Steve Megargee Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
Throughout his life, Oregon State wide receiver James Rodgers has heard the reasons he supposedly couldn't do this or couldn't do that.
Rodgers, a 5-foot-7 fifth-year senior, spent the past four seasons proving he's big enough and tough enough to emerge as one of the nation's most dynamic players. Rodgers now must show he's durable enough to come back from a knee injury that knocked him out for two-thirds of the 2010 season and required two surgeries.
Rodgers understands the speculation that he won't heal in time for the start of the 2011 season. That doesn't mean he agrees with it.
"This isn't the first time I've had to deal with [skepticism]," Rodgers says. "Everybody's going to have something to say. That's just a chip on my shoulder. I'm willing to go out and prove myself every day. It's something I'm used to."
This latest round of adversity may represent Rodgers' toughest test. Rodgers has a school-record 5,784 career all-purpose yards, which ranks him behind only Tulsa's Damaris Johnson among active FBS players. His 27 career touchdowns include 16 receptions, nine runs from scrimmage, one punt return and one kickoff return.
But after two surgeries on his left knee, Rodgers may not have the same explosiveness that made him one of the nation's most versatile big-play threats. Oregon State coaches don't know when he'll be back, and they aren't sure if he'll be quite the same player as before.
"It depends on the next few months and how rehab goes," offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf says. "It's hard to tell right now. Anytime a guy goes through a couple of surgeries, you're not going to be expecting a real speedy recovery. And we aren't."
At the time of his injury Oct. 9, Rodgers was ranked fourth nationally with 184.3 all-purpose yards per game despite missing one game with a concussion. Rodgers had just scored an apparent touchdown against Arizona - an illegal formation penalty nullified the score - when he was brought down by Wildcats safety Adam Hall after crossing the goal line.
Rodgers grabbed his left knee almost as soon as he hit the ground, and he had to be helped to the sideline.
"I felt my leg kind of pop out and back in," Rodgers says. "Once that happened, I knew something was wrong. I was trying to get myself back up, but I really couldn't."
There was no doubt Rodgers would miss the rest of the season. The only question was how soon Rodgers could return in 2011 - or if he'd be back at all.
His injury was severe enough to require more than one surgery; he had the first in late October and a second procedure in February. His anesthesiologist was Ed Riley, a Stanford associate professor of medicine and the brother of Oregon State coach Mike Riley.
"It was kind of frustrating at the time," Rodgers says. "I just kept a positive mind about everything. I just surrounded myself with a lot of positive people. I didn't want everyone to feel sorry for me. It's football. Things happen like that all the time. ... I just looked on the bright side and took everything in a positive way."
It isn't easy to find the bright side in a career-threatening knee injury. Rodgers said he took comfort in the pep talks he received from his uncle, Rodney Williams, who told him to stay positive and reminded him he still had plenty of time to plot his comeback.
Oregon State WR James Rodgers heads into his final season ranked second among active FBS players in all-purpose yardage (total yards rushing, receiving and on kick and punt returns). Here are the top five players in that category.
Total yards: 5,023
Yards per game: 132.2
Yards per play: 8.39
When people used to doubt Rodgers because of his lack of size, he often was reminded that while he couldn't control his height, he could control how hard he worked. Rodgers and his brother, Jacquizz, developed into college football's best brother tandem because they outworked just about everyone and refused to consider their height a hindrance.
Williams expects his nephew to respond the same way to this latest obstacle.
"When the injury first occurred, I said this is the worst person you want to see this happen to but also the best because he's prepared to handle it," Williams says. "You hate to see bad things happen to good people, but he's so [used] to thinking, 'Everybody's going to count me out' that he just has to prove them wrong again.
"Some people might not put in the work or understand the work that's needed to come back from this injury and to push themselves to that level. He's always pushed himself and has always outworked everybody."
Rodgers' history bears that out. Although he lettered three years as a wide receiver and free safety at Rosenberg (Texas) Lamar Consolidated, Rodgers was such a lightly regarded prospect that he originally committed to FCS program Texas State before Oregon State made a late push for him.
All he has done since is join Pat Chaffey as the only players in Oregon State history to accumulate 1,000 career rushing and receiving yards. He was on his way to earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors for a third consecutive season before getting hurt.
"He's exceeded our expectations," Langsdorf says. "We thought he could be a pretty good player. We didn't know if he could be as good as he was, as early as he was. He's made himself a great player."
He still has been overshadowed for much of his career by his younger brother, who arrived at Oregon State a year later. Jacquizz rushed for 3,877 yards to rank second in school history and sixth on the Pac-10's career list despite playing only three seasons before going to the Atlanta Falcons in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL draft.
Jacquizz's absence puts even more pressure on James to make a successful return as Oregon State attempts to bounce back from a 5-7 season.
James Rodgers has made sure his younger brother won't be forgotten. Rodgers switched his uniform number from No. 8 to the No. 1 formerly worn by Jacquizz. Although he made the change on his own and didn't intend it as any sort of tribute, Rodgers' move led to an interesting conversation between the brothers.
"I told him there's a new sheriff in town," James recalls.
"If you're going to wear No. 1, wear it with passion," Jacquizz replied.
There's no doubt Rodgers would wear that No. 1 jersey with passion. How soon he'll be back in uniform is the question.