TEMPEST IN TEMPE
His story rings apocryphal: A young man, 21 years old and about
to leave the military, telephones Riverside (Calif.) Community
College coach Barry Meier and says he would like to play for
him. Meier asks the caller where he went to high school. He
tells Meier that he attended St. Augustine High, a New
Orleans-area powerhouse that has produced such NFL players as
Leroy Hoard and Tyrone Hughes. Meier asks what position the
caller played there. "The trumpet," the young man says
earnestly. Whether this is a joke seems to matter little to
Meier. He tells the young man to drop by when he is discharged.
He'll see what he can do.
Two years later, his football days at Riverside a glorious
memory, Derrick Rodgers finds himself at Arizona State, where
he's a defensive end and a central figure on a Sun Devils team
that could be the biggest threat to unseat USC as Pac-10
champion. His is an improbable tale: former high school trumpet
player turned quarterback terrorizer. "If I didn't know Derrick,
I'd guess it was a made-up story," says Meier. Says Washington
offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, "He certainly looks like
he's been playing all his life."
In Arizona State's season-opening 45-42 victory over Washington,
Rodgers had seven tackles--three for losses--three quarterback
hurries and a sack, despite frequently being double-teamed. He
also forced a fumble deep in Huskies territory that led to an
Arizona State touchdown. In the Sun Devils' 52-7 barbecuing of
the University of North Texas last Saturday, Rodgers had six
tackles--3 1/2 for losses--and two sacks and caused a fumble
that cornerback Lamont Morgan returned 92 yards for a TD. With
the game safely in hand, Rodgers was pulled late in the third
September 22, 1996
"I was at USC for six years, and with his takeoff and ability to
make a move on his blocker, he's real similar to [former USC
linebacker] Junior Seau," says Arizona State defensive line
coach Kevin Wolthausen. "I'm not saying he's that type of player
yet, but I think he's headed in the right direction."
Rodgers, who turns 25 on Oct. 14, first donned pads at age eight
in a Pop Warner league in Panama City, Fla., where his mother,
Regina Miller, was stationed as an Air Force lieutenant. But his
real love as a youngster was the trumpet his mother bought him
when he was 11. While many of his friends pursued their football
careers, Rodgers would slip into a woodshed behind his home
after school and practice on his horn. Later, at St. Augustine
High, he was in the marching band for four years. "It was
great," says Rodgers. "We played during halftime of New Orleans
Saints games. We played at the 1988 Republican Convention in New
Orleans. Playing football never crossed my mind."
To get some money for college, Rodgers joined the Air Force
after graduating from St. Augustine in 1989. As a medical lab
technician stationed in Okinawa, he joined a flag football
league. So effortless was his game that some of his buddies
suggested he consider college football. He initially dismissed
the idea. However in '94 he was transferred to March Air Force
Base in Riverside. While contemplating whether to enroll at
nearby Riverside Community College to study science, Rodgers
gave Meier a call.
Success didn't come easily. Rodgers, who had grown to a svelte
6'2", 195 pounds, rode the bench until midway through his
freshman season. That nearly caused him to give up the game.
During his second year, with much of his savings exhausted, he
had to get a job. He would go to work at 3 a.m. and spend the
next four hours transporting blood from convalescent homes for a
medical research lab. He would then catch an hour of shut-eye in
his car before attending classes at Riverside, where he took a
full 12-hour course load.
He nonetheless averaged 9.8 tackles and was timed at 4.54 in the
40 that second season. Yet, when Meier first told him that he
had a chance at a scholarship from a major program, Rodgers
appeared dumbfounded. "He had no idea," says Meier. "I'd tell
him, 'Come back to me with some schools that you might be
interested in.' He comes back and asks, 'How's the University of
La Verne?'" La Verne is a Division III school located about 25
miles from Riverside Community College. "He's one of the nicest
kids you'll ever meet," says Meier. "He's also one of the most
Questions about whether Rodgers, who now weighs 223 pounds,
could be an impact player in Division I-A were answered quickly.
During spring practice and summer two-a-days at Arizona State,
Rodgers lined up across from 6'8", 320-pound Juan Roque, widely
regarded as the second-best left tackle in the game behind Ohio
State's Orlando Pace. "It probably took until the last day of
spring practice before Juan could say he had a solid performance
against Derrick," says Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder.
