Atlanta, GA,
23
August
2011
|
12:00 AM
America/New_York

NBA Standout Still a Powerhouse

Rodney Rogers shares his story of adjusting to life with a high-level spinal cord injury.

Former NBA sixth man of the year Rodney Rogers muscled his way around basketball courts for 12 years, earning the nickname “The Durham Bull.” At 6 feet, 7 inches and 235 pounds, the power forward could do a little bit of everything. He scored, rebounded and was a relentless defender.

Perhaps his legacy as a physical powerhouse is what made it so difficult for Rodney to accept a paralyzing spinal cord injury he sustained in November 2008. While riding an ATV in a rural area north of his home in Durham, N.C., Rodney hit a ditch and was thrown from the vehicle. He was treated at Duke University Medical Center and then transferred to Shepherd Center for rehabilitation.

In the initial months following the accident, his body threatened to shut down a half dozen times. The ordeal also threatened to rob the fight in his spirit. Paralyzed from the shoulders down, Rodney’s mental and emotional condition was as shattered as his body.

“When I was in the hospital at Shepherd Center, I kept theroom dark and never looked outside or let anyone see me,” Rodney recalls. “Even when I first came home, I stayed in the house and wouldn’t let anyone see me. I had to get used to this before anyone else could see me like this.”

A lot has changed in the past couple of years, though. Primarily, he’s no longer hiding – not behind the doors of his sprawling log cabin home that sits on 10 acres north of Durham, N.C., and not behind a façade he’d created to convince people he really wanted to be alone.

Yes, he still is depressed at times, he admits. And yes, some days are way better emotionally and physically than others. But for now, this is part of his new normal – something he and his wife Faye have come to accept.

There are many things Rodney, now 40, cannot do anymore. He can’t feed himself, drive his own wheelchair, breath without a ventilator or move anything other than his head. These truths are never far away, but they don’t demand center stage anymore.

“Look at the things I can do,” Rodney says. “I can talk, I can communicate when I need something, I’ve got my mind and I’ve got my Faye.”

Rodney and Faye’s love story has to be one for the ages. The two were only engaged when Rodney was paralyzed in the accident. As far as the laws of North Carolina were concerned, nothing was binding about their relationship. But that did not matter to Faye. From the day she accepted Rodney’s marriage proposal, she was in this relationship for better or worse.

“When we got engaged, we were committed to each other, no matter what,” says Faye, now 43. “It could have been me getting hurt. Would he have run away from me? No. This is what I signed up for. When we made a commitment, we were committed – no mater what.”

After having one of the best basketball careers in Wake Forest University’s storied history, Rodney was the ninth pick in the NBA draft in 1993. He signed with the Denver

Nuggets and began a 12-year career that would see him twice play in the NBA finals with the New Jersey Nets and be named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year for being the league’s best player coming off the bench.

He wasn’t quite ready to give up the game in 2005. But after finishing the year buried on the Philadelphia 76ers’ bench, Rodney decided 12 years and seven teams were enough.

Never a superstar, but always a reliable scorer and rebounder, he’d made plenty of money. And he’d had an itch to start a trucking company.

He returned to his hometown of Durham and began building that company. Life was good. He enjoyed spending time with family and friends. One activity that became a tradition was ATV riding with his son Devonte and some of Rodney’s friends on Thanksgiving Day. But in 2008, that day came and went without this ritual. Instead, they went on Black Friday.

That day, Faye went the more traditional route for a Black Friday outing – hitting the stores, but not before urging Rodney to skip the ATV riding. Devonte had a high school football game to play that night, so he couldn’t go. But Rodney’s friends wanted him to go nonetheless.

“Something in the back of my head kept telling me, ‘don’t do it,’” Rodney recalls. “So when we got there, I just sat on the back of the truck and let them ride. But they kept saying, ‘C’mon Rod, ride with us. Ride just a little bit.’”

So he did. Just for a little bit. “I came up fast on a ditch that I wasn’t expecting,” Rodney says. “I hit it and flipped over my handlebars and ducked my head. But I landed on my head and rolled and flipped, rolled and flipped. By the time I stopped, my buddies said, ‘You OK?’ I said ‘No, I’ve done broke my neck.’ I couldn’t move or feel nothing other than my head and shoulders. My lungs collapsed, so I started losing my breath. All I remember then was that I kept saying, ‘Please don’t let me die here.’”

When Faye got the call that Rodney was headed to the hospital, she hopped in her car and began praying, uncertain about how serious the injury was.

“I kept praying on the way to the hospital that it was a broken leg, or maybe a lung collapsed,” Faye recalls. “I never thought it was anything permanent. Then, when I got there and saw he’d broken his neck, I prayed he hadn’t hurt his spinal cord. He had. Then I just prayed that he lived. I didn’t care how he came out of the hospital. I just wanted him to live.”

In laymen’s terms, Rodney died four times, just not on the track. His heart stopped beating three times during his rehabilitation stay at Shepherd Center and once after he returned home. Each time, he was revived.

“That was enough for me,” Faye says. “I keep telling Rod that God has a reason for keeping him here. I’d accepted his injury within 30 days and was ready to live out the rest of our lives this way. It took Rod longer to come to terms with it.”

One of Rodney’s best friends, Dennis Scott, a former Georgia Tech basketball star and longtime NBA player, visited Rodney at Shepherd Center. “He saw me and he just broke down, sobbing.” Rodney recalls. “He was basically hyperventilating. We thought we were going to have to get him a room.”

