The rebuilding project in San Francisco began with Eric Rogers, a Division III product who, on his way to the NFL, spent time in arena ball, the Canadian league and loading trucks for UPS. If Chip Kelly is preaching patience, his first signing knows the drill
After an exodus of 49ers players in the months following Jim Harbaugh’s departure in late 2014, many expected this offseason to feature a flurry of activity aimed at improving the San Francisco roster. The first move came Jan. 20 when Eric Rogers, the CFL’s leading receiver from a year ago, picked the rebuilding 49ers and new coach Chip Kelly after a nationwide tour of 16 NFL suitors.
Rogers’ story—his journey from Division III to arena football to Canada—is a remarkable one on its face. Yet no one imagined his two-year deal would be the biggest headline in the first three months of the Kelly era. But here we are: Colin Kaepernick sits in limbo as the team ponders its future at quarterback, and the former Eagles coach who dealt away LeSean McCoy and canned DeSean Jackson is preaching patience in roster-building.
“I just think you’ve got to look at who fits and who’s the right fit for your organization,” Kelly told reporters last week, after the Niners executed their biggest move in free agency: the signing of middle-of-the-road guard Zane Beadles. “Our guys do a great job of targeting what we want the San Francisco 49ers to be.”
It’s this conservative and very specific approach to free agency by the Niners, with a surplus of $60 million to spend, that makes the Rogers signing so unique. Just two hours after news broke of Kelly’s hiring in San Francisco on Jan. 14, a 603 area code hit Rogers’ phone.
“Chip gave me a call on the way to the airport,” Rogers remembers. “He said I was the first person he called.”
To Kelly, and awestruck coaches on the nearly two dozen teams which expressed interest this offseason, Rogers represents the latest of late bloomers, and a story of resilience not often seen even at the sport’s highest level. He was a zero-star recruit who was meant to go into permanent hibernation at Division III California Lutheran University, but instead emerged as the most NFL-ready Canadian football leaguer since Cameron Wake. (Rogers’ $125,000 Niners signing bonus and $100,000 base-salary guarantee also make him the most expensive Canadian import since Wake.)
"He loves the game,” says 49ers G.M. Trent Baalke. “That really stood out to us. I think he really enjoys playing it. He's competitive, passionate, he works hard at it, and he's a fun guy to be around."
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Before Rogers picked an NFL team, Cal Lutheran head coach Ben McEnroe fielded numerous calls from incredulous coaches and executives digging for the truth. Surely, they thought, Rogers must have some deep, dark secret that kept him off the radar of bigger programs. Six-foot-three 25-year-olds who can jump out of the gym and run clean routes don’t just appear out of thin air.
“They’ve asked me, how did you get this guy?” says McEnroe, “In our program, we can’t look at kids and say what can he contribute immediately. We have to look at what kind of player he can grow into. He wasn’t even the best player on his high school team, but you can’t coach 6-3.”
The height is what helped get Rogers recruited to Division II Chadron State, the Nebraska school that produced Chargers running back Danny Woodhead in 2008. Chadron was the only scholarship option after Rogers finished his only high school varsity season with 22 catches. He accepted a scholarship in 2009 without ever visiting Chadron State, then quickly came to regret his decision. Cal Lutheran, a suburban campus in Thousand Oaks located a dozen miles from Malibu’s horse trails, had a coaching connection with his high school—recruiting coordinator Anthony Lugo is the son of Rogers’ head coach at the first of two Los Angeles-area high schools the Glendora, Calif., native attended. The NFL wasn’t on Rogers’ radar; he wanted to be a police officer, and he wanted to stay close to home. “I wasn’t really planning on playing football after college,” he says.
So Chadron State released Rogers from his commitment, and he enrolled at Cal Lutheran. Rogers weighed about 175 pounds and was limited as a route-runner, but the high school long-jumper was magic with the ball in the air, and in his hands.
“At one point he’s the best player in Division III football,” Rogers’ coach recalls, “and he’s asking me which cleaner to use to get heavy grass stains out.”
Division III meant Rogers needed money for school. His mother, Carrie Barron, raised three children on a home nurse’s salary. Rogers never had a close relationship with his father, who is currently incarcerated. A family friend helped out with his freshman tuition: “As long as you’re doing your job,” she would tell him, “God will take you the rest of the way.” At Cal Lutheran, Rogers took out numerous student loans, applied for financial aid and worked in the cafeteria, swiping meal cards. He also played intramural basketball.
“One day during his freshman year, half the campus came to my office to tell me about this dunk in an intramural game,” McEnroe says. “It was legendary by lunchtime.”
Well aware of that athletic potential, McEnroe grew frustrated with his offensive coaches’ inability to get Rogers more touches. “I kept telling the offensive coordinator, Dumb it down and find a way to get this guy the football. In the middle of the season we were in a meeting and I threw a bunch of stuff off the table and said, Find a way.”
They found a way. That first year, in 2009, Rogers caught 25 balls for 398 yards. The next season he caught 62 for 817. As a junior: 42 for 948. And then finally, as a senior in 2012, Rogers caught 91 passes for 1,298 yards and 18 touchdowns, earning D-III All-America honors. He says the thought of transferring to a scholarship program never occurred to him after any of his first three seasons because Lutheran had been a perfect fit. “I transferred in high school so I never really felt like I had a home before I got to college,” Rogers says.
Plus, he was wildly popular on campus as the guy who worked the cafeteria line and caught touchdowns in his spare time. By his senior season, Rogers was going for 100 yards and a score or two on Saturdays and cleaning the game uniforms in the industrial washers in the football building on Sunday mornings for $40 a week.
“You parted the colors and whites the night before,” Rogers says. “So it would take between three and four hours on Sunday and Monday.”
