Last Nov. 19, George Rogers’ Saturday began the way most South Carolina football home games have for years. The Gamecocks’ 1980 Heisman Trophy winner loaded the iconic bronze figurine into his car, drove to Williams-Brice Stadium, and spent the hours before the USC-Western Carolina game meeting and greeting fans.
First he visited Gamecock Park, posing for photos for a couple of hours with kids and adults, the Heisman and his Super Bowl ring – and his ever-present grin – serving as props. Before kickoff, he moved across the street to USC’s Heisman Plaza, where he stood for more photos. Behind him stood a larger-than-life-size statue of a 21-year-old Rogers, erected in 2015, which shows the Gamecocks’ running back standing on a bench, gazing out at his team.
That day was, in short, nothing out the ordinary for Rogers – except for the video crew that shadowed him, recording everything.
NFL Films director Greg Frith and his crew captured Rogers in his favorite environment: surrounded by USC faithful, many of whom weren’t alive when the 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior bulldozed his way to 1,894 yards and won college football’s most famous award. “We had to get here now, this being the last (home) game” of the 2016 season, Frith said.
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“We’d heard how George brings the Heisman to games to share with the fans, and that was definitely something we wanted to highlight. It plays to his personality, what he’s all about.”
The results of that visit and another to Columbia, part of 10 months of research, writing, filming and editing, come to fruition on Sept. 5 at 9 p.m., when the SEC Network debuts “King George.” It’s an hourlong “SEC Storied” documentary, narrated by country music star and Gamecocks uber-fan Darius Rucker. The show also is scheduled for a private showing in Columbia for members of the USC Lettermen’s Association.
“It’s very exciting for everybody affiliated with Carolina and our football program,” athletics director Ray Tanner said. “If you know George, the title of the documentary is ‘King George,’ and it’s exactly who he is.
“He’s always been a real person, larger than life with his smile, and his ability to work within the community, and the passion and love he’s shown for this university.”
The final product was a labor of love for NFL Films senior producer James Weiner, who blended current and archival video with interviews with Rogers, his 1980 teammates, family members (notably his sister, Cheryl Rogers Powell, and cousin Janice Bowen Wheeler) and others, to tell the USC star’s story. A brief clip was shown in July during SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Ala.
“Growing up in New York,” Weiner said, “my first experience with George Rogers was when I was 9 years old, watching (the 1980 USC-Georgia game), and my dad saying we’d see two Heisman Trophy candidates. Now, more than 35 years later, I get to do the full George Rogers bio.”
“SEC Storied” is the SEC Network’s series of biographies on past players, “but this is the first time ESPN Films approached NFL Films about doing one,” Weiner said. “They discussed doing a sort of college football/NFL crossover story. They wanted to do it on schools that maybe don’t get as much publicity as, say, Alabama or Auburn, so we needed a good South Carolina story.”
And when it comes to Gamecocks football stories, they don’t get much better than Rogers’.
George is probably one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life, in or outside of football. If you didn’t know he was a superstar back then, you couldn’t tell by talking to him.
Former linebacker J.D. Fuller
For those who know him only as the big, smiling bear of a man who happens to own a Heisman, the documentary will be eye-opening. Recruited out of Duluth, Ga., by then-USC coach Jim Carlen, the shy and quiet but powerful Rogers emerged in 1979 as one of the nation’s best runners. In 1980, as a senior, he led USC to a second consecutive 8-4 season and bowl game, and later was the NFL’s No. 1 draft pick by the New Orleans Saints.
The documentary details his NFL career, which concluded in 1988 at Super Bowl XXII with the Washington Redskins. It also discusses Rogers’ involvement with drugs, once while with the Saints and then his arrest in Columbia in 1990.
The story has a happy ending, though: Rogers’ redemption, fans’ unwavering love and support for this most approachable hero, culminating in the unveiling of his statue two seasons ago.
“I think it’s a great piece; (fiancée) Brenda (Wilson) and I thought it was real good,” Rogers, 58, said last week. “They talk about the accolades I’ve gotten since then, and the unfortunate things, too.
“But I’m glad to be able to see all the things that happened, and still be alive,” he said with a laugh.
Rogers is indeed grateful – for his football days, for his loyal fans, for his eponymous educational foundation that sends needy students to college … and for having survived it all.
‘He was special’
Garry Harper was almost as excited as his former teammate to be interviewed for the documentary. “It was a great time, reliving those memories,” said Harper, one of a handful of former players and friends (including University of South Carolina basketball icon Alex English) who appear in the documentary.
