Boys basketball: Rogers plays for memory of late grandfather

Wade Rogers put on his purple Armstrong-Potomac boys basketball jersey with gold lettering and white trim.

He laced up his purple and yellow basketball shoes.

He tucked in his jersey. Threw on his warmup.

Listened to pregame instructions from A-P head coach Mike Twidwell.

Walked out of the locker room and jogged onto the basketball court, letting the pregame music course through his body.

Went through the customary layup line. Sat on the bench waiting for the starting lineup to be introduced.

Played the majority of the game. Scored 15 points.

Changed clothes. Exited the locker room. Met his family.

The Trojans’ guard has done this numerous times throughout his basketball career at A-P.

Only this game, on Jan. 10 at Iroquois West High School, was different.

This time, when the A-P senior guard looked toward the bleachers, when he unleashed one of his trademark outside shots or drove to the rim, when he left the locker room to mingle with family members after the game, he had an empty feeling.

His grandfather, Larry Long, had just died unexpectedly the day before.

Playing through pain
Shock.

Sadness.

Numbness.

Rogers has experienced those feelings and more in the three weeks since finding out one of his closest supporters wasn’t around anymore.

“It was extremely hard at first,” Rogers said. “I wanted to talk to him, but couldn’t. That was the hardest part. I had some tears in my eyes (after the Iroquois West game) and wanted to hurry up and get out of there.”

Basketball has become an outlet for Rogers in dealing with his grief. Playing a day after his grandfather died and subsequently not missing any games since then has helped ease some of Rogers’ pain.

“I knew he wouldn’t want me to miss a game just because of him,” Rogers said. “He didn’t want anybody to fuss over him. I knew he would want me to play for him.”

Twidwell said he wasn’t surprised by Rogers’ decision to play so soon after his grandfather’s death.

“I definitely think it has helped him very much cope with it just because of how involved his grandfather was and how much he loved coming out to watch (Wade play),” Twidwell said. “It’s one of those things where he knows that he’s going to give everything he has because he’s being watched from his grandfather up above.”

Rogers knew where to look for Mr. Long during games. Front row near halfcourt. Always facing the Trojans’ bench.

“After the games, he’d always be standing there waiting for me to talk to me about it and give me some advice,” Rogers said. “During the game, I knew he’d be sitting in the front row, and I’d just talk to him through my eyes. He’d be telling me to keep going, just be strong and don’t quit.”

According to Rogers, Mr. Long wasn’t in poor health. The 72-year-old Champaign native was at A-P’s home game against Bismarck-Henning on Jan. 8. Sitting in his usual spot, cheering on his grandson while intently watching the proceedings.

“It was the last game he came to,” Rogers said. “After the game, he looked at the ref as he was walking and said, ‘Yeah, it was a good game. Wish you could have made it.’”

Rogers and his family had no inclination what the next day would bring.

A sudden passing
Rogers and his family used to have a chihuahua dog.

The family gave it to Mr. Long and his wife, Linda, because the family’s other two dogs didn’t like the diminutive animal.

“My grandma loved it,” Rogers said.

The family pet, however, had escaped from the Longs’ backyard on Jan. 9, so Mr. Long and his wife went looking for it.

“He gets in the car to drive the car,” Rogers said. “My grandma’s running somewhere else, and he gets out, but then he felt like he couldn’t stand up, so he got in the backseat.”

And that’s where Mr. Long suffered a fatal heart attack.

Efforts to revive Mr. Long on the scene were unsuccessful. The same held true when he was transported to Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana.

He was pronounced dead at 1:56 p.m.

While all this was going on, Rogers was going about his normal Wednesday.

He is involved with the school’s work co-op program, so he leaves school at 11:30 a.m. every day and works at his father Rodney’s company, J & R Used Tire Services in Hoopeston.

Rodney and Rogers’ mother, Toni, are divorced. Toni lives in El Paso, Texas. Wade’s cell phone rang shortly before 1:30 p.m.

“I was sitting down, and my mom called me,” Rogers said. “I didn’t think anything of it, so I ignored it and said I’d call her back later that night.”

His phone beeped again, though, with a text message from Toni saying ‘9-1-1, emergency.’

“I knew to call her then,” Rogers said. “I called her, and she just screamed out that my papa died. That’s what we called him. I was actually lucky because my dad is sometimes there, and sometimes he isn’t. He had actually just opened the door and was asking me what was wrong. I actually fell over, and he had to catch me.”

