Matt Patricia, I had a proactive procedure to clear my intestinal tract of scar tissue. The incision required 21 staples and I was hospitalized nine days. Full recovery was closer to eight weeks, but things are somewhat better these days.

►7. While I couldn’t play football or ice hockey, I was an active athlete growing up. I played basketball my first couple years of high school, earning a roster spot for hustle more than skill. I had decent handles but couldn’t shoot to save my life.

I did letter all four years in track and field as a pole vaulter, qualifying for states my senior year. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the event after splitting my head open during some post-practice horseplay.

Justin Rogers' daughter, Ellison.

►8. I got married young. Really young. My wife and I met while we were both in high school, started dating shortly after we graduated, and after three-and-a-half years together — including a year making things work long distance — we decided we wanted to spend our lives together.

We have two young daughters, Nola (9) and Ellison (5), and currently call Ferndale home after a lengthy stretch in the Ann Arbor area. My wife, Jennifer, is a principal for a special needs school in Macomb County.

At least one of us is doing something meaningful with their lives.

►9. Although I regret not doing it more, we have had the chance to travel to some pretty cool places. My wife and I spent three weeks in Peru, two in Spain and we drove over 3,000 miles covering a huge chunk of the western United States.

Peru, in 2007, was a hilarious mix of being inexperienced travelers and working on a tight budget. Did I mention I started out making $26,000 per year? The part of the trip I’ll remember most, more than the three-day hike through the jungle to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu or my wife throwing up as the single-engine plane banked sharply to give us the best views of the Nazca Lines, was a cab ride.

After Machu Picchu, we took a short plane ride back to Lima. From there, we were going to take a 12-hour bus ride to our next destination. The problem was the bus station was across town and I didn’t leave us enough time to get there. Working with four years of broken high school Spanish, I told a cab driver where we needed to go and how long we had to get there.

His eyes grew wide and he hurried us to get in the car. The ride was like a chase scene from a movie. He drove on sidewalks through the city and sliced between side-by-side cars on the freeway. It should have taken us 45 minutes with the traffic, but we made it in 32 and got our luggage on the bus seconds before they closed the doors.

I doubled the fare as a tip.

Justin Rogers' daughter, Nola.

►10. Being a journalist has changed the way I view sports. These days, I’m not really a fan of any professional or college teams. I clung to my Detroit Tigers fandom for a few years, but I realized even that had faded when I watched a total of two innings of the 2012 World Series.

The only teams where I still have a rooting interest are the U.S. men's and women's soccer teams.

But as a kid, I cheered for dozens of teams and proudly wore sports-themed T-shirts and jerseys to school daily. In sixth grade, I spent eight weeks allowance to buy a Shaquille O’Neal Orlando Magic jersey. I still own it and my daughter wore it as a dress for a spirit day at her school.

I also loved the Fab Five. I started wearing black athletic socks in 1991 and haven’t owned a white pair since.

►11. Speaking of the Fab Five, I was an avid card collector growing up. To this day, I can’t explain it, but I tried to get my hands on every Juwan Howard card produced after he was drafted. I kept this up for more than two years and I still own 88 unique cards of the Michigan head coach. Also, his Washington Bullets jersey.

►12. If I wasn’t a journalist, I’d probably be working in food. I’m at home in the kitchen and love to cook for my family and friends. My best dish for a large gathering is bone-in short ribs, braised in a red wine and fresh vegetable reduction, served over risotto.

At the end of my run at MLive, I explored going back to school, sharpening both my culinary skills and business knowledge, with a goal of opening my own restaurant. But The Detroit News called, offering me a new challenge and putting that dream on the back burner.

►13. My latest free-time filler has been taking on big projects around my house. I have very little experience working with tools, but I enjoy a challenge. I’ll read a few blogs, watch a few tutorial videos on YouTube, buy the materials and throw caution to the wind.

Last offseason, I installed a subway tile backsplash in my kitchen and more recently I built a pair of sliding barn doors for my den.

►14. I enjoy biking and regularly go for long rides during the warmer months. In 2017, a friend asked if I wanted to participate in a 40-mile race on the other side of the state. I had never biked longer than 25 miles, but it seemed like a fun challenge.

In the weeks leading up to the event, we did a couple training rides. After the last one, I left my bike with him, since we were going to carpool to Grand Rapids together. When he arrived, I went to unload the bikes from the back of the truck and noticed mine wasn’t on the rack. He had grabbed the wrong one, leaving my street bike in his garage and grabbing his roommate’s cheap mountain bike instead.

We searched for rental options around town, but there were none. I was left to do the 40-mile race on a heavy, well-worn Huffy. I managed to finish in a little over three hours, but I’m pretty sure my calves still haven’t recovered.

Rumor has it Kyle Meinke, right, booted Justin Rogers off the MLive Lions beat because he couldn't stand being second-best looking.

►15. I struggle with the idea of favorites. I couldn’t tell you my favorite movie, band or restaurant. I’m more apt to be like John Cusack in the movie “High Fidelity,” rifling off a top-five list, but even those opinions are fluid.

That said, without a doubt, my favorite video game(s) are the NHL series for Sega Genesis. The simplicity of the controls and consistency of the game play make them untouchable classics.

Back when I worked at MLive, we had backroom where we set up a TV with a Sega. Former Tigers writer James Schmehl and I would sneak off and probably squeeze in three games per day as a stress reliever.

My old engineering colleagues would be disgusted.

Previous installments

Get to know soccer writer Larry O'Connor: Old Trafford blades of grass still reside in his fridge

Get to know Tigers beat writer Chris McCosky: From Bo to Gardy, he's covered — and seen — it all

Get to know sports writer Nolan Bianchi: He wanted to be a blue crayon when he grew up

Get to know sports writer Matt Schoch: For some reason, he left the Virgin Islands to come back here

Get to know columnist Bob Wojnowski: He once was a short-order cook; now, he just writes long

Get to know columnist John Niyo: His newspaper career began as Johnny Orr's delivery boy

Get to know UM football beat writer Angelique S. Chengelis: She starred in 'Hoffa', or so she thinks

Get to know Red Wings beat writer Ted Kulfan: He can't skate, seriously (though if Brooke Shields asked...)

Get to know Pistons beat writer Rod Beard: #StartWriting was wrong just this one time

Get to know UM beat writer James Hawkins: No, he's not related to Jim Hawkins

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