The No. 80 jersey put on a highlight-reel show, a dazzling sensation of acrobatic catches and blazing speed unseen from a Detroit Lions receiver. Electric volts swept through Ford Field. Two touchdowns? In his NFL debut?
Charles Rogers became the first rookie in franchise history to catch a pair of touchdowns in his first game. We thought we found the most exciting player since Barry Sanders. We thought we had the next Jerry Rice. A legend was in the making.
Five weeks later, his season was over.
Three years later, his career was, too.
And all that remains in this sad tale are questions. What if Rogers never dove across the middle on that 2004 opening series in Chicago? What if Lions management properly handled his troubles and injury recovery time?
What if, what if, what if. That’s all it is now for Rogers, a receiver who saw his world-class 40-yard speed diminish with each puff of marijuana, a depressing deterioration that plummeted his talent so shockingly low, he couldn’t crack the practice squad of the worst franchise in the Super Bowl era.
“I just didn’t fulfill my end of the bargain,” Rogers told ESPN.com’s Jemele Hill in 2009. “I choked. Straight up, I choked.”
But the real choking belongs to Lions management, who never should have selected Rogers.
Why did they ignore all the warning signs throughout his youth? He had two kids in high school. His girlfriend stabbed him with a cooking fork in 1999. He tested positive for marijuana – twice – at Michigan State. Yet through all of that, the worst GM in NFL history and Lions coach Steve Mariucci selected the former Spartan standout second overall in the 2003 NFL Draft. The real screw-up came 11 days prior to the pick, when a report surfaced that Rogers tested positive for a urine masking agent. Matt Millen, however, called it a “non-factor” and selected Rogers above Andre Johnson.
“People in Detroit are excited, just like they are in East Lansing, Saginaw and Iron Mountain because of Charles Rogers being a Detroit Lion,” Mariucci said to SI.com. “This in some ways was a slam dunk.”
Yep, a slam-dunk miss from the bloopers reels as Rogers crashed to the floor.
How’s this for a non-factor: 36 receptions in three seasons and one more touchdown (four) than failed drug tests (three). Johnson, on the other hand, has played 11 seasons, compiled 866 catches, 11,838 yards and 56 touchdowns.
Rogers’ skyscraper fall from stardom to bust began rather quickly. During his rookie year, he became engaged in a squabble with cornerback Dre Bly during a one-on-one passing drill in a bye-week practice and broke his right clavicle, ending his season after five games.
There were reports that Rogers worked his tail off as the 2004 season approached. But in the Lions’ season opener at Chicago, on the first series and the third play of scrimmage, he dove for a pass and broke his collarbone for the second time in 11 months. It looked like an innocent play to Lions fans, but the crushing blow was delivered upon viewing the No. 80 stroll along the sideline, into the Soldier Field tunnel, and out of our sights for the rest of the season.
It was a wind-sucking punch to the stomach for Lions fans.
“I just spoke with Charles, and he’s very disappointed,” Mariucci told the Associated Press after the game. “I told him that’s he not to blame. He’s 23 and he’s got a lot of football ahead of him.”
At least we thought so.
From there, Millen helped dig Rogers’ grave by granting him time away from the organization. According to Millen, there was no need to attend team meetings, watch practices or study film.
Arguably, this could’ve been Millen’s worst decision during his tenure in Detroit. Rogers deteriorated during the down time and smoked marijuana daily. His once-blazing 40-time translated from a 4.28 to 4.8. His inability to get off the line of scrimmage worsened even further.
“We did a poor job as an organization, but we thought at the time that he needed some time by himself, which he probably did,” Millen told ESPN.com’s Hill. “But then what we should have done was still required him to be there and still sit through the meetings and go through everything.”
In 2005, Rogers returned in poor condition. He caught five passes for 77 yards and zero touchdowns in a three-game span, then came the news of his four-game suspension on the heels of a third failed drug test.
He finished the year with 14 catches for 197 yards and a touchdown. And in September of 2006, he was released in training camp by coach Rod Marinelli.
Three years after that sensational NFL debut, Rogers was finished.
The sensation out of Michigan State who won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver proved that talent will always require professionalism and hard work to produce results. Rogers had the talent category mastered, but never figured out the latter characteristics.
But the saddest note in the tale of Charles Rogers is those troubles continue today. In March, he allegedly threatened to kill his mother in regards to $100,000. And last month, mlive.com reported that an arrest warrant was issued after he failed to appear for a hearing.
It’s a continuation of a lifelong problem for the Saginaw native, who shows flashes of hope when he enters rehabilitation centers, but crushes hearts whenever he becomes a headline again. It’s a sick, vicious cycle.
You can only shake your head in disbelief and wonder how Rogers’ NFL career could have, or should have, unfolded. It’s fair to say it was a tragedy.
Let’s just hope we don’t have to say the same about his life.