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The Old-School Coach and the New-School QB: How Mac Jones Was Built

The bond between a football coach and his player can be complicated. For Mac Jones and Corky Rogers, that's only part of the story.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Have you ever read to a man on his deathbed?

Physically sat next to him, looked him in the eye, gripped his hand, and read to him? He knows he’s dying. You know he’s dying.

Death is not an appealing presence, not at all. But no one should die alone. And no coach, especially one of the greatest high school coaches in American history, should pass without knowing the full extent of his labor.

That is why, during February of last year, in a hospice facility here in northeast Florida, Clint Drawdy read aloud dozens of letters to his father-in-law, who lay before him, in and out of consciousness.

“Dear Coach,” they’d begin, “thank you.”

“Coach,” one started, “I love you.”

Corky Rogers mustered what he could—a head nod, a slight smile, a low grumble.

In the final 10 days of Rogers’s life, as cancer consumed his body, his family received more than 100 emailed letters from former players. Some even sent video clips.

It was a massive wave of heartfelt goodbyes in which stories, then unknown to the coach’s family, emerged. One ex-player, for instance, named his son after Rogers’s real name, Charles. Another said the coach once bought him shoes when his family couldn’t afford them. The stories went on and on.

But one former player was different from the rest. The player, a quarterback, finished his high school career in the same season as Rogers retired, 2016. They went out together—coach and quarterback.

Before Rogers entered hospice, the player called the coach and they talked. Anyone who knows Corky Rogers knows he doesn’t show emotion. He especially does not cry.

But toward the end of the conversation, after the goodbyes and the thank-yous, after the reminiscing and remembering, his former quarterback made him a promise.

Mac Jones told his coach that he was dedicating the 2020 football season at Alabama—every pass, every touchdown, every win—to him.

On that day, Corky Rogers cried.

***

Corky Rogers and Mac Jones

The bond between a football coach and his football player can be complicated.

That went double for Corky Rogers. His draconian coaching style, while producing a state-record 465 wins and 10 state championships, often resulted in a love-hate relationship with his current players. Only years later would they realize their appreciation for the man.

“Everything about him was old school, but it was with a purpose,” says Jake Lundgren, who played for Rogers at the Bolles School, a private, affluent institution on the banks of the St. Johns River. “People would benefit from his style today. It was a teaching moment for kids raised privileged.”

At his practices, there was never music, and barking at players was quite common—especially quarterbacks. He demanded perfection. Rogers, in fact, was known for making his quarterbacks run sprints for mistakes. Touchdown passes thrown to the wrong receiver were considered mistakes (In fact, wildly enough, that’s how Jones got his first playing time; he replaced the starting quarterback who had completed a touchdown to the wrong guy.)

If you think that’s an antiquated approach, you should hear about his offense. Rogers began his career running the triple option before evolving to the Wing-T, a 70-year-old scheme that has, in large part, been abandoned by the sport.

If you were late for one of his practices, you ought not bother showing at all. And if you didn’t wear white cleats and white socks, you’d be asked to leave. The Oklahoma Drill, when two players collide in front of a circle of teammates, was a mainstay, and, at times, even quarterbacks and kickers weren’t excused from it.

Rogers never coached while using headsets, and he never signaled in playcalls. His quarterback, after each play, got the next call from Rogers by physically running to the sideline.

And good luck trying to get ole Cork, as friends called him, to operate the internet or use his flip phone, which he kept in his vehicle’s glove compartment, the battery often dead. He did not believe in seven-on-seven football, dismissed online recruiting reporters and wholeheartedly hated social media. He believed the latter would be the downfall of society.

If anyone was old school, it was Corky Rogers. And if anyone was new school, it was Mac Jones.

Even at a young age, Mac embraced social media, especially Twitter. He was individualistic, wanting to wear different color shoes or socks. Mac wanted to celebrate touchdowns, thrusting his arms into the air and rubbing the feat in the faces of his competitors. A class clown whose charm made the school girls cackle, Mac brought the same playful and silly manner to the football field.

Mac and Corky were opposites.

“Corky and him kind of battled it out,” says Holly Jones, Mac’s mother.

