By Billy Watkins
One of Will Rogers’ most satisfying victories this year occurred in October on his home field — his real home field. Only two others saw it. He trash-talked about it for hours.
“Horseshoes,” explained his dad, Wyatt. “We’ve had horseshoe stakes in the backyard (in Brandon) for 16 years. I’m not sure how they’re still standing. We’ll play for two hours at a time. He’s never been able to beat me. Neither has his little brother (Luke). But during his fall break, Will came home and he beat me and he wore me out with it.
“I’m still not sure how it happened. I think I was looking into the sun, didn’t have my sunglasses … ”
Maybe it was a sign of things to come for Will, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound sophomore quarterback at Mississippi State. Since a loss to Alabama the week after Will’s thumping of his dad, the Bulldogs are 3-1, bowl eligible and looking to improve their postseason stock with two games remaining.
And Will has been virtually unstoppable in coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. In his last four games — wins over Auburn, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and a heartbreaking loss to Arkansas — Will has completed 157 of 199 passes (78.9 percent) for 1,560 yards, 15 touchdowns and three interceptions.
In the second half against Auburn, when the Bulldogs rallied from a 28-10 halftime deficit, Will had more touchdown passes (5) than incompletions (2).
He’s been named National Offensive Player of the Week and SEC Player of the Week. He leads the nation in completion percentage (75.7) and ranks second in passing yards (3,722).
Meanwhile, his dad is in the middle of his own football journey. Wyatt is offensive coordinator at Brandon High School, which sits two victories away from playing for the Class 6A state championship. While Will prepares to play Tennessee State on Saturday, his dad is putting together a game plan for a Friday night battle against Warren Central.
Wyatt seems to be smoothly juggling his schedule and Will’s. After losing the first two games of the season, Brandon has won nine in a row. And Wyatt has been at all of Will’s games except one — State’s victory at Texas A&M.
“I couldn’t have made it back in time for Sunday film, so I had to watch it on TV,” he said. “Watching Will play is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. For some reason, it was a lot less nerve-racking watching on television. And Will Facetimed me when he got back in the locker room. I couldn’t hear a word he said because everybody was yelling and celebrating the win. But at least I could see his face. That was enough.”
Wyatt handles his duties as coach and father this way during the season: “I try to put the upcoming State game out of my thoughts as much as I can. I speak to Will through the week, and we’ll talk about what they think the opponent is going to do defensively — it seems every team goes away from the defense they’ve been running all year when they play State — and I ask him how they plan to attack it.
“But Brandon High is my first priority. This is my 12th year here. If we don’t win, Santa Claus doesn’t come. I love our players, our community. I owe them the best job that I can possibly do, and I make sure that I give them that every week.”
It was seventh grade when the eldest son of Wyatt and Judy Peters Rogers showed that he might be a special player.
“I thought his mechanics were really good, and that was something we had constantly worked on,” Wyatt said. “Even before I noticed he threw the ball better than some kids, I noticed that he had a higher capacity to work at it than most. He would wear you out. I never once had to ask him to go throw or take ground balls or shoot free throws or whatever. It was always him asking me to go with him.”
At Brandon High, Will threw for 9,044 yards and two touchdowns and was named Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Player of the Year his senior season. If that wasn’t enough to open eyes, his two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to lead the Mississippi All-Stars to victory over Alabama certainly did.
His in-state recruitment was interesting because Wyatt had grown up an Ole Miss fan. His dad, Bill, was a pitcher at Ole Miss on the 1972 team that reached the College World Series. Bill played for his boyhood hero, former Rebel quarterback Jake Gibbs.
When Wyatt grew up, “Archie Manning was my hero of all heroes.”
And there was a chance Will was going to sign with Ole Miss out of high school. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo recruited Will hard. But when Longo was replaced with Rich Rodriguez before Will’s junior year, Wyatt knew it was time to reconsider.
“I didn’t think Will’s skill set matched what ‘Rich Rod’ was looking for,” Wyatt said. “He wanted a guy who could throw and run. I saw Will as a guy who was extremely accurate, very tough, very competitive. And I knew he had the mental side of the game. His senior year, he would text the week of a game and say, ‘I think we need to consider doing this because that guy is cheating this way or that way.’ He constantly watched film.
“At the end of the day, I just thought Will had a lot of ‘want to.’ ”
Georgia coaches were scheduled to visit Will in January 2019.
Too late. He committed to State with another year of high school ball ahead of him.
“I told Will to call the Georgia coach and tell him it was no sense in him coming,” Wyatt recalled. “When Will committed to State, I could feel a sense of relief in him, and he was genuinely excited about where he was going.
“Only thing was, Will was an early enrollee and when we dropped him off at State (in January 2020), they didn’t have a head coach. Coach (Joe) Moorhead had been let go.”
When news broke that State had hired Leach, Will and Wyatt couldn’t believe it. Wyatt had built his offensive philosophy on Leach’s teachings. Will had played in that system and watched Leach’s teams play anytime they were on TV.
“Leach had recruited him at Washington State,” Wyatt said. “I told Will, ‘If that’s where you want to go, I’ll get a job at a high school near there and we’ll go.’ And I would have. But that was a long way from home, so … ”
A young man with a strong faith in Jesus Christ, Will and his family believe it was God’s plan for him to attend State, for Leach to be hired, for him to wear Maroon and White instead of Red and Blue.
Will’s sister, Anna Grace, earned her undergraduate degree at Ole Miss, but she’s at State now pursuing her Master’s.
“She’s kinda like a mama hen with Will up there,” Wyatt said.
And Will’s “little” brother — 6-foot-4, 295 pounds — starts at left tackle for Brandon High. Wyatt may be juggling Friday nights and Saturdays for several more years.
The pressure on an SEC starting quarterback is immense. He has the hopes of thousands of fans in his hands every week in the fall.
And Will affects just about every play because the Bulldogs throw it nearly every down. State has rushed the ball 214 times through nine games. The next fewest in the SEC is 334 by LSU.
“Everything goes through Will, and he understands that,” Wyatt said. “Leach has given him a lot of freedom to make checks at the line. The offense has gotten better up front. The whole team has gotten better week to week it seems like. And that’s what every coach counts on. You hope that the team you put out there the first game isn’t going to be nearly as good as the one you have late in the season.”
Will escapes the pressure every Monday, the players’ day off. He drives south 45 minutes to Noxubee County and spends time at his maternal grandmother’s old home place out in the country.
“He piddles around, checks his deer stands,” Wyatt said. “He might take a teammate sometime, but usually he goes by himself. It’s good for him to get away from everything for a few hours.
“Will is grounded, I know that. And he’s seen athletes who had everything going for them. Some did it right, some slipped and went down the wrong path. Will is in tune with that sort of thing. That is comforting to know.” ########