Rodney understood Dennis’ reaction. It showed how much he cared about Rodney and how badly it was hurting Dennis to see him paralyzed. So Rodney doesn’t begrudge that reaction. But the experience cemented his thoughts that the great athlete Rodney Rogers couldn’t be seen like this – not by anyone other than his doctors, nurses and Faye.

So when he returned home on March 9, 2009, Rodney all but hung a quarantined sign on his front door. “I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, but even more than that, I had to adjust to not being about to walk and do what I used to do,” Rodney says. “People are used to seeing me being active, riding horses, doing stuff. So all of that played a part in me becoming a shut-in.”

Rodney’s Shepherd Center physician, Brock Bowman, M.D., says Rodney’s reluctance to leave his home is fairly common – particularly for people who have built their lives around physical activity.

“People are homesick to get home, but once they get there, they see these vivid reminders of what has changed,” Dr. Bowman explains. “Folks don’t anticipate the little things that will affect you, and they are struck by it at every corner. For someone like Rodney, it’s confronting his own identity, which was being the guy who everyone comes to for help. Now, he’s the one needing some help. That’s a major adjustment.”

But after Rodney’s losses – and hers – Faye wasn’t going to let Rodney willingly give away anything else. He could get out and live his life, reconnecting with friends and hopefully with his estranged children from a previous marriage. Little by little, most of that is happening.

“Everywhere we go, people recognize him,” Faye says. That was mostly true before his accident in and around Durham and Raleigh. At 6 feet, 8 inches, it’s hard to blend in, even in basketball-crazy North Carolina. But when he’s out, Rodney gets showered with love, respect and appreciation. Still, home is where he’s most comfortable. And that’s OK with Faye, too.

“This is our dream house,” she says. And dreamy it is. A mile-long, winding, gravel driveway leads to a spacious, wheelchair accessible log cabin. The great room’s centerpiece is a flat-screen TV mounted on a wall. Toward the back of the great room, his Wake Forest jersey hangs on a wall along with several pictures of him playing. There’s a pool table and a bumper pool table, as well, where friends occasionally play. And outside the great room is an accessible porch. Rodney and Faye share a bed in the master bedroom.

“Not everyone with an injury like Rod’s does that,” Faye says, but it means a lot to them. Essentially, his air mattress is connected to her bed with a king-sized headboard.

The home is his castle. And hers.

Recalling his stay at Shepherd Center, Rodney admits he wasn’t the cheeriest patient. Dr. Bowman noticed that, too. But he also saw a man who didn’t want to show the hurt he was feeling – not to him, nor to anyone.

“Rodney was not the most overtly depressed patient we’ve had,” Dr. Bowman says. “He didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. As a player, he was a bruiser, a big man, who showed no weakness. As a patient, he did a lot to keep things inside. For him to even admit that he was depressed, which he did, was a substantial thing. He’d verbalize it, but not tearfully or showing it outwardly.”

Looking back, Rodney is so appreciative for what the staff at Shepherd Center did for him, and for Faye, during the height of their emotional storm. “Shepherd Center was great once I calmed down and realized what was going on,” Rodney says. “I had a nurse who took care of me like I was her son. My God, she was so good. She knew how to help me get to sleep and she wouldn’t let anyone come bother me once I got to sleep. She’d tell people she could do anything I needed, to leave me alone.”

“And I was in ICU for two months, and they let Faye stay with me the whole time,” he adds. One of his nurses, Linda Putnam, RN, recalls a determination in Rodney that gave her hope that he’d recover emotionally.

“I remember Rodney as someone facing a devastating, life-altering injury, but who showed inner strength and fortitude, putting up with pain and all the things we had to do to him with politeness and tolerance,” she says. “I remember seeing such fear in his eyes, yet knowing he would come out on the other side of this injury a strong, proud man, which he did. These are the reasons working at Shepherd is so amazing.”

Rodney knows that not everyone who sustains an injury like his can afford the excellent rehabilitation therapy he received, or the home renovations and 24-hour nursing care he has. Rodney has insurance from a trucking business he owns, and that pays for some of his care.

For those who can’t afford quality care, Rodney wants to give back. He and Faye have started the Rodney Rogers Foundation. (www.therodneyrogersfoundation.org). It’s new, but those who know about it have been supportive, the Rogers say. They plan to organize a celebrity golf outing or basketball game to serve as the official kickoff for the foundation.

Life with a high-level spinal cord injury is challenging. Rodney tires easily. Some days, he stays in bed. Some days, he alternates between the bedroom and the great room, where he watches his big-screen TV. But as he gets out of the house more, his stamina likely will improve somewhat, Dr. Bowman says.

“As he does more and more, it’ll be less of a struggle, and his endurance will improve,” Dr. Bowman explains. “But will he ever be able to go out to lunch, stay out and roll into dinner, then a concert? Probably not. He’s a big guy with a big chest, who needs to takes big breaths. With the vent, he gets a fraction of the air he was used to getting. It’s adequate to sit in a chair and talk, but not for an enormous amount of activity.”

That means Faye has to make a lot of daily trips on her own, which is no big deal until she starts thinking about why she’s making those trips alone.

“I never drove before the accident,” she says. “Now I have to get in the pickup and drive. That’s tough only because I miss my partner. Even though my husband is here, I feel lonely when I go out. We’ve adjusted. I’m just glad to have him here.

“We have family, but they are not that supportive or involved. So it’s just me and Rodney. If something happens to him, I don’t have anyone.”

But neither Rodney, nor Faye plan on going anywhere. “I see us growing old together, taking care of each other,” Faye says.

Rodney smiles at that idea. “We’ll take the punches as they come, and whatever happens, happens,” he says. “But we’ll be together.”

Written by Bill Sanders
Photography by Louie Favorite

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.