BLACKSBURG — As if Sam Rogers hadn’t already achieved folk hero status at Virginia Tech, someone whose legend has grown over time, Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster delivered a quote for the ages this week about the senior running back.
“On the field he’s just a nonstop ball of butcher knives,” Foster said. “I’m telling you he just goes 100 miles per hour, and if you’re in his way, you’re going to pay the price”
There have rarely been players come through Blacksburg as universally praised as Rogers, a legitimate walk-on success story who forged his way by sheer will.
Right guard Augie Conte joked that Rogers works so hard that he makes everybody look bad. Quarterback Jerod Evans said he’d never met anybody as intense about football until he met the running back.
Quarterback Brenden Motley remembered his thoughts when Rogers first got to campus in 2013, an infectious ball of energy ready to take Virginia Tech by storm.
“I was like, ‘How did this guy get here? What are we doing? … What is he going to play? How is he going to help us?’ ” Motley said, laughing at the absurdity of those thoughts in hindsight. “Obviously, he has helped us in a tremendous fashion.”
There will be a small but loyal group recognized Saturday on Senior Day at Lane Stadium, although it’s a safe bet the loudest ovation will be reserved for a 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back who didn’t even garner a Football Bowl Subdivision offer coming out of Hanover High four years ago.
But that’s what makes it so special now that Rogers has become a fan favorite and consummate team leader; the kind of player every coach feels fortunate to have had.
“We all have guys that we get to coach along the way that we know are special,” Hokies head coach Justin Fuente said. “But there’s another category for guys that are elite in everything that they do. And those guys don’t come along very often. …
“There are just not too many people like Sam. Guys that you know that whatever they end up doing, they’re going to be incredibly successful at. Guys that truly are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team be successful and focused and hardworking.”
And to think, Fuente’s only known Rogers for less than a year. Rogers has that kind of effect, even if he’s sheepish about the attention.
“Honestly, it just feels weird because there’s other guys on the team that work really, really hard,” Rogers said. “You have the Chuck Clarks of the world. He’s up here all the time. You have other guys that are just doing so much, so part of me feels uncomfortable because I feel like these guys deserve just as much credit.”
That’s not false modesty, which is part of what makes Rogers so well-liked. And the humble, put-your-head-down approach isn’t some newfound act. It’s been a part of him for a while.
Rogers remembered wanting desperately to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and be a rare sixth-grader to play middle school football. While still in fifth grade, he asked his dad what he could do to accomplish that goal.
“He was like, just start off with 60 push-ups a night,” Rogers said. “So I started off with 60 push-ups a night. Then it’d increase to 100 push-ups a night, 200 push-ups a night and just keep going. And I got obsessive over that, because I’m kind of like an obsessive personality I guess when I start doing stuff.”
A host of people helped shape him along the way, from family members to coaches of all sports, so much support that Rogers thought: “If I don’t work, what am I doing?”
Soon, Division I football became his goal. As has been famously detailed before, Rogers was under recruited in high school, despite being an all-everything at Hanover High. When he received a player of the year award at a Richmond event, Tech coach Frank Beamer, who was in attendance, asked his son, Shane, why the Hokies weren’t recruiting him. Shane’s response was that he was, but he, like others on Tech’s staff, wondered what position Rogers would play.
Rogers wasn’t deterred. And he had some extra motivation. His dad, Todd, had flirted with interest from bigger schools but chose to play linebacker at Randolph-Macon. His brother, Ben, followed the same route, ending up at Hampden-Sydney, where he was a four-year all-conference pick and All-American center by the time he was a senior.
“Part of me was like, that’s been done,” Sam said of going to a small school. “I don’t know if this sounds weird, but for me and them, I wanted to show them that, ‘Hey, we could have done this. We have the ability to do this.’ And I’m not saying they regret anything. They had an awesome time and they did great where they were, but I just kind of wanted to do something different.”
Rogers rebuffed FCS offers from Bucknell and St. Francis, picking a preferred walk-on role at Virginia Tech over a similar offer from Virginia.
The Hokies faithful sure are glad he did. Rogers has become part of the fabric in Blacksburg since then, snagging a starting role as a true freshman and doing whatever needed to be done on the field, whether that was running or blocking, playing on special teams or throwing a pass.
His work habits became legendary, whether it was sticking around after practice to catch balls on the JUGS machine with the receivers, running wind sprints at 6 a.m. on an empty practice field or sitting in on quarterback meetings, just because.
“I remember freshman year when he got here, he had class across the Drillfield and he had an hour off,” Conte said. “He would come back across the Drillfield, go run routes with one of the quarterbacks for like 35 minutes, then go walk back across the Drillfield to go back to class. … There’s never a time when Sam is not doing anything with football.”
“He’s as real as you can get,” Todd Rogers said. “There’s no fake in him. The person you see is exactly who he is.”
Though statistics are sometimes hard to quantify for a fullback — Rogers has run for 573 yards, caught 65 passes for 723 yards and scored eight touchdowns in his career, with a touchdown pass for good measure — he’ll likely go down in school history as one of the top players at his position, up there with Jarrett Ferguson.
Still, Rogers has had some great individual moments. He had touchdown catches in both of the Ohio State games, his 51-yarder in 2015 bringing the decibel level up in Lane Stadium as high as it has been in recent years. His touchdown catch at UVa last year in the fourth quarter was the start of Tech’s comeback.
But it’s not those individual moments that stand out to Rogers.
“It’s about these relationships you build with so many people that I never would have the opportunity to do,” Rogers said. “I mean, it’d get me choked up just talking about it right now. There are so many people that I feel so fortunate to have met, just through this stuff.
“It’s crazy, because you think at the beginning, it’s just all about your individual goals and you want to just go attain those, and it’s just all about me, me, me, me me. And you get blindsided by all these relationships you make along the way. And that’s so much more important than any goal I could ever achieve.”
Rogers got an invitation to the Senior Bowl after the season and could be an interesting case in the NFL Draft, given the position he plays. Fullbacks aren’t often selected, although Rogers is versatile enough that his value on a 53-man NFL roster would be tremendous, even if he signs as a free agent.
“The chances for someone to make it to that level is, as you know, pretty slim,” Todd Rogers said. “But Sam had the same chances going from Hanover High School to Virginia Tech, too. So I wouldn’t count him out at any of those levels.”
For now, that’s not in Sam’s thoughts. To think about that, he said, would be doing his teammates a disservice. That doesn’t mean that when the time comes, he’s going to go all-out for it.
“I remember my brother always telling me, his favorite quote was: Dangerous men dream with their eyes open,” Sam said. “And that’s something that I always think about. Dreams are just dreams unless you put them into action.”