Rogers rode Mac so hard, in fact, that he nearly quit. Gordon Jones, never involved with his son’s coaches, broke protocol this time. He met with Rogers to politely relay a message: Mac is his own worst critic, so go a little easier on him.

Recruiting caused the most problems. When Mac marketed himself to coaches on social media, Rogers snapped at him. When Mac traveled to college camps, Rogers scoffed. The team had no social media presence, then an emerging avenue for college recruiters, so Gordon set up and ran an unofficial Twitter account for the Bolles football program. College coaches looking to speak with Rogers were often sent a number to a phone that hung on the weight room wall.

“Weight room!” kids would answer. “Oh, he’s not here. Call back later.”

To compound the issues, Mac was operating an offense from 1958. And while the Bolles Bulldogs passed more than usual out of the Wing-T, Mac took almost every snap under center while other high-profile high school quarterbacks captained shotgun-based, five-wide schemes.

At high school and college camps, coaches would watch Mac throw and then turn to his parents confused.

This kid is playing in a Wing-T? Why?

***

Mac Jones throws a pass for Alabama in the College Football Playoff

Jones has thrown for 36 touchdown passes as a junior and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.

The miniature white rubber footballs came whistling through the air toward Mac Jones.

This was an annual tradition. The children at the Bolles (Fla.) School—kindergarten through 12th grade—lined a roadway on campus for the homecoming parade. Varsity football players slowly moved by in jeeps, convertibles and pickup trucks while tossing throws to the sea of kids.

Little Mac wasn’t as excited about the throws or the players as he was the coach. Corky Rogers was a legend at Bolles, in Jacksonville and in the state of Florida. To eight-year-old Mac, he was God.

“That’s all he wanted to ever do was play for Corky,” Holly says. “That was his dream, his first dream.”

As a young kid, Michael McCorkle Jones saw Corky in his own name, quite literally. McCorkle was Holly’s maiden name. McCorkle. McCork. Cork. Corky. You get the point.

Mac’s classmates often referred to him as Little Corky, Holly says. When he turned seven, Mac’s birthday party’s main event was attending a Bolles football game. His mother still has the photo of him and his friends sitting in the stadium bleachers.

It was around this time that the Joneses realized their son’s athletic talent wasn’t the same as their own. Holly and Gordon played college tennis. Mac’s dabble in football became serious when they picked him up from a youth football camp one day and Mac hopped in the car wearing a golden shirt.

“What is that?” Holly asked.

“It’s the Golden Arm Shirt,” little Mac blurted excitedly. “They say I have a bright future.”

Holly turned to her husband and winced. What had they told her little boy? She feared he’d eventually be disappointed.

But Mac kept throwing and throwing. He entered into two youth football leagues, quarterbacking one team on one night and another on the next. He began attending more youth camps. For someone so scrawny and young, Mac’s passing ability confounded anyone who witnessed it, including Joe Dickinson, a renowned quarterback guru who eventually tutored Mac for years.

“He was natural at spinning the ball,” says Eric Yost, Mac’s Pop Warner coach and the then son-in-law, coincidently, of Corky Rogers.

When Mac joined Bolles’s varsity team as an eighth-grader, one thing was clear: There was no way they could put him in a game. He was 5' 5" and weighed about 80 pounds, says Kevin Fagan, his quarterbacks coach with the Bulldogs. “But I said to people,” Fagan says, “if he ever grows, look out.”

Mac did eventually grow, at least enough to star at Bolles. He grew wise beyond his years, too. He could read defenses, see the entire field and make the grades in the classroom (after all, he graduated with both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s from Alabama in fewer than four years, completing each with a 4.0 GPA.

It was his physical size that held him back for so long.

“Mac always threw better than any quarterback at any camp, but if you’re 5' 10", 165 pounds, you get the ‘Is this guy going to be able to survive the pounding?’ ” says Mac’s dad, Gordon.

Mac’s size didn’t matter to his coach. His toughness did, and Mac displayed his fortitude in his first real game during his sophomore season. He took hit after hit, leaped off the turf, ran to the sideline for the play call from Rogers and then took more hits.

