Chasing the Dream: Inside the Life of a Professional Football Journeyman

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Chasing the Dream: Inside the Life of a Professional Football Journeyman
Michael Conroy/Associated Press
James Rogers breaks up a play versus Notre Dame

First-round draft picks like Taylor Lewan are guaranteed a shot at fulfilling their dream of playing professional football. Teams have too much invested for them to not get every opportunity to succeed. 

Top picks also have the luxury of multiyear contracts and a signing bonus, further proof of their new employer’s commitment.

But players taken in the lower roundsor worse, those who go undraftedhave a very different journey ahead of them. For players chasing the dream of playing professional football, the odds are daunting. According to Business Insider's Tony Manfred, only 1.7 percent of college football players go on to play professionally.

Former Michigan cornerback James Rogers is one player working to beat those odds. Despite one setback after another, he continues to pursue his goal of playing in the NFL.

Phil Callihan
No. 1 James Rogers carrying the ball in high school

As an elite high school athlete in suburban Detroit, Rogers overcame enormous odds to just to play college football. According to scholarshipstats.com, approximately 1.1 million players competed in high school football during 2013. Of those, only about 8 percent continued playing the game at the collegiate level.

Michigan provided Rogers with a chance to play in front of 100,000 fans at every home game and get a degree, but he had no idea of the turmoil he’d witness during his four-year college career.

He played as a true freshman in 2007, initially making his mark on special teams. Defensive backs coach Vance Bedford, who worked with Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, encouraged Rogers to play cornerback and his future at Michigan looked bright.

And then Lloyd Carr retired.

Gone were all the coaches who recruited him. Making the decision to stay at Michigan under Rich Rodriguez meant to he had to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff.

He switched to wide receiver for his sophomore season but switched back to cornerback for his junior and senior seasons to help solidify a Michigan defense that was struggling.

Phil Callihan/UMGoBlue.COM
Rogers after switching to No. 30

During his Michigan career, he appeared in 46 games and started at both cornerback and wide receiver. As the Rodriguez era came to a close, he played well as a senior, posting 40 tackles and tying for the team lead with three interceptions.

After Rodriguez's dismissal, Rogers and other senior NFL prospects had to work with a new conditioning staff while preparing for pro day workouts. Their preparation was further hampered by the 2011 NFL lockout, which prevented free agents from communicating with teams until late summer.

“Brady Hoke and the current staff were great in helping us prepare,” said Rogers. “He made it clear that we were Michigan Men no matter what.”

Pro day was particularly important for Rogers. Because of his position change, he had only one full season of game film at cornerback for teams to evaluate. He also had to pick an agent.

“Agencies send you letters during your senior season,” said Rogers. “It’s like being recruited for college all over again.”

Late in the summer, Rogers finally got a call from the Denver Broncos. His tryout there was followed by a year in the Arena Football League, which led to a season on the Tampa Bay practice squad. After that year, Kansas City invited him to training camp, and then he finally caught on with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, where he is currently competing for a starting position.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
James Rogers with Tampa Bay

His journey through NFL training camps and practice squads gives Rogers a great perspective to offer advice for this season’s crop of free agents.

“Skilled players are a dime a dozen in the NFL—everybody is fast, everybody can make plays,” says Rogers. “The differentiator is how hard you work. Pro offenses are like studying a college course; you have to put in the time and prepare.”

Julio Cortez/Associated Press
Champ Bailey

While at Denver, Rogers got some great advice from All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey who told him: “Good players know their positions but great players know what everyone on the field is doing.”

Free agents need to stay in shape year-round. When opportunities arise, they need to be ready to compete immediately. Returning players may get the benefit of a full training camp, but free agents may only get a few weeks or days to show how they can help the team.

When he signed with Denver, Rogers had only two weeks in camp before the first preseason game. A few years later, he signed with Tampa Bay only three days before the team’s first preseason contest. Each time he wondered if his chance for a pro career had passed, until a late phone call kept the dream alive.

Dell Callihan/UMGoBlue.COM
Martin and Rogers at Michigan

Rogers keeps in touch with former college teammates Mike Martin (Tennessee Titans) and Brandon Graham (Philadelphia Eagles) who have made the transition from college to the professional ranks. It helps to know that friends are in the NFL and they offer encouragement.

“My goal is to play in the NFL,” says Rogers.

The odds may be stacked against him, but he’s not giving up.

“I need to be ready,” he says hopefully. “You never know when the next opportunity may present itself.”

 

All season statistics from mgoblue.com, the official University of Michigan athletic department web site.

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via press conferences or in person.

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