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Former Mercury sports editor Don Seeley passed away in June 2013 from a heart attack. For more than a decade Seeley wrote about local sports. Featured here are his columns that were previously printed in The Mercury.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Local football legend Bill Rogers remembered

Former Pottstown and St. Pius X football coach Bill Rogers,
who died of cancer in January.

NORTH COVENTRY — When Bill Rogers was diagnosed with cancer in early December, doctors told him he had just two weeks to two months to live. Later that afternoon, his wife asked him if he had any regrets.
“To be a dad, a grand-dad, a coach … I did everything I wanted to do, so no regrets,” he told his wife Norma Jean.
Early Thursday morning, exactly 40 days later, Rogers died.
But not before doing more than most men could ever dream of doing; not before impacting the lives of countless others.
Rogers was the dad of two daughters and three sons who loved him; the grand-dad of 12 grandchildren who adored him; and the coach who, throughout a career that spanned an astonishing 55 years, taught hundreds and hundreds of young student-athletes not only how to play football but to embrace the game and the lessons it provided … and every one of them revered him.
“He was a special man, just a special, special man,” said Doug Rogers, his youngest son.
“Our dad just loved doing what he did,” added Dean Rogers, the second-oldest son. “There aren’t too many people who find out what they truly love doing at the age of 14 and get to do it the rest of their life.”
Bill Rogers did.
He was 14 and in eighth grade when the late Robert McNelly — head coach at the former Royersford High School — told him to come out for football. There was no junior high program, so Rogers spent his afternoons at the Eagles’ practices in full gear. But all he could do was stand around, watch, and learn.
And did he ever learn well.
Before he graduated, he became a three-year starting lineman who helped Royersford to an undefeated season in 1951 and back-to-back Perkiomen-Schuylkill Valley League championships. He went on to become a standout at Ursinus College.
“When I got out of Ursinus I was married with a baby girl, and I didn’t have a job,” Rogers recalled during an interview just over four years ago. “There was a guy from Ursinus down (at Fairfax County High School) in Virginia who told me they needed an assistant to coach the linemen.” 
That was all Rogers needed to hear. He packed up the car and, with Norma Jean and daughter Allison accompanying him, headed south.
He would spend four years at Fairfax County before accepting a teaching and coaching position at Daniel Boone High School. Two years later, he was teaching and coaching at Pottstown, then took over the Trojans’ program in 1972. But following a winless season in 1977, he was fired.
“When you lose all your games it’s like dying every week,” Rogers said. “I was discouraged, mentally down. When I was fired it nearly destroyed me.”
But he didn’t turn his back on the game, or the kids who played it. He returned to the sidelines at St. Pius X as an assistant to Jim Mich. When the legendary Mich resigned, Rogers stepped in as the Lions’ head coach from 1985 through 1994.
He guided St. Pius from the Ches-Mont League into the Pioneer Athletic Conference in 1986, then to the PIAA-Class AA Eastern Final in 1988, when the Lions lost a 20-10 thriller to eventual state champion Camp Hill up at Governor Mifflin High School.
Six years later, he was fired.
“In his long career Bill had some rough sledding at times, and it was extremely tough on him,” Mich said. “But he had a lot of pride in what he did.
“As coaches we tell kids when they get knocked down they have to get back up again. That’s what Bill did. Nothing ever destroyed his confidence or his willingness to work with the kids. That says a lot about the person he was.”
Despite the disheartening news at St. Pius, Rogers still could not walk away from the game. He would serve as an assistant at Valley Forge Military Academy, Daniel Boone and Exeter, where he met then Eagles assistant coach Brett Myers. And when Myers took over the Pottstown program in 2007, he asked Rogers to team up with him.
“Coach Rogers devoted his life to kids up to and through his last year of life,” Myers said Friday. “I can’t imagine a more noble thing to do than working your entire life, even after you retire, for the betterment of others.
“He always pushed us to remember how much kids needed sports, especially a game like football, where they can be challenged.”
“Bill was so good with kids,” added Mich, whose son Jim Jr. — now a teacher and assistant coach at Spring-Ford — played for Rogers at St. Pius X. “As a parent, you had to feel good about that, about how he was with kids. He taught kids a lot more than just football. He taught them a lot about life.”
So much so another one of his former players, Tony Palladino — now the athletic director at Phoenixville High School — was hoping his sons would have had the opportunity to play for Rogers.
