ONE MOMENT, ONE LIFETIME
By Scott Fowler
The Charlotte Observer
Published March 11, 2009
All rights reserved
|Rodney Rogers, the former Wake Forest and NBA basketball star, was paralyzed from the shoulders down in late November in a dirt-bike accident. Rogers is shown here in his room at Atlanta's Shepherd Center, a hospital that specializes in the rehabilitation of people with spinal-cord injuries. Rogers stayed there for three months. He said he prays every day to be able to walk again one day. (Photo by Scott Fowler)
For the first time since he was paralyzed from the shoulders down in an accident three months ago, former Wake Forest and NBA basketball star Rodney Rogers is ready to talk.
He wants you to know his story. He wants you to understand that he has not lost his faith. Or his hope.
Rogers, 37, sits in his wheelchair. On this day, he is dressed entirely in black. The huge hands that once palmed a basketball so easily now lie motionless. He breathes with the help of a ventilator.
Rogers begins the first interview since his crash by taking exactly 16 seconds to describe the moment that changed his life.
“We went riding dirt bikes,” he says, his voice soft and clear. “And going through the trail, I kind of hit a ditch and it flipped me over the handlebars. I thought I had my hands down. But I didn't. Fell on my head. Broke my neck.”
Perhaps you see from that stark description that Rogers is still the Durham Bull – the nickname he picked up as a 6-foot-7, 260-pound high school forward from Durham who could batter his way through any defense.
Rogers, ACC Player of the Year for Wake Forest in 1993, still bulls through life. He doesn't mince words about the accident. He knows it's bad.
But he has gotten considerably better over the past three months. While the ACC tournament comes to Atlanta this week, Rogers has just left that same city and the hospital where he stayed since early December.
In the past 100 days, he has bulled his way through three hospitals, two months in intensive care and dozens of rehab sessions. He hasn't regained any use of his arms or legs. But he has made enough progress that he is now home in North Carolina.
On Monday, Rogers left Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in the treatment of spinal cord injuries, to go to his new wheelchair-accessible home in the Research Triangle. He plans to live there with his fiancée, Faye Suggs, who is his primary caregiver.
Rogers understands it is very possible he will remain a quadriplegic the rest of his life. But he says his faith in God hasn't been shaken by this accident. One day he dreams of lifting his hands again or even rising from his wheelchair.
“I pray for that every day,” he says in our interview, which was Saturday in Atlanta. “I told God that I need to be able to walk and use my hands again. Because I've got a lot of stuff to do.”
It was the day after Thanksgiving – Nov.28, 2008. Some of Rogers' friends wanted to go to a rural area in Vance County, about an hour north of Raleigh, to ride dirt bikes and four wheelers.
Rogers had long been an outdoors enthusiast. He loved to get out in the country with his buddies and ride around. He had done more of that after retiring to the Raleigh-Durham area once his 12-year NBA career ended in 2005. In fact, he had thought about going with his friends the day before – on Thanksgiving Day. Suggs had decided that wasn't a good idea.
“I was like, ‘It's Thanksgiving,'” Suggs says. She also rode dirt bikes and four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles with Rogers at times, but wasn't interested in spending part of a family holiday doing so.
OK, Rogers said. I won't go on Thanksgiving.
The next day, four of his friends asked again. And again, Suggs didn't want him to go. “I just thought we should stay home,” Suggs recalls.
But it was a beautiful fall day. Rogers wanted to see his friends. This time he said yes.
“I could have been spending time with Faye,” Rogers says. “She asked me not to go. But she wasn't going to sit there and try to force me not to go.”
Rogers had some regrets on the drive to Vance County. He remembers thinking: “I shouldn't go out today. I'm getting too old for this mess.”
He had on a helmet that day. He had had several accidents on dirt bikes. None had been serious, but they had convinced him to always wear a helmet when riding. He also wore protective gear on his arms and legs.
“But not a neck brace,” Rogers says matter-of-factly.
Some off-road riders wear neck braces to help prevent head and neck injuries. Rogers actually owned a couple of neck braces for this reason. However, he didn't like the way they felt and says he “never really wore them.”
The accident occurred in the afternoon. Rogers says he didn't see the ditch at first. When he did, he says he realized: “I was going too fast.”
He hit the ditch with the front wheel of the dirt bike. (Earlier media reports that Rogers was riding an ATV when the accident occurred are incorrect, he says).
“Then,” he says, “I bounced.”
Rogers flipped head-first over the handlebars. Even in the air, he says, he doesn't remember being hugely concerned.
“I had fallen like that plenty of times while riding,” he says.
But as soon as Rogers came down, he knew something was wrong. His friends circled back to check on him.
“I never lost consciousness,” Rogers says. “I told them when they came back and got me: ‘I think I done messed up and broke my neck.' I didn't feel nothing. I couldn't move my arms, couldn't move my legs. I knew it wasn't right.”
One of Rogers' friends called an ambulance. Rogers was rushed first to a local hospital and then to Duke University, where he had extensive spinal surgery. The accident was a “C3/C4” spinal cord injury, which refers to his third and fourth cervical vertebrae. It was a high spinal cord injury, and that was bad news. The higher the vertebrae affected, the more paralysis produced.
