Some NFL rookies surprise their mom with a big new house or a car.
DeJuan Rogers dreamed of a different gift.
As the University of Toledo senior’s mother lay dying in a hospital outside of Detroit last month, she made a final request of her oldest son.
“She asked if I was to make it to the NFL — she knew that was my dream — could I get her a new heart?” Rogers said.
Privately, Rogers knew there would be no miracle.
Doctors at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak told his mother, Etoyia Barkley, she had weeks to live. Barkley, diagnosed with end-stage congestive heart failure, needed a transplant. But her body was failing too quickly, the drugs that kept her alive devastating her kidneys and liver, too.
Rogers knew there would be no more of their dinners at Applebee’s or her home-cooked burritos, no more nights at the movies, no hugs shared on senior day at the Glass Bowl or weeks later at winter commencement, when he will graduate in 3½ years with a degree in communications.
But he assured his biggest fan just the same. He would get her the heart.
“That was one of our last conversations,” he said.
Barkley died July 18. She was 39.
You may know Rogers as the three-star defensive back from Detroit who stuck by his pledge to Toledo in 2013 despite a hard late push from Illinois, where former Rockets coach Tim Beckman had just landed the top job. Or as the star of the Rockets’ biggest win in years — a 16-12 stunner at No. 18 Arkansas last season. He became the first player in Toledo history to earn Walter Camp national player of the week honors.
This year, the third-year starting safety is one of 39 players on the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the top defensive back in the country.
Yet none of it that is why we’re pulling for Rogers.
Here is a 21-year-old who has been given every reason to curse the heavens. Rogers lost his close friend, Maurice Johnson, to illness after their senior year of high school, then watched his mother fall ill last year and slip away on the eve of the season she so anticipated, leaving behind nine children.
“She was so excited,” he said.
Instead, Rogers purposefully carried on, remaining a bulwark for his family and team.
Even as his mother’s condition turned grave last semester and he shuttled back and forth every weekend from Toledo to Detroit, Rogers kept up a 3.0 GPA, and, as Rockets coach Jason Candle said, “played 15 spring practices as well as anybody on our team.” He covets the peace of the roar of a fall Saturday.
“I know [Maurice] and my mom will be right there with me,” he said.
Rogers just hopes to do them proud, as he always has.
In so many ways, Rogers has always had one of the biggest hearts around.
His father, DeJuan, remembers him as the only 8-year-old on his Pop Warner team who lived for the hitting drills. Or the way, as a wrestler, he had to compete above his weight class to find competition. He went undefeated in middle school before hanging up his singlet.
Sort of. One day his sophomore year at Cass Tech, the Detroit football powerhouse, Rogers came out of retirement after a few wrestlers who knew of his past feats on the mat wanted a crack at him. Maybe they could put the big-shot football player in his place.
“So he stopped in the wrestling room after football practice one day,” the elder Rogers said, laughing, “he takes his shoulder pads off, and, right there, he beats everyone — six or seven guys.”
That cranked up the wrestling coach’s efforts to bring Rogers aboard, but he stuck with football. Rogers decided that was his best ticket to college and left nothing to chance, never pressing the snooze button on the 4 a.m. alarm he maniacally set throughout high school. Each day of the offseason, he headed through the darkness across town for an extra workout before classes.
Rogers lived with his dad, but Barkley was by his side, too, cheering each step of his rise. He spent most weekends at her place with his half siblings. In truth, he was proud of her, too. Barkley went back to school in 2010 and became a medical biller.
“She had a lot of things she wanted to do,” Rogers’ father said.
Last year, Barkley could no longer attend Rogers’ games in Toledo, but she watched them on her computer and bugged his father for play-by-play updates from the scene.
“I would be on the phone with her during the games,” his dad said.
And the son returned a mother’s love. Often, after visiting Barkley in the hospital, he stayed the night back at her house, wrecked but upbeat.
“I’m the oldest, so I had to handle things a little bit differently,” Rogers said. “Even if something is bothering me, in front of my brothers and sisters, I don’t show it. I told them, ‘You’ve got to be strong.’ ”
His mom’s death brought grief but also comfort and responsibility. The NFL remains his dream, and he has not forgotten her request. Rogers hopes to join the fight promoting the importance of heart health and, in some way, call further attention to the rare — and often out of reach — surgery his mother needed. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 2,000 heart transplants are performed in the United States each year.
“I think about it every day,” Rogers said. “When I do get on to the next level, I want to get involved in some type of situation involving hearts, just to help other families.”
Until then, Rogers has one more season of Saturdays in Toledo, where he knows he and his mom will be together once more.
“I’ve got a lot of people pushing for me, and my mom will be watching,” he said. “She’ll be helping in some type of way.”
University of Toledo senior safety DeJuan Rogers of Detroit poses with his mother, Etoyia Barkley, who died July 18 at the age of 39 from end-stage congestive heart failure.