Says McEnroe: “At one point he’s the best player in Division III football, and he’s asking me which cleaner to use to get heavy grass stains out.”
Still a relatively unknown commodity among NFL teams, Rogers didn’t hear his phone ring until the seventh round of the 2013 draft, when the Cowboys were corralling undrafted free agents.
He went to Oxnard, Calif., where the Cowboys hold training camp, but scratched for reps at the bottom of the depth chart. Three days before the final preseason game, he went up for a ball in a one-on-one drill with fourth-round rookie cornerback B.W. Webb and landed awkwardly on his hip, suffering a pointer. The Cowboys medical staff gave him a numbing shot after practice. Rogers said coaches told him they hadn’t seen enough, so he ought to play through it. (The Cowboys declined to comment on Rogers’ assertion.)
He did, taking pain medication just to get through practice. It wasn’t enough. After he was released, the Packers brought him in for a tryout. He never heard back. So he went back to SoCal and figured it was over. While his agents, Cameron Weiss and Joe Barkett, fished around for opportunities, he took a job packing UPS trucks in Commerce, Calif.
“That was the lowpoint,” he says. “Seven a.m. every day. I didn’t mind the work; I just knew I could play somewhere.”
A fire was lit. He signed with the AFL’s Portland Thunder in 2014, embracing the narrow field and padded walls. There was one spectacular catch, in May against the Arizona Rattlers, that Rogers believed changed his life. He cut to the left corner of the end zone in a game the Thunder would lose by a wide margin and climbed the wall for a too-high pass, vaulting over the camera guy and sending numerous beers into orbit. SportsCenter noticed. Said the late Stuart Scott: “How about Eric? Over the camera guy… the Russian judge gave him a 9.9 on the dismount.”
Six weeks later the Calgary Stampeders and then-assistant general manager John Murphy came calling. Rogers found himself at the bottom of another depth chart, but this time he was ready. He stayed after practice with backup quarterbacks, adjusting to the far-wider CFL fields and a bigger playbook. Then, during the third week of practice, Rogers got a life-changing call. His ex-girlfriend was having his daughter back in California. She and Rogers were on good terms, and he wanted to be there for the birth, but he decided he couldn’t risk it.
“He didn’t tell us about that for months,” Murphy says. “We would’ve let him go see the birth, of course. Later on, he told us he was just scared to death to lose the opportunity.”
Says Rogers: “If I had to do it over I would’ve waited a few weeks before going up to Canada.” Instead, he played special teams for three months, fought for offensive practice reps and kept his mouth shut.
“He’s probably sitting there wondering why he left the arena league. Normally I’m getting calls from the agents or I’ve got the player asking when is he going to play,” Murphy says. “Not with these guys. He just kept working.”
That particular anecdote must have been music to the ears of someone like Chip Kelly, whose bid to build a team-first culture in Philadelphia was derailed by in-fighting, with management taking parting shots at his communication skills.
In November 2014, while Kelly was still in good graces with a playoff-bound Eagles team, the Stampeders entered the Western Division Final with two key injuries among receivers. Rogers sprung to action and delivered three catches for 60 yards and two scores.
“You could see the work he was putting in behind the scenes come alive,” Murphy says. “Time after time the stage wasn’t too big for him. We had to make some difficult choices that offseason.”
The Stampeders parted ways with a popular veteran receiver and put Rogers in the starting lineup in 2015, with spectacular results: 87 catches for 1,448 yards and 10 touchdowns in 17 games. Along the way he built the same kind of cult following he’d attracted at Cal Lutheran as the All-America cafeteria guy. TSN ran a feature playing off his name and agreeable nature—Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood—complete with button-up sweater.
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A total of 23 NFL teams came calling. First he heard from San Francisco (pre-Chip Kelly), Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Miami. Then everybody. Two years after being shuffled out the door in Dallas, Rogers was the most athletic, prolific and sought-after guy in the CFL. How had the Cowboys screwed this up?
“We’re seeing it more and more,” Murphy says. “This new NFL [collective bargaining agreement] cut down the time the teams have with players, and it hurts their evaluation and allows us to get our hands on better players.”
Early in the 2015 season, San Francisco assistant director of pro personnel Quentus Cumby brought Rogers to the attention of Baalke, who immediately put his hat in the ring. “This is a very rare case,” Baalke says. “Its not unheard of that small-school players make it in the NFL. But this is a young man who comes out of college not highly coveted, then works his way into the arena league, then up to the CFL, then the NFL. You can’t find stories like that.”
Kelly, coveter of big receivers, was prepping for a Week 15 game pitting the 6-7 Eagles against the playoff-bound Cardinals when Rogers came to visit. Rogers had a two-hour meeting with Eagles staff that Friday. Kelly was there for the last 30 minutes; most of the head coaches in other cities didn’t offer nearly that much face time.
“I wrote that down in my notes,” Rogers says. “I was very appreciative of that.”
Kelly was canned 13 days later. After the Black Monday firings shook out, Rogers narrowed his choices to the Vikings, Jets and 49ers. He chose San Francisco, located in his home state, an organization that liked him earlier than most, and a coach who had shown, by far, the most interest. With his $125,000 signing bonus, Rogers back-burnered his student loans (he estimates them to be $35,000) and bought his mom a black SUV.
When he takes his first NFL snap he will have caught, since his high school graduation, 389 passes for 5,961 yards on three different teams in two countries. He harbors no resentment for the Cowboys, Packers or even the Calgary coaches who failed to unleash him on the CFL for months in the fall of 2014. He joins a team badly in need of wide receivers. More importantly, he joins a team reeling from defections and in desperate need of an identity.
“There were always deficiencies in my game, and there still are,” Rogers says. “There are always ways to get better. But a lot of success depends on opportunity. I feel like I’m really getting an honest shot here.”
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