I was paying attention to what was in front of me. We were undefeated and I thought we had a better than average chance of remaining that way. The November air was chilly high atop the press box at Shark Stadium.
I had the appropriate “play sheets” in front of me. Hopefully, as a young high school coach, I could make some solid suggestions from my perch above the field.
An opposing coach from a future opponent climbed up and stood uncomfortably close behind me. We didn’t mind him scouting us, it was expected, but he didn’t have the right to listen to our in-game strategy!
“Coach,” I turned on my West Tennessee charm, “Coach Taylor has you a spot in the press box below—"
“I’m not leaving and nobody can make me!”
Whew, it was a long way down if I lost the fight with this guy…
I relayed what was going on “up here” via the headset to Coach Taylor below. He didn’t hesitate, “I’ll send a guy who will get him down.”
I was leaning forward to escape his hot breath on my neck when I “sensed” more than saw someone climb through the roof and join us. It was my introduction to Mr. Howard Rogers. “Coach,” he quietly spoke to the intruder, “you can’t be up here.”
“I’ve got a right to be anywhere I want to be! And I’m not leaving!”
“Come on, Coach,” the policeman was extra polite, smiling as he gently laid a hand on the coach’s elbow, “We don’t want any problems here. I will help you—”
The coach jerked his arm away roughly and yelled, “Don’t touch me!”
To truly picture this scene that was unfolding five stories above the ground, you need to understand the coach was a foot taller than Mr. Rogers, fifty pounds or so heavier and a bit younger.
“Coach,” the smile didn’t leave his face, he didn’t raise his voice, he didn’t reach to grab him nor did he pull out that big pistol on his hip. But I’m telling you his posture stiffened an almost imperceptible tick, his eyes narrowed into a steel gaze that let the world know he didn’t bluff, he wasn’t afraid and he didn’t take no lip from out-of-town football coaches, “you just made this real personal. Now, you can go quietly down this ladder… or you are going off the back of this press box, but one way or the other, you are coming down from here.”
I dropped my play sheets and grabbed ahold of the only rail up there with both hands. I didn’t want to get accidently caught up in this melee!
The coach wasn’t as dumb as he looked. He chose the ladder.
Coach Taylor was all over me at halftime, “Who’s not blocking the onside linebacker, do we need to make a—”
“Coach, who was that policeman you sent up there?”
“He’s not a guy to mess with.”
“He’s a World War II Vet.”
No Wonder we won the war!
Howard Rogers was a wonderful friend for the next 40 years. If I had a kid that was about to mess up, I’d run down Mr. Howard. He’d see the young man, talk to the parents, trail him around town, whatever it took…
I mentioned once at a Veterans Day talk that in June of 1944, my father was cut off on Biak Island, behind the Japanese lines for 17 days. Dad said our forces never stopped coming, fought relentlessly day and night until they broke through and rescued them. Mr. Rogers, to my everlasting amazement, was on Biak at the same time, fighting to save every last American on that tiny island.
If Howard Rogers hadn’t been there, I might not be here!
I tried to thank him over the years, he would just wave me off. Part of that “just doing my job” being “over there” deal. That’s what they all say. And believe.
I’m here to tell you it’s a bit different story when you are on the receiving end!
I asked Mr. Howard once if he remembered any specifics about that rescue on Biak. He paused, almost embarrassed to tell me he didn’t, and replied, “There were so many missions…”
You let that soak in for a minute.
He travelled from Sidney, Australia to Yokohama, Japan. It took two-and-a-half years… no telling how many island invasions… how many battles…
Howard Rogers died in 2018. I’d give anything I had today to be able to take him to lunch one more time… thank him from the bottom of my heart… whether he wanted to hear it or not!
Talk About Respect,
This article originally appeared on The Star: Hunker Down: He saved my life twice, once before I was born