Charles Rogers's Death a Tragic End to a Troubled Life

Rogers, the second overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft, spent his entire playing career in the state where he was born and raised.
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Charles Rogers, dead at 38. The age hits you: Rogers only got to live half a life. It’s fair to wonder if he even got that.

He was the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft but only played 15 games. Rogers was a big-time talent who couldn’t stay on the field and struggled to figure out life off of it. You could watch him run one route and think “wow, this is so easy for him.” That was the least accurate and most unfair thing you could say.

“From the outside looking in, a lot of people, they pass judgment on athletes because they believe you were given this special ability,” former Lions teammate James Hall said Monday. “You wasted it away—you know the narrative that usually plays out. It’s not that simple. There are various complexities to people’s lives.”

When Rogers was a kid from violence-plagued Saginaw, football provided a way out. But like a lot of gifted athletes, he had no answers for what to do after he got out. Rogers was not a natural leader. He was not the hardest worker. He did not have the personal discipline that an athlete needs to become great. He was not equipped with so much of what a person needs to succeed in the world, and his curse was that we so casually described him as blessed. He was blessed with speed, sure. But a man can’t run from everything.

Charles Rogers, dead at 38. This was the news that people feared to hear about Rogers, even if you didn’t know his health was failing, even before he said he had battled painkiller addiction, before he flamed out in the NFL, before he tested positive for a masking agent at the 2003 NFL combine. When Rogers left Michigan State after three seasons, he was already slipping; people who knew him then wondered if he was emotionally ready for professional football. But this was hard for most people to see. His talent was his masking agent.

“He definitely had some baggage that he hadn‘t unpacked in the way he needed to, to navigate his career in football and probably in life,” Hall said.

Teammates invariably describe him as nice. As former Lions center Dominic Raiola said Monday; “The guy, he was a great teammate. Very unassuming, quiet guy. People think they knew him. They didn’t really know him.” Hall says Rogers was “very, very well-liked. Humble, great personality, knew how to engage with people. People just loved him.”

But so often, it’s the nice guys who want to be liked. The nice guys want to fit in. The nice guys can’t say no. They don’t want to act bigger than the people they always knew. They don’t want to leave anybody behind.

“The best way to put it: Everything you try to tell a young guy not to do, Charles probably did it,” Hall said. “And that’s not an indictment of Charles. That’s just, you have to have some skills and capacities to navigate being a professional athlete. A lot of times people on the outside are quick to vilify individuals. They do so without knowing what’s all happened.”

How talented was Rogers? If you compared him to Randy Moss, nobody laughed. He had sprinter’s speed and soft hands. He was not quite as tall as Moss, but he played like a bigger man because he moved like a smaller one. Once in a while, you will see an athlete with uncommon straight-line speed for his size. But Rogers was not just fast. He was fluid.

He was the second overall pick in the 2003 draft. Andre Johnson, who went onto a Hall of Fame-quality career with the Texans, went third. This made sense at the time.

It is easy to wonder if Rogers would have had a different career, and a different life, if he had left the state of Michigan for college or pro ball—if he got away from Saginaw. That is probably an oversimplification. It implies that he could have succeeded if he could just start over at age 18 or 21. What he probably needed, and what was not easily available to pro athletes at that time, was mental-health support.

He needed to see that being a sweet guy with freakish athleticism was not a sound business plan. Looking back, Rogers was not even really built for football. He broke his collarbone twice. And once his skills started eroding, there wasn’t enough left to hold him up.

Charles Rogers, dead at 38. Various reports linked his death to cancer or liver failure; Hall said he heard recently that Rogers was suffering from kidney failure. For so long, we have wondered what Rogers could have given us. Maybe we should have asked what we could have given him.