“It may seem cliché, but (Rogers) always had the kids’ best interest first,” Palladino said. “Even if he was yelling, going crazy, you knew he cared. Through the stories he’d tell you at practice, through providing things for the team the school didn’t, he was so instrumental in helping boys become young men. He was a class act.
“Now as an athletic director and father, perhaps the biggest compliment I could ever give him is hoping my kids can someday play for a coach just like him. He was one of a kind.”
“Bill could give you that impression he was a little standoffish, a little bullheaded,” Mich added. “But when you got to know him you’d swear by him, as a coach and as a person.
“If he worked for you, he was loyal to you to the umpteenth degree. If he was the head coach and you worked for him, he’d live and die with you. And the most important thing to him was all those kids.”
So important that Rogers made personalized wooden plaques for every senior who played for him at Pottstown and St. Pius. He started the project during the summer leading up to every season, and during the teams’ year-end banquets presented them — along with an unscripted and often heartwarming if not hilarious story about each senior.
“I was always told what determines a great man is what he does when no one is watching,” Myers said. “Coach Rogers was a great man.”
The plaques were just one the many things Rogers did that few were aware of. He planned family summer vacations around watering the football field at St. Pius. He planted new flowers and tidied up around the Jared Bentley Memorial Bench at Pottstown’s football field the last six years. And two years ago, he talked Upper Perkiomen’s junior high coaching staff and team into allowing one of his players, Marvin Pearson — a seventh-grader who is legally blind and deaf — to run for a touchdown (with the help of a teammate) in the waning moments of their last game of the season.
“You should’ve seen that,” he said a couple of weeks later prior to a high school game. “My goodness, the kids were so excited for that young man.”
“Bill just loved the kids, and the kids loved him,” Mich said.
No one loved Bill Rogers more than his own kids.
That was evident when they all sat down, along with all the grandchildren, in the family room Friday afternoon to talk about the man who was much, much more than just a coach.
Allison wasn’t involved in sports, but acknowledged how dad was always there for her school plays and other activities. Oldest son Drew remembered his passion for running as a youngster, and waking up his dad at six in the morning for a five-mile jog around the neighborhood. Dean, who played football at Owen J. Roberts — and against his father on more than one occasion — recalled those joyful moments (after a win) as well as the quiet times (after a loss) when dad returned from a game.
And all of them spoke about their father’s unwavering love for their youngest sister Audrey, who was born with Downs Syndrome.
“We were all so young and didn’t really understand Downs Syndrome,” Drew remembered. “But our dad talked to us about her, explained a few things, and when mom and dad brought Audrey home we all went out and ran up and down the street yelling, ‘We have a sister like no one else does.’ We were proud of her. We’ve never felt she was any different than the rest of us.”
But she was.
Audrey and her mother were among the first to arrive at Rogers’ football games, wherever they were. They sat together, right smack on the 50-yard line. And while coaches rarely hear all the hooting and hollering from the stands, Rogers somehow always managed to hear his No. 1 fan’s cheers. And if there was one thing he always looked forward to it was that post-game hug — win or lose — from his youngest daughter before he retreated to the locker room.
“Audrey was the only one who could talk to our dad after a loss,” Dean said. “It was hush, hush here in the house when that happened. My dad would sit out there on the step, but there was Audrey sitting next to him and talking to him.”
“Dad may have had that rough exterior, but he was mushy, mushy inside,” Doug added.
No one may have had more insight into just how big a heart their father had than Doug — the youngest child — who was adopted by the Rogers when he was 1-year-old and, like Dean, played against his father when he lined up for Owen J. Roberts.
Growing up, Doug saw how Allison, Drew and Dean never once looked at or treated Audrey as the sister who happened to have Downs Syndrome, how they never once looked at or treated him as the brother who happened to be an Afro-American.
It was because of dad and, of course, mom.
It was because of that love for family, Bill Rogers fought the inevitable for over a month. He wanted to spend one more Christmas with his wife of 55 years, their five children and 12 grandchildren.
He did, too.
“We’ve all lost a great, great man,” Myers said. “He will be missed.”


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