Rogers was hard on Mac in the early years, but it was with good reason, says Linda Rogers, Corky’s wife. Corky would return home from practice and rarely ever speak about football. Home was his escape. But he’d talk, sometimes, about Mac.

“He felt Mac could take it,” Linda says. “He’d always say that.”

Mac evolved into one of the area’s hottest recruits, but he never really landed the big offer. For a while, his best opportunity was Kentucky. With Alabama, he was somewhat of an afterthought. It took Jake Fromm’s decommitting from the Tide and following Kirby Smart to Georgia to open a spot for Mac, says Gordon.

Neither Florida nor Florida State wanted Mac even if he wanted them (especially the Gators).

Late in the recruiting process, he showed up in Gainesville for a camp and wowed everyone with his arm. The Florida coaches pulled aside Gordon and Holly. They were befuddled.

Who are you and where have you been?!

The skinny kid from the private school that ran the Wing-T was raised just 90 minutes away from UF’s campus. Florida coaches took the Joneses up to their football offices to check out their recruiting whiteboard. Mac’s name was nowhere on it. And it was too late for an offer. Their class was full.

Mac visited an FSU camp only because Bolles teammate Ahman Ross had an invitation, so he tagged along. Mac threw next to the colossal Joey Gatewood, one of the class’s prized quarterbacks, standing 6' 4" and weighing 230 pounds. No one paid attention to the scrawny kid next to him rifling passes across the field.

“Mac was dog poop to them,” Holly says.

Even Wake Forest didn’t pull the trigger on Mac. He attended three camps there. At the last one, a Wake assistant coach walked up to Gordon and told him that Mac had not missed one single throw in three trips there.

“So he has an offer?” Gordon asked.

“Well,” the assistant said, “we’re going to wait until the end of the year to make a decision.”

***

Nick Saban, Mac Jones and Corky Rogers

After struggling to land big offers in high school, Jones got his chance with Alabama.

Corky Rogers once coached a spring game from the back of a pickup truck parked beyond the end zone, his left leg in a cast and his hand gripping a walkie-talkie (this was 1988). On the other end, Wayne Belger, the interim coach who was partial to passing, heard the familiar voice come crackling through while he paced the sideline.

Run the ball more!

“I’d say ‘Coach, this thing isn’t working. You’re breaking up,’ ” Belger laughs.

Two months before that, a drunk driver struck Rogers while the coach left his vehicle to survey damage of a minor car accident in which he was involved. It shattered his leg with such force that doctors wanted to remove the lower portion of the leg, then connected only by skin. He refused to let them.

He endured 18 surgeries, needed his calf rebuilt through skin grafts and forever had a dangling toe. During a year rehabilitation process, he coached, first from the back of that pickup truck, then in a wheelchair and finally on crutches.

Years later, when he entered the hospital for a routine shoulder surgery, doctors found seven artery blockages. He underwent a septuple bypass, and two months later, he returned to the field just in time for spring practice.

“When I tell my players to never miss a practice and never miss a workout and to be totally devoted to the team, I better be doing it, too,” Rogers once quipped to explain his commitment.

This grit is part of the legacy of Corky Rogers, heralded as Florida’s best high school football coach. In 45 years as a head coach, he reached the state title game 16 times and never had a losing season.

He turned Jacksonville’s Lee High into a consistent winner and then transformed the Bolles School into a powerhouse. But Corky wasn’t all work. In fact, after every high school football game, he’d host a party at his home, and he spent most weekends watching his Jaguars play or golfing. He was competitive.

“He’d go out and shoot 79 and want to kill everybody around him,” says Fagan, the longtime assistant to Corky who was Mac’s quarterbacks coach at Bolles.

Out of himself, Corky demanded the world. Out of his players, he demanded even more. And that included his two daughters, Tracy and Jennifer. Early in his career, Corky doubled as the softball coach at Lee High, and Tracy played softball. He was so tough on her that she quit.

Later in life, Corky massaged the details of the story to use it as a scare tactic for his players.

“I cut her,” he told them proudly. “If I can cut my own daughter, I can certainly cut you.”