As a new high school football season approaches, the reputation of MCH’s six-man football program is buoyed by the memory of last season’s exciting playoff run that culminated in a second-place finish in the Texas Christian Athletic Fellowship championship game.
While most of the players’ runner-up medallions are probably stuffed in a sock drawer or hanging from a doorknob, there’s one boy who won’t leave home without wearing the medal. And it’s not even his.
“Grayson will want to wear that medal every day,” said MCH head football coach and athletic director Matt Rodgers of his 3-year-old son. “Even when we go someplace like a Baylor basketball game, he’ll have to have it on. Wherever we go, he’ll say, ‘I have to get Rah-Rah’s medal!’
“When we lost the state championship (last season) they gave a medal to each player,” Rodgers explained. “And they had one for Rhett. On the back it says ‘To our littlest champion. Presented to Rhett Rodgers.’ That really meant a lot to us.”
“Rah-Rah” is Grayson’s name for Rhett, his little brother born in July 2014 with serious complications. Rhett passed away in January 2015. Sarah Rodgers, Matt’s wife, described the beginning of what would be a tumultuous and trying year for the young family.
“During routine pregnancy checkups we discovered Rhett had stopped growing at 30 weeks,” said Sarah. “Once I got to 36 weeks and he still had not been growing, they decided it was a good time to deliver him.”
Rhett was diagnosed with Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a rare congenital brain malformation. He weighed just 3 pounds, 2 ounces at birth. The early birth actually saved his life, Sarah explained.
“One of the doctors in the NICU said Rhett might not have even made it a few more days past that if we had not induced early,” she said. “That was hard to wrap our minds around. He was so tiny.”
For the first month of his life, Rhett had to stay in the hospital in Temple, Texas, as several other complications were discovered and treatments were explored.
As the Rodgerses began to look into treatments, they transitioned to a hospital in Houston the first week of September. Despite anticipating needing to be there for just a few days, they were soon given more somber news. It was discovered that Rhett also had an extremely rare genetic issue with no cure.
“For three or four weeks we just didn’t know anything,” Matt said. “We didn’t know what the answer was because we didn’t know what the problem was.”
During this time, Sarah stayed with Rhett in Houston while Matt, preparing for his third season as football coach at MCH, burned up the roads between the two cities.
“We had MCH football games on Friday, so I’d drive to Houston on Saturday, then drive back to Waco for Monday and Tuesday then back to Houston for a couple of days and before coming back to Waco to get ready for the next game,” Matt said.
Despite the reality that they would lose their son, the Rodgerses understood they had been given a gift – the gift of time with their son that they might not otherwise have had.
“When we found out in September what his diagnosis was, it didn’t hit us all at once, but the grieving process started well before he was gone,” Matt said. “There were a few instances along the way where we had to go back to the ER or he stopped breathing at our house. We didn’t know if this was it; if this would be the last time we had with him. But it never happened all at once, but over a gradual process over several months.”
“It took a lot, but I don’t think we lived in the fear of him dying,” Sarah said. “We just had to live as if he was healthy.”
Although Matt had every reason to take a pass on the MCH Bulldogs’ football season and turn coaching duties over to his assistants, the thought was never entertained.
“I shared with the team what I was going through during that time; they knew I was going through a hard time,” he said. “But it was important to me to be there as much as I could, just so they had someone who wasn’t absent or quitting on them.”
Sarah supported the decision. Noting that many of the children who come to MCH ”have challenges that no child should have, watching Matt being around them and serving as an example and showing them they can be a part of a team, inspire others to want to be better and be about more than themselves was life-giving,” Sarah said.
Through the 2014 season and into the next spring following Rhett’s passing in January, Matt continued to be open about his story with the youth at MCH. Not surprisingly, in preparing for the 2015 season, there was talk among some players to “win for Rhett and Coach Matt.”
“We had kids this past season who had been with us the previous season and knew about what we went through,” Matt said. “It meant a lot to hear the kids, or whoever, say Rhett’s name. Regardless of the situation, but especially here at MCH, it meant that some of the things we were teaching and preaching and coaching was actually getting through.
“When these young men move on, it would be nice to think that perhaps when they’re older and have a family and face challenges, that they might look back on these two seasons and remember getting some guidance and encouragement about getting through life’s challenges,” he added.
Matt said the championship run in 2015 was special because the players gelled and delivered a unified “team-first” approach.
“The successful teams we have had are the ones that didn’t care about individual success or honors,” Matt said. “They cared more about the team and the people standing next to them. The year we went undefeated several seasons ago, at one point we were ranked in the Top 10 in the state out of 240 teams. That’s how the 2015 team played as well.
“It can be tough to get kids to buy into the idea of caring for other people when maybe they’ve never been part of a team, or maybe no one has ever cared about them before,” he added. “They are used to just surviving and looking out for themselves.”
The line of separation between heaven and earth has blurred for the Rodgers family with the experience of losing a child. Along with the young people they encounter at MCH, Matt and Sarah say they will also continue to tell Grayson about the life and inspiration of his brother.
“We will never not talk about Rhett,” Matt said. “We have two children now, not one. We remember him for his bravery and all that he went through. Grayson will continue to learn about that and learn that Rhett mattered, and he matters too.”
“Grayson won’t remember Rhett like we remember him, but he knows his name,” Sarah said. “He said recently ‘Rah-Rah is my hero.’ He loves his little brother, and he knows where he is. He knows he was sick and had to go to the doctor a lot. I want him to know his brother was a brave little boy.”
According to Matt, serving as coach and athletic director at MCH has meant getting to know youth in a deeper way. Matt said he understands that the way he presents himself on a daily basis can make a difference in the life of a young person at MCH – athlete or otherwise.
“For me, it’s important to have a relationship with the kids outside of whatever the arena is that we are competing in,” he said. “If all I did was present the authoritarian figure of ‘do what I say because I’m the coach,’ it wouldn’t be as effective as getting into their lives and caring for them.
“It’s important that the kids see me outside of athletics – at the school, or having lunch with them in the homes. That’s so beneficial to be a part of their lives. At times of the year like summer when we aren’t in athletics, I may drop by and play video games with them just to be in their space and their lives.
“There’s a saying that kids ‘don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,’” he said. “It’s really true and it plays a huge role in relating to the kids here.”
Having a successful season like the 2015 playoff run is motivation to practice hard and field another competitive team, but Matt said he knows there is much more at stake.
“Most kids are at MCH because of things they’ve been through which aren’t the greatest in the world,” he said. “This is the most traumatic event I’ve been through, but I think everything that happened [with Rhett] has really put life and high school drama into perspective. I think I am able to be more compassionate and forgiving than I may have been before; more understanding and not caught up when a kid acts out towards me, but rather more able to focus on him and his long-term success.“
Matt said he keeps his perspective as a coach by asking “does what I’m doing set them up for success later, whether this is graduating from high school, going to college, being a better spouse, father or mother … a better person with better ideas of what their future can look like.
“I want to always live life in a way that makes Rhett’s story and his life worth it,” Matt said. “However that may look – whether it’s sharing Rhett’s story or using it as motivation to make it through a difficult day or helping kids here see value in their life.”
As “Coach Matt” and the MCH Bulldogs kick off their 2016 football season on Aug. 26, cheered on by fans and family, there will be a little boy cheering along who undoubtedly will have a medal around his neck.