How Kentucky commit Justin Rogers went from 'garbage' to the No. 1 player in Michigan

Photo: Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press

How Kentucky commit Justin Rogers went from 'garbage' to the No. 1 player in Michigan

Football

How Kentucky commit Justin Rogers went from 'garbage' to the No. 1 player in Michigan

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The Clarkston ball carrier was about to break into the clear when Oak Park defensive tackle Justin Rogers came racing across the field.

At a massive 6-feet-3½, 310 pounds, Rogers looks like a mountain disguised as a high school senior.

With the force of a runaway train, Rogers leveled the ball carrier with a clean but ferocious hit, nearly knocking him into next week.

The usual cheer from the crowd was replaced by a gasp.

That is what the No. 1 player in the state looks like and he will be on display again at 7 p.m. Friday when Oak Park (3-1, No. 4 in Division 2) plays at Rochester Hills Stoney Creek (3-1).

The offensive and defensive tackle has committed to Kentucky and he was officially introduced to football in the sixth grade when he played for the West Seven Rams in the Detroit Police Athletic League.

Of course he was big, so he must have dominated the game from the get-go, right?

“No,” he said. “I was garbage back in the day.”

Garbage is an adjective rarely used to describe a youngster who was first offered a scholarship from a Power 5 conference school when he was only in the eighth grade, but Rogers stands by his assessment of his early play.

“Hold on, let me pull up the video,” he said, reaching for his phone. “Here it is. I was No. 75.”

Rogers shakes his head as the video shows him as something less than a dominant player.

So, it wasn’t until the seventh grade that Rogers emerged as the next big thing, and we do mean big, right?

“No, not really,” he said. “Let me show you the video.”

Again with the phone.

“I’m No. 52 in this one,” he said after scrolling through a myriad of clips. “We played at Ford Field. There is Jalen Bell, who went from King to Belleville. There is Sam Johnson, who’s at Boston College now.

“I played with all of the top players in Michigan in little league. I wasn’t any good.”

Well, the video did show No. 52 standing up and watching as the ball carrier ran right past.

At least Rogers earns an A-plus for honesty.

There was no video evidence back then that Rogers was about to become a player with more college offers than he could count.

But then the offseason between seventh and eighth grade happened and Rogers began to take football seriously.

Oak Park senior Justin Rogers announces his commitment to Kentucky during a ceremony at the school Monday, May 20, 2019. (Photo: Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)

“I knew I wasn’t good enough,” he said. “I knew I had to work harder. I was still a little bit shaky my seventh grade year, but my last year (in PAL) I was real good.”

One of the problems Rogers faced in his early years of playing football was that for his entire life he was told he was bigger than kids his age so he had to be careful not to hurt them when they played together in the neighborhood.

Then along comes organized football and putting a hurt on the player across from you comes highly recommended.

“That was part of the garbage stuff,” he said. “It’s a whole different mindset. You have to play different when you’re out there on the football field.”

It took Rogers a few years to learn that football was indeed a collision sport and you are much better off being the aggressor.

“I had to think different,” he said. “You have to feel like he’s in your way to be successful. Or I’d think about why I’m playing football and who I’m playing football for.”

That was the easy part. He was playing for his late father, Terrance Rogers, who died after suffering a heart attack in 2012.

He is also playing for his mother, Joya Townsel, and his family, which includes six brothers and Rogers is smack dab in the middle of the seven boys.

With three older brothers, Rogers was a prime target for them, especially the oldest, Brian, 24.

“Justin was a little kid that would get on your nerves,” his mother said. “So I don’t want to necessarily say the Brian used to pick on him, but Justin would get on Brian’s nerves and Brian would kick back with Justin because Justin would just be Justin.”

Townsel described her middle child as someone who was always active and at some point whatever he was playing with was going to wind up broken.

Rogers is also playful and knows exactly which buttons to push with his mother.

“Justin can aggravate you sometimes,” she said, laughing. “I’ll be watching TV and he’ll walk past and pull my big toe. Or he’ll come flop down on the couch and I’m a plus-sized woman and he’ll start ticking me or he’ll grab my side. So he’ll bother you when you’re in the middle of doing something.”

But Joya is quick to point out that everything Rogers does is done in a playful manner and there isn’t a mean bone in his body.

Following his eighth grade season of PAL football, Rogers was tagged as a future prospect.

He nearly attended King and as an eighth grader traveled with some King players who were visiting Kentucky.

That is when he caught the attention of the Kentucky coaches and was offered a scholarship.

“At first I didn’t really know what it meant,” he said. “Then I started seeing little stuff on the internet. It said I was the youngest person ever to get an SEC offer.”

Since he hadn’t entered high school yet, Rogers didn’t think much of the offer. But as a freshman at Oak Park he received an offer from Miami (Ohio). Then came one from Central Michigan and then Syracuse and suddenly the flood gates were open and college coaches had Rogers’ full attention.

“I didn’t know it was that big to people,” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t know for real. It started sinking in when I got my second offer and then my third offer.”

Read the rest of the article at the Detroit Free Press.

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