To compensate for his relative diminutiveness, Rodgers has honed
a slap-and-rip move in which he slaps an offensive lineman's arm
away with one hand and fends off the lineman's other hand with a
tomahawk chop. "He does it everywhere, all the time," says his
younger brother and apartment mate, Zenji Reynolds. "I walk by
him in the morning outside my room and he's putting that move on
me. We're walking down the street, and he uses it on a telephone
pole or a tree. We walk across campus, and he sees a group of
students walking toward him, and he puts it on them. He doesn't
make contact with them--unless he knows them."
After nine bowlless seasons in Tempe, there is bold talk this
season of a run for the Roses. Nineteen starters are back from
last year's 6-5 team that lost three games by a total of eight
points, and the Sun Devils are the only Pac-10 team with three
returning first-team all-conference performers--Roque,
quarterback Jake Plummer and wide receiver Keith Poole. A loss
looms this weekend against No. 1 Nebraska, but after that the
Sun Devils will have the advantage of facing their toughest
remaining Pac-10 opponents, USC and Oregon, at Sun Devil Stadium.
Snyder knows that it is Arizona State's defense, which
surrendered a league-high 30 points and 426 yards per game last
fall, that will largely dictate the Sun Devils' fate this
season. "If we get that impact player up front who can elevate
our defense just a bit, we can be a pretty good team," says
Snyder. "I think we have one who can elevate it quite a bit."
It's no secret whom he has in mind.
Among Pac-10 quarterbacks, Southern Cal's Brad Otton and Arizona
State's Jake Plummer receive the bulk of the paeans. However, by
season's end California's Pat Barnes could emerge as the
conference's top signal-caller. Under new Bears coach Steve
Mariucci, who was Brett Favre's mentor with the Green Bay
Packers from 1992 to '95, Barnes rededicated himself during the
off-season. In Cal's 42-37 win over San Diego State last
Saturday, Barnes completed 15 of 29 passes for 278 yards, which
lifted him to second in the nation in passing efficiency and Cal
to an unblemished 2-0 record. With junior tailback Tarik Smith
piling up big numbers (174 yards rushing and four touchdowns
against San Diego State; 357 yards on the ground for the
season), the Bears' new West Coast offense should lift Cal to
its first winning season since 1993.
Texas A&M still enjoys a sufficiently exalted status in college
football that some 38,000 fans were inspired to run onto the
field and tear down one goalpost and mangle another in
celebration of Southwestern Louisiana's 29-22 upset of the
Aggies last Saturday at Cajun Field in Lafayette, La. Yet as the
Aggies returned to College Station 0-2 and unranked for the
first time since 1991, they had to accept this bitter reality:
Perhaps their loss to the Ragin' Cajuns wasn't so stunning.
Since a 29-21 defeat by Colorado a year ago this Saturday, a
loss that crushed its national title hopes, A&M has won an
underwhelming seven of 11 games. Of the victories, one was a
come-from-behind 17-10 squeaker over Rice, another a 20-17
last-second win over an SMU team that would end up last season
with a 1-10 record.
Much-ballyhooed quarterback Branndon Stewart, who had completed
20 of 28 passes for 232 yards in a 41-37 loss to BYU, was picked
off four times by the Ragin' Cajuns. Two of the interceptions
were returned for touchdowns. Southwestern Louisiana also
recovered four fumbles. "They didn't respect us," says Cajuns
senior safety Damon Mason after a game in which he had an
astounding nine tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles
and a sack. "One guy comes up to me and says, 'Hey, little man,
I'm going to take you to McDonald's and buy you a Happy Meal.'
And he's just a sophomore.
"I knew we were a good team, but this was big," Mason added.
"You should've seen it after the game. It was out of Gulliver's
Travels, all these little people carrying this big goalpost out
of the stadium and down the street."
A few days before last Saturday's game against Virginia Tech, a
Boston College fan placed a detailed account of a Sept. 7 Eagles
practice on the Internet. That prompted BC coach Dan Henning,
who learned of the treacherous act from his net-surfing son, Dan
Jr., to complain that the Eagles would be at a competitive
disadvantage against the Hokies. Whether the cyberinfo (said
Henning, "I mean, it told who won our wind sprints") benefited
Virginia Tech in its preparation was unclear. This, though, was
perfectly clear: The Eagles were at a distinct competitive
disadvantage. They lost 45-7.