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A Thing of Beauty

By September 15, 2023 10 Comments

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.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Beauty and gace.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Thanks for this beautiful story. And thanks for “gratuitous.” Yours is the second use of it I’ve encountered this week that emphasizes its positive meaning rather than its negative one (which is also very useful). Another story yours reminded me of is William Kent Krueger’s great novel “This Tender Land.” It, too, is gratuitous in the best sense and takes on that awful slogan, “Kill the Indian. Save the man.”

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thank you for this lovely story of beautiful amazing grace

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Roger’s photos depict a lifelong pleasant determination. His history is stellar enough to put the Pratts of his day in their place. And yes, gratuitous beauty and grace for the journey, Thank you!

  • Jack says:

    Thank you. Time and again your pieces lead us away from “what’s good for us” and draw us to an overlooked or forgotten subject worthy of knowing, gently celebrating. Our attention is relieved of self and replaced by sympathy, understanding, and gratitude.
    Ever grateful

  • Terry Woodnorth says:

    That school in Carlisle was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, not far from where I live. Dickinson College has embarked on a research project to digitize a variety of resources that are physically preserved in various locations around the country ( The PBS documentary film “Home From School: The Children of Carlisle” ( premiered in November, 2021.

  • Kathryn Vilela says:

    This story and your thoughts on it have raised many thoughts and reactions for me today.

    As a white colonist in Canada, I benefit by accident of birth from the injustice that was done by my colonist ancestors to generations and generations of Indigenous people. There is no question of my benefit within the system, whether I like that or not. The residential school systems were developed and maintained with partnerships between the white governments in North America and the white church institutions in North America. As you point out in the awful quote from Richard Pratt, the intention to “kill the Indian in [them]” was never hidden. We have many records of nearly identical quotes in Canadian history.

    Residential schools should make us deeply uncomfortable. They rightfully should be considered a horror that we should mourn. They are a dark place in our continent’s history.

    But there’s a different kind of discomfort that I feel when we, often feeling that we have the best of intentions, try to find bright spots in dark places like residential schools.

    Even if there was any light to be found in the darkness of those racist, genocidal institutions, if the presence of God was evident in specific lives or events, as a white colonist who continues to benefit from this history of darkness, those stories are not mine to seek nor to tell.

    Additionally, the individual featured here, Ed Rogers, succeeded in life according to white colonial standards and within a white colonial system. His was neither a life of “neutral” success nor a success by Indigenous cultural norms; this is someone that Pratt himself would have held up as a testament to the validity and efficacy of his vision for residential schools.

    Was he happy? Self-actualized? Regretful? Disconnected? When he thought of himself, did he think of himself as Ay-ne-way-we-dung, as you note he was “born as”, or did he think of himself as “Ed Rogers”, as you, and apparently history, referred to him ever after? Hard to say. Even if he was “happy”, does that prove evidence of God’s grace in the dark place of residential schools? Personally, I’m uncomfortable connecting those particular dots.

  • Andrea Van Kooten says:

    Thank you for finding and sharing stories like this.

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