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Heisman winner back for Hall induction

Photo by Christine Troyke

Photo by Christine Troyke

Gwinnett County’s record-book performances and athletic superlatives have taken a beating over the last 15 years, buckling as massive population growth fueled an abundance of high-level athletes.

No matter the sport, every impressive accomplishment seems to bettered, or at least matched, by a younger phenom. Well, not quite every record.

For all of the county’s All-American football players and NFL stars, no other Gwinnett product is in George Rogers’ territory. Nobody else has a Heisman Trophy for being college football’s top player.

The Duluth grad did that in 1980 with the South Carolina Gamecocks when he rushed for 1,781 yards.

“I always thought winning the Heisman was a team award,” said the 52-year-old Rogers, who is back in Gwinnett for Sunday’s Gwinnett County Sports Hall of Fame inductions at Coolray Field during the Gwinnett Braves’ game. “If it wasn’t for the guys in front of me, it never would have happened.”

Rogers also is the first to admit it never would have happened if not for the support he received as a youngster. His first attempt at football didn’t fare so well, but he figured the sport out pretty quickly.

“When they handed me the ball (as an elementary school kid in youth football), I saw all those guys coming at me and I threw the ball back to them,” Rogers said. “But I guess my teammates taught me how to play and the next week I scored a touchdown. I’ve been running ever since.”

Born at Joan Glancy Hospital in Duluth, Rogers moved around frequently along with his two brothers and two sisters during his grade-school years. He lived in DeKalb County briefly. He lived in Norcross. At one point, he couldn’t afford to play football because his family couldn’t afford the insurance fee.

But Rogers found guidance back home in Duluth when he moved in with his aunt and found a mentor in longtime Wildcats coach Cecil Morris. Morris filled an important role with the absence of Rogers’ father, who was in prison during his high school career.

“Coach Morris was like a dad to me, he imposed his will on me,” Rogers said.

From there, most everything went well for Rogers on the football field. He rushed for a county-record 2,286 yards in 1975 and was a two-time All-American at South Carolina before winning the NFL rushing title as a rookie with 1,674 yards for the New Orleans Saints, who made the 6-foot-2, 224-pounder the No. 1 overall pick in the 1981 draft.

He rushed for 7,176 yards and 54 touchdowns in seven NFL seasons, reaching two Pro Bowls. He had well-publicized battles with drugs while in the NFL and in the few years that followed, but got his life back on track.

Rogers spends the majority of his time now with his five grandchildren and working his longtime position in the Gamecocks’ athletic department. He makes frequent appearances for the school — Heisman Trophy often in tow — and does everything from talking to recruits to playing in fundraiser golf tournaments.

“It’s going great, when South Carolina’s winning it’s a different city,” Rogers said. “When we’re losing, everything’s falling apart. Coach (Steve) Spurrier has done a great job and we’ve made some changes around the stadium. He’s done a good job of getting some of the South Carolina kids to stay home now and that’s important.”

Though Rogers is based in Columbia, he makes fairly regular visits to see family and friends in Gwinnett. One of his sons, Brandon, lives in Buford.

He said he’s excited about this weekend’s trip for the hall of fame induction, both to receive an honor from his home county and to catch up with old friends.

“I think it’s really amazing they’d honor me like that,” Rogers said. “Me and the others going in, we’re all blessed. I owe a lot of different people the honor for putting up with all I had to go through to get here.”