On Dec.3, Rogers traveled by air ambulance from Duke to Atlanta's Shepherd Center – one of the country's leading facilities for dealing with severe spinal cord injuries. Rogers would stay in Shepherd's intensive care unit for the next two months.
Suggs was with him constantly at Shepherd. When Rogers got into a regular room, she decorated it with a Wake Forest pennant and pictures of his kids. Former ACC and NBA friends and foes came by – including Ralph Sampson, Tony Delk, Dennis Scott and Mark Jackson – to talk about long-ago battles. Former Wake Forest basketball coach Dave Odom visited many times and has been heartened lately to see Rogers' sense of humor returning.
“He's getting back his playfulness,” Odom says. “His personality has always been light-hearted, and now he's moving back toward being the Rodney of old.”
Robert Doggett, an old teammate of Rogers' in AAU basketball in North Carolina and at Wake Forest, now lives in Atlanta. He became a frequent presence by Rogers' side.
It was Doggett who got to take him for an outing – along with a nurse – once Rogers got out of ICU. They went to a Target and a Best Buy in Atlanta, laughing about old times and teammates. Rogers – a strong and proud man, now and always – had to overcome a case of nerves to get in the van.
“It felt funny,” he says. “I almost didn't want to go. I hadn't been outside in months. Sometimes you worry about how people will look at you. But it was pretty good.”
Suggs has barely left Rogers for the past three months. She and Rogers bought the house in the Raleigh-Durham area (they don't want to give its exact location) despite never seeing it in person. They chose it from Atlanta mostly because of its wheelchair accessibility. Suggs will care for him there, but Rogers will also need a nurse in the home 24 hours a day.
Says Suggs: “We don't see all this as something to be sad about. This is our life. This is what was predestined for us.”
The Durham Bull
Rogers has fought his way through difficult situations before. He grew up in Durham, mostly in a public housing project. He did not know his father well and was raised mostly by his mother, Estella Rogers. Crime and drugs were everywhere in his neighborhood, and his family was not immune. He has an older brother who served time for armed robbery.
When Rogers was a sophomore at Durham's Hillside High, his mother was involved in a nearly fatal car wreck. She needed medical care for many months and Rogers moved in with a former youth league coach named Nathaniel Brooks for his final two years of high school.
By then, Rogers was being heavily recruited. He chose Wake Forest because his campus visit was so good.
Odom says Rogers was “the most important recruit we ever had” – and he also recruited Tim Duncan to Wake Forest.
“Rodney is special,” Odom says. “He was our first big recruit at Wake. He made people understand that we were serious about winning.”
With rippling muscles and graceful play, Rogers hit the league like a tornado. He was the ACC Rookie of the Year in 1990-91, then made first-team all-conference as a sophomore. Rogers averaged 21.2 points and 7.4 rebounds as a junior, when he was the ACC Player of the Year.
Wake Forest made the NCAA tournament in each of Rogers' three seasons. The school retired his No.54 jersey.
After his junior year, Rogers turned pro. He was the No.9 overall pick of the 1993 NBA draft, selected by the Denver Nuggets. He would go on to play for seven NBA teams in a solid 12-year career, averaging 10.9 points and 4.5 rebounds. His best season came in 1999-2000, when he was the NBA Sixth Man of the Year while with the Phoenix Suns.
Rogers and his wife, the former Tisa White, had three children during his NBA career. Their daughters are 15 and 11. Their son is 5.
But the marriage broke up several years ago. Tisa and the children live in Arizona. The kids came to North Carolina right after Rogers was injured, and he hopes to see them again during their spring break.
“Although,” says Rogers, glancing down at his body, “you hate to have them see you like this.”
‘Praying For The Best'
Rogers moved back to Durham after his NBA career. He began dating Suggs. He took a job with the City of Durham as a heavy equipment operator (the health insurance from that job would later come in very handy).
Rogers says that, although many people believed he must have spent all the money he made in the NBA to take such a job, that simply wasn't true.
“I just liked doing stuff like that,” he says. “I had my own trucking company, too. I liked operating loaders and stuff. It was something to get me out. Something to keep me out of trouble. I needed to do something, and I just enjoyed it.”
Rogers began reconnecting with the Durham community. He helped start a youth football team. He helped coach a middle school girls' basketball team.
All that had to stop, of course, when the accident happened. Rogers now requires constant care. He needs to be fed. His ventilator constantly needs to be checked. He needs to be washed. He needs to be moved from bed to wheelchair. Suggs will do most of that.
“When you have somebody like Faye who's been there since Day One to take care of you,” Rogers says, “that's great. If it weren't for her, no telling how I'd be feeling.”
Says Suggs: “He wouldn't have ever left me in the same situation, so I won't ever leave him.
“Now don't get me wrong. We have been depressed. But we pray a lot, and we move on. Rodney still wants to be involved in the community. He can still do things. Plus, the spinal cord is mysterious. It takes time to heal. We're dealing with the worst-case scenario, but we're praying for the best.”
Rogers and Suggs didn't tell a whole lot of people they were driving home to North Carolina Monday. They wanted to settle in to their new home for a couple of days first. But Rogers says he is anxious to see his friends and fans again.
When asked how he wants everyone to treat him, Rogers leans his head forward slightly.
“I don't want people to treat me any different,” he says. “I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me. I'm in a wheelchair. But I'm Rodney. I'm still Rodney.”