Butler High School fans haven’t had a wealth of things to cheer about in 53 years of football.
The Bulldogs have had fewer 10-win seasons (four) than 0-10 campaigns (five, including four in a row during a 41-game losing streak from 2005-09). Butler has had seven head coaches and only three winning seasons since 1989. It hasn’t won a region title since 1987.
And from Laney’s Emerson Boozer helping the New York Jets win Super Bowl III in 1969 to Josey’s Deon Grant helping the New York Giants win Super Bowl XLVI last year, Butler has had to watch many of its Richmond County rivals, including Glenn Hills and Richmond Academy, celebrate homegrown heroes on the biggest stage in American sports.
Now Butler has Carlos Rogers – a starting cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. It took 47 years, but the Bulldogs finally have one of their own to brag about on Super Bowl Sunday.
“I think the buttons on their shirts should be popping off, to be honest with you,” said David Land, Rogers’ high school coach and a 1973 Butler grad, of the pride in his alma mater. “How many high schools have players who’ve played in the Super Bowl? With all the high schools in this country that play football, the odds are not in your favor to have your alumni play in the Super Bowl. My buttons are busting. I’m proud as punch of him and couldn’t be happier.”
It’s been 13 years since Rogers was a three-sport star at Butler, but he hopes his presence in the big game is fulfilling back home.
“Those who remember me, I’m sure it means a lot,” Rogers said. “Going through my times at Butler, good and bad through all the sports, it makes a lot of people feel good and proud. Especially the ones who know me and been through it with me. Makes them feel like they’re a part of it.”
More than that, Rogers hopes his story can serve as inspiration for a new generation of Bulldogs.
“Just to show them that a guy that was in their same shoes – that I did it,” he said. “And to realize there’s work to keep moving from these levels to the next level. It’s not going to be handed to you. It feels like it’s a long way away from you, but when you get down to it life goes by fast. If you don’t take advantage of your opportunities and work you’re going to miss out and it’s going to be gone.”
Of all the stepping stones that led Rogers from his Pop Warner roots in Thomson to this moment in New Orleans, it was a season football took a back seat that stands out.
It happened before he won the Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in the country during Auburn’s undefeated 2004 season; before he was drafted No. 9 overall in the 2005 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins; before his Pro Bowl season of 2011 earned him a four-year, $30 million contract.
The most formative experience of Rogers’ career was attending a military prep school where he barely even played.
“It opened my eyes,” Rogers said of his year at Hargrave Military Academy spent marching an hour every morning, precisely folding his clothes and bed sheets, and playing a little wide receiver in any spare hours not spent studying. “I realized life shouldn’t be all about football, but also about getting a good education.”
After graduating from Butler in 2000, Rogers didn’t have the grades to go directly to either of his primary college pursuers – Auburn and Georgia. It was nobody’s fault but his own.
“I thought I’d get what I need or get by,” he said.
Coaches in Athens wanted him to go to Georgia Military Academy, a two-year commitment that eats into college eligibility. Auburn suggested Hargrave, a prep program that would leave him with four years to play in college.
It’s this life experience he hopes provides a lesson to other young athletes.
“It’s not all about the sport that you play in; you can’t just play sports,” he said. “Things don’t just happen and people just don’t give it to you. That was some of my thinking. I did some work, but I didn’t do enough to be able to go from high school straight to college level. I had to go to prep school and it taught me a lesson about working in the classroom first.
“Now when I work it’s about football. This is my job. But getting to this point is about classwork and then going out on the field to perform.”
His parents saw a substantial change in Rogers’ work ethic.
“It was very beneficial and a great part of why he was successful,” said his father, David. “It was a great teaching lesson. There were times he wanted to come back home, being away from his friends, but he was determined to do what he had to do to get to Auburn. Because he loved football.”
Big plays made
During his senior year at Butler – when Rogers was limited to seven games because of an ankle injury that nagged him most of the season – there were often flashes of his boundless potential. There was the interception return touchdown at Hephzibah that triggered the Bulldogs’ first win. There was a 34-20 victory at Central in Macon when, as Land said, “Carlos basically put us on his back and carried us.”
And there was the 80-yard touchdown dash at North Augusta that even left the Yellow Jackets buzzing.
“Carlos breaks a run down the sideline and Rod Greenway comes over the PA and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ve never seen 4.3 speed – there it is,’ ” Land said.
“I remember that,” Rogers said with a laugh 13 years later. “I still have that on my highlight tape.”
While conceding that his eight years in the NFL have flashed by, those days at Butler still linger fondly in his mind.
“I still have memories of games even when I first came to Butler from my JV times,” he said. “Just remember my growing process. When they moved me up to varsity, I wasn’t that guy. We had another guy who ran the ball real good in the wing-T and after he left it was me. I remember so many games and so many battles and so many jamborees when I was at Butler.”
The only things Rogers might want to forget are the losses. Butler never won more than four games during his four years in high school.
“We weren’t real good but we weren’t horrible,” said Land, now the director of athletics and assistant head coach at Jefferson County.
“When he didn’t win a championship at Butler, that competitive nature inside him didn’t like that,” his father said. “When he stepped on the field, he stepped on the field to win.”
Short of winning, Rogers still impressed as a three-sport star (he averaged 14.2 points per game as guard on the basketball team and was a sprinter in track). Both Auburn and Georgia coveted his athletic versatility.
“You knew he had the athleticism to play at the next level,” Land said. “Did you know he had the athleticism to play at the NFL level? In high school football that’s kind of hard to say. He was a three-sport athlete. Was he special? Yes.”
Could anyone see a Super Bowl in his future?
“In high school as a father, you have wishful thinking and fantasize,” David Rogers said. “That’s what I did when he was in high school. But when he got to the college, you began to believe it could become reality.”
A chance to win
The reality started taking root with Rogers’ first collegiate game. His parents, David and Linda, were wearing his No. 14 jersey waiting for the team bus to arrive for the pre-game Tiger Walk when a couple informed them that Carlos would be starting in his debut.
“We didn’t know that,” David said. “I told my wife then that I don’t know of any player who started as a freshman that didn’t go on and get drafted high in the NFL. From that point on, it became reality.”
Rogers played in 50 games in four seasons, starting 43, and each season was better than the next. A first-team All-American as a senior, he led the Tigers to a 13-0 record and the Southeastern Conference championship. But instead of playing for the BCS title, the Tigers were ranked No. 3 and had to settle for the Sugar Bowl.
“Was he disappointed? That’s putting it mildly,” Land said. “But they knew what they’d accomplished and in the minds of Carlos and his teammates, they were the national champions. Who can dispute it?”
Rogers hopes to leave no doubt this time. All that stands between him and a Super Bowl ring is the Baltimore Ravens.
“It would be special to win that bowl game and come back and put that ring on – something that will carry history,” he said. “I want it badly. I’ve won NFC West. Won NFC Championship. This is the championship of the world. Only two teams playing and all the country watching. It’s going to be special. Took me eight years to get here and don’t know if I’ll be back again.”
Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, David Rogers calls it “a joyful time right now.” And he hopes the whole Butler family is celebrating.
“Butler should be very proud of him,” he said, “because it lets you know that any ordinary family in any household, if you believe, you have a chance to succeed.”