“George deserves to be recognized,” Harper said. “But I’ll be honest: I don’t think he cares that much about it. I think it excited him as much as anything to reunite with teammates, guys he hadn’t seen in a long time.”
That also was the case when dozens of those teammates gathered for the Sept. 12, 2015, unveiling of Rogers’ statue. “That was a blast,” Harper said. “That’s something that’ll be around a long, long time.” At Rogers’ insistence, the statue features a plaque with the names of all his 1980 teammates.
For the documentary, Harper described how he and others reacted the first time Rogers walked into the USC locker room and removed his shirt. “We’d never seen anyone like that,” he says in the film. “He was absolutely chiseled. That first impression, that was special.”
Also memorable, Harper said, was the recounting of the 1980 season “from beginning to end: the Michigan and Southern Cal games (USC won the former, lost the latter). Every week, George had great games and escalated from a national standpoint into the Heisman race.”
Former linebacker J.D. Fuller remembered that season, too, during his interview in Charlotte. A freshman in 1980, he spent that summer before the season rooming with Rogers while working in the weight room.
“When I got here, I told George, ‘I’m going to start at linebacker.’ He said, ‘You’re gonna have to wait.’ He kidded me that my arms were too skinny. Then the first play (in practice), he ran me over and I thought, ‘I’m not sure I can play at this level.’ But then I found out he did that to everybody.”
Last week, Fuller said he called up the brief “teaser” video from the documentary on his computer and showed it to co-workers. “Watching him run over people, the smaller guys chasing him and losing ground … I got excited all over again,” Fuller said.
“George is probably one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life, in or outside of football. If you didn’t know he was a superstar back then, you couldn’t tell by talking to him.”
Fuller demurred when asked during his interview about his friend’s past drug episodes. “(But) I think (dealing with the embarrassment) made him a better man,” Fuller said. “The only person George ever hurt was himself.
“He made mistakes, but he moved on.”
Deserving of a statue
Chuck Allen considered all aspects of Rogers’ career when, as a member of the USC Board of Trustees, the former defensive lineman proposed commissioning Rogers’ statue, at a cost of about $350,000.
“He was our George, but also the university needed to do that,” Allen said. “In my opinion, he elevated South Carolina, and we’d never done anything for him commensurate with the (Heisman) award.
“I thought (the statue) would create a real sense of how powerful an experience (Rogers’ career) was. I thought people would congregate around it, that it would draw people to it – and I’ve been pleased that it does exactly that.”
In his documentary interview, Allen also told more personal stories.
“Once, George and I both had an off-season ‘indiscretion,’ ” Allen said, “and we had to do penalty runs at 5:30 a.m. behind The Roost (dormitory). After a while, George started threatening to quit football. He’d say, ‘I’m going home,’ and it kind of worked; (assistant coach Bob) Roe was afraid to do too much to him because he worried coach Carlen might fire him.
“I thought, ‘I think I’ll try that.’ So I said, ‘I’m going to quit’ – and (Roe) said, ‘If you quit, be sure to tell the dorm manager on your way out.’ ”
Chuck Slaughter, one of Rogers’ offensive linemen, also played two NFL seasons with him in New Orleans. At USC, theirs was a mutual admiration society.
“We took pride in helping George get the Heisman,” Slaughter said. “We wanted to get him (through the line and into the secondary) because he was so big and fast, if he got one-on-one with the defensive backs, it wasn’t even fair.
“I can still see him running, and those guys would almost put up their hands. Most times, it was a mismatch.”
Rogers gained 100 yards or more in every game as a senior, and not just versus outmatched foes. “A number of games, he didn’t play the second half,” Slaughter said. “If you look at the stats, he rushed for (almost) 1,900 yards, but our backups also had about 1,500 yards,” for a team total of 3,397 yards, a school record.
“They talked about how predictable we were on offense, which was true. But coach Carlen believed George ran so well, it didn’t matter
“Against Duke his senior year, we ran the ball 81 times; no one will break that (USC) record. By the third play, the Duke guys knew our plays, but it didn’t matter. Coach Carlen said, ‘We’re going to keep running until they stop us.’ ”
Some of the most memorable parts of the documentary, in fact, are clips of Rogers blasting into the line, running over or past defenders. People who weren’t around to see it in 1980 will owe a debt of gratitude, as do the documentary producers, to a long-retired sports director and his videographer at WIS-TV.
Big personality, big player
When Frith and Weiner were looking for footage of Rogers’ runs, it was Joe Daggett who was able to help them find it. That 1980 season – his first at WIS – Daggett and producer/photographer/editor Lonnie Wehunt had collaborated on a 30-minute feature about Rogers’ season.