Staying strong
Wade has family in Texas, Kansas and other parts of Illinois.

Quickly, they descended on Champaign County, with his mother flying into Indianapolis the next morning while his uncle Kyle drove in from Olathe, Kan.

Mature and poised beyond his years is how Twidwell, in his first year coaching the Trojans, described Rogers upon meeting him last summer.

Rogers lived up to those words in the next week.

In the hours after Mr. Long’s death, he stayed the night in Champaign, making sure his grandmother — who had been married to Larry for 42 years — wasn’t by herself.

“I took her back home from the hospital,” Rogers said. “We were there together. I’ve got to be strong for my grandma, my mom and everybody else.”

The visitation took place that Sunday, Jan. 13, and the funeral on Jan. 14, both in Urbana. The family buried Mr. Long in Rantoul on Jan. 16.

“I spoke during the funeral, and that was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Rogers said. “I just told people what kind of relationship we had, how much he meant to me and how I’ll still remember him. I’ve just got to live with the memories.”

Memories of Illinois football and basketball games.

Mr. Long worked with the U.S. Postal Service for 51 years in Champaign, and his route took him through the heart of the University of Illinois. Rogers said they estimated Mr. Long walked 2 million miles during his career as a mail carrier.

“First Illinois football game he takes me to, I’m probably 6 or 7,” Rogers said with a slight smile spreading across his face. “The Chief comes running out of the tunnel, and I turn and look at him saying, ‘What’s a chicken doing down there?’ He started laughing, and he goes,’ That’s the Chief.’ That’s when he first started telling me the whole story about the Chief.”

Memories of talking baseball. Mr. Long was an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan.

Rogers preferred the Chicago Cubs.

“We’d always razz each other,” Rogers said. “I don’t know how in the world I didn’t become a Cardinals fan because of how much time he tried to make me one.”

Memories of playing fantasy football against each other. Mr. Long came to the Rogers’ house for Thanksgiving this past November.

Aside from the usual food and celebration, Mr. Long found himself paying extra attention to games between the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans, along with the Washington Redskins playing the Dallas Cowboys.

“Some of his fantasy guys were on, so he was yelling at the TV,” Rogers said with a laugh. “Me and my uncle always used to call him up and give him crap. He actually went out on top this year (in our league). Whenever I’d want a player, I’d call him and try to arrange a trade. When it comes time to playing fantasy football (next season) and knowing I can’t give him any more crap about it, that’ll be tough.”

Keeping his memory alive
Wade talked to his grandfather usually every day, if not every other day.

When his mom would go to work when he was little, Wade would spend the day at his grandparents’ house in Champaign.

“'I’d stay there all day, and my grandma would spoil me all day and wait until he got home,” Rogers said. “We’ve been close my whole life. We were best friends.”

Even as he got older, stayed involved with sports and had other outside interests start to distract him like any normal teenager has, Wade knew he could always depend on his grandfather.

“There was a game in my eighth-grade year at Potomac (Grade School),” Rogers said. “He was there. There was about three seconds left in the first half. The ball comes inbounds. I get it and chuck up a three-quarters shot. I bank it in, and he was jumping up and down, giving me a fist pump as I was running to the locker room. It was pretty awesome.”

It didn’t take much to please his grandfather either.

“He was the most laid-back, simple man you could ever meet in your life,” Rogers said. “You get him in an Illini shirt and his blue jeans, and that’s all he needed.”

Mr. Long isn’t far from Rogers’ mind. He has ‘RIP Papa’ and ‘Always in our hearts’ spelled out in black marker on his basketball shoes. He writes his name on his hands before games so when he looks down during games, he remembers him, and he recently started wearing a necklace his grandfather always wore.

During a 25-minute interview discussing the past few weeks, Rogers never breaks down. Never pauses to find the right word. His stoic and straightforward nature is only broken up by a few moments of laughter talking about his grandfather.

In Rogers’ mind, it was an easy decision to share his story, despite all the pain, sadness, grief and helpless emotions he’s had to encounter recently.

“I just want people to know how much he meant to me and how great of a man he was,” Rogers said. “He was my hero. He’s helped make me who I am and showed me how to be a good person.”
mdaniels@rantoulpress.com

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