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How long ago? It was back in the days of the dropkick, a move designed to surprise the defense and turn what might have looked like an ordinary running play into something wholly different.
Of course, back then the ball only faintly resembled today’s football, not as pointed, more basketball-ish, so a dropkick wasn’t as tough a trick as it would be today. You drop the ball and kick it the moment it comes popping up, preferably, of course, through the uprights. The last official drop kick was accomplished by a quarterback named Doug Flutie–remember him? –little guy with a great big heart. He pulled one off in 2006, sixty-some years after the last one ever seriously attempted. His wasn’t particularly serious.
The legendary Jim Thorpe was a master of the dropkick, and so was a largely forgotten football star from even farther back in time, a sturdy tight end named Edward L. Rogers. I met him on the grounds of the Cass County Courthouse, Walker, Minnesota, where his statue is meant to immortalize him. Ed Rogers was local, born and reared in Minnesota’s Northwoods, his mama an Ojibwe, his daddy a lumberjack. In fact, he and Jim Thorpe went to the same school, a place called Carlisle, just a few years apart. You may have heard of Carlisle–it was famous, and, well, infamous.
Ed Rogers played high school football at Carlisle. When he graduated, he went to law school back home at the University of Minnesota, where he played on the legendary Gopher club that snuck a tie out of Michigan and stole home the very first Old Oaken Bucket, 1904.
Truth be told, Ed Rogers wasn’t just your ordinary college kid by that time. He was halfway through his twenties. The NCAA would have grabbed him by the strap of his leather helmet and tossed him off the field–too old, a grad student too. Back then, college football was just a game. Ed Rogers, by the way, was captain, and an adept drop-kicker. But then, that wasn’t particularly unusual. Dozens of other grunts drop-kicked too.
But Ed Rogers was unusual in other ways. Born Ay-ne-way-we-dung, on Cass County’s Chippewa (Ojibwe) reservation, he went to school at a place now reviled as the archetype for an education pointedly and forcibly intended to evict Native kids from their homes and culture, their language, and their heritage. That determined educational philosophy was created, in concept, by a military man named Richard Pratt, who referred, in an 1892 speech, to a vile line uttered in defense of the kind of school he wanted to create:
A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
When seen from more than a century later, Pratt wasn’t unusual; but Rogers was, not because he could dropkick a football with notable accuracy, but because the record of his life is quietly amazing, full of seasons of wins even his parents could not have foreseen.
Law degree, U of M; practiced law in Walker, his home, for 46 years, where he also served as deputy coroner, health board member, and census enumerator on the Leech Lake reservation, also his home. Still later, Edward L. Rogers was voted in to represent ten Ojibwe tribes, a position which made him, you could say, “chief” of the Ojibwe. In 1942 he became a Minnesota state congressman and eventually Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Hoover administration. When he was 86 years old, he was named District Attorney of the Year. He was still practicing law.
It is purely speculative to guess what twists the life of Edward L. Rogers would have taken had he not been sent off to receive the boarding school education he had at Carlisle, an education today much reviled for aiming at the destruction of Rogers’s own Native culture. Instead, the captain of the 1903 University of Minnesota Gophers spent most of his adult life serving his communities–both colonizers and Indigenous. There his statue stands on the grounds of the county courthouse.
So what is there to say about men and women like Edward L. Rogers? Does his life prove Richard Pratt’s educational philosophy to be true? Of course not. There were far, far too many runaways, too many burials, too much loss.
I’ve been reading Richard Rohr lately, who quite frankly hasn’t much to say about Native American culture, but lots to say about course of all our lives. Rohr is convinced that life’s tragic arc is as irreversible as it is non-negotiable. We all are on the same bleak path, a path that leads to the same end, to death. Sounds awful, but it isn’t. In that life, in our lives, he says, “All beauty is gratuitous,” a line which sounds begrudgingly affirmative but has had me singing for two weeks now. I can’t help but think of it this way: all beauty is grace for the game, an unforeseen blessing, a gift. Seems to me that Edward L. Rogers’s life is a thing of beauty, a blessing of grace.
That’s what makes Ed Rogers’s dropkicks worth remembering, not just in the annals of Gopher football or on the lawn at the Cass County Courthouse. All beauty, even when it’s packed into the formidable body of a rugged defensive end, is gratuitous, grace for the journey.