“The idea was to do a major story on this guy who had a chance to win the Heisman,” Daggett said. He and Wehunt worked long hours editing quarter-inch video tape – “it took forever to put together,” Daggett said – and traveled to Duluth, Ga., to interview Rogers’ high school coach and family, and to New York’s Downtown Athletic Club to see the trophy itself.
“We won a national award for that,” Daggett said. “When ESPN contacted me last fall, I got out my copy. I hadn’t watched it in years, but it stands up pretty well.”
Daggett said when he first came to Columbia, “I heard people touting this great running back at South Carolina, and I thought, ‘Yeah, sure. I’ll wait and see myself,’ ” he said. “Then George’s first game, vs. Pacific, he busted through the line, this big powerful back with speed, and no one laid a hand on him” on a 72-yard touchdown run, part of a 13-carry, 153-yard night.
“I thought, ‘Oh, okay, I see what they mean now.’”
Last fall, Daggett sent a DVD copy of his 1980 feature to NFL Films, and WIS-TV provided other footage that “I don’t think they even knew they had,” Weiner said. From there, it was just a matter of doing interviews, which Weiner said proved a pleasant surprise.
“I’ve done a lot of NFL bios, and the higher (the player’s) stature, the less accessible they are,” he said. “But George is as high as it gets at South Carolina, and it was refreshing how open and accessible he was.”
How open? When Frith arrived at Rogers’ home last November, he learned that just days before, Rogers had suffered a mild heart attack.
“And yet here he is, maybe four days later, and he’s at the South Carolina game,” Frith said. “Here’s a guy who loves life, no matter what’s thrown at him. He seems all about living his life.”
That explains Rogers’ connection with his fans, Frith said. “Almost four decades after (1980), people here still want to share a moment with him, which is really neat. You see the smile, the infectious laugh, the ability to make everyone like him and enjoy him.
“Pulling in (at Williams-Brice), he talked to every security guard, to everyone. People were (calling out) ‘Big George! Big George!’ It helps he was a great football player, but it seems his personality has as much to do with that as the football player he was.”
Bringing back the memories
Today, with grown children and grandchildren, George Rogers comes across, Weiner said, as a contented man, at peace with his past and his middle-age present. This final highlight, a story about his life, is – well, a happy thing to experience.
“I wasn’t nervous (being interviewed),” Rogers said. “Not like I was in college; I didn’t like all that then, but it’s more interesting now. I think I’ve matured – at 58, a little bit,” he added with a laugh.
He and Wilson have been together 17 years and have a teenage son; she helps run his foundation and arranges his activities. “I love to watch ESPN’s ‘30 for 30’ (documentaries) and I told him, ‘It’d be great to see you in one of those, one day,’ ” she said. “We laughed then.
“It’s amazing to me (that Rogers’ popularity continues), and I think that says a lot about him as a person. Even young kids who weren’t around when he was doing his thing, they love taking pictures with him.”
The documentary brought back memories for Rogers, such as how he learned he’d won the Heisman. He was home in Duluth for Christmas break, he said, not even thinking of such a thing.
“Someone came to find me, (saying) ‘the coaches are looking for you, you’re supposed to go to New York,’ ” Rogers said, laughing. “I didn’t know. I was out on the street somewhere, and I was like, ‘What? Who?’ ”
He also remembers the USC-Georgia game, Rogers vs. Herschel Walker, and the 13-10 loss when Rogers fumbled late in the game. “That about killed me, I thought I didn’t want to play again, but we got through it,” he said. That day, he also met his estranged father, just released from prison and attending the game in Athens, Ga. – a meeting Rogers says was more distraction than memorable.
Rogers was asked during the documentary about his drug use. “Those were things I had to go through, with the Saints and later,” he said. “The big thing was, I didn’t want people to think I was a bad guy. Sometimes it takes something like that to happen, to make you grow up.
“That made me grow up, I think, more than anything. It wasn’t just a mistake – it could’ve killed me – but I got through it, and I persevered.”
When Rogers and his teammates view the documentary, he says, his one regret will be that not everyone had an on-camera role in this telling of his life’s story. He’ll settle, though, for being with them that day, and sharing the experiences one more time.
“No question, (it’ll be) a fun time,” Rogers said. “A lot of it, I’ll be laughing my butt off.”
Really, what more could he want?
What: “King George,” an hourlong “SEC Storied” documentary on former USC running back George Rogers
When: It debuts on the SEC Network on Sept. 5 at 9 p.m.
Of note: It is narrated by country music star and Gamecocks fan Darius Rucker