There was no jersey Justin Rodgers wanted to wear at Cary High other than the No. 34 in Kelly green and white worn by his older brother Chase. When Justin wore it for the final time, on senior night on Nov. 3, he wished his brother was standing there next to him.
Instead, Justin walked across the field with his mother, Kim, his father, Darryl, and only a memory of the brother who had died three years earlier, at the age of 20, in a car accident. It was a painful end to a heartbreaking few years for a family that had tried in vain to help Chase overcome his drug addiction.
For Justin, there is never a day that he fails to think about Chase.
Justin wants to play football in college, to live the dream that his brother was unable to attain. And he wants to share the story of his brother and to help people avoid the kind of life-changing mistakes that he watched Chase make.
“I made a tweet earlier this year about the story, just letting people know. I still have it up. It’s just letting people know to make good decisions and that one bad decision can ruin your life,” Justin said. “While he’s gone, we might be able to save other people by educating them.”
Justin never saw his brother using drugs, but he had a close view of his fall.
Chase began using alcohol, marijuana and the drug MDMA, commonly known as Molly or ecstasy, at Cary High School. When his grades slipped and his personality seemed to change, his family sent him to Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia for his senior year.
The discipline appeared to help and his grades and football play improved. The 5-11, 175-pound defensive back accepted a football scholarship at Lindenwood University in Belleville, Ill., which was just starting its program.
But in college, Chase slipped again into substance abuse, and he was eventually dismissed from school because of poor grades. His problems did not end when he returned home.
A big drive for me to go to college and play football college is to do what he never got to do – to play football in college.
Justin found it impossible to interact with brother the way they did growing up.
The Chase that Justin knew was fun-loving, willing to film himself doing a goofy, choreographed dance to a Katy Perry song or sneak up on Justin, camera in hand.
Now Chase had little time for his brother, and when he did interact, he was seemed angry.
“Things really, really took a turn for the worse,” Justin said. “He started seeing some of his previous friends from Cary and they weren’t the right crowd. They got him involved in drugs. He was always out of the house; I hardly ever saw him at home. Completely different person. He was hostile at times – it wasn’t the brotherly fights.”
Chase received treatment in Florida and came back to Cary. But when he began to relapse, he soon accepted a job transfer to go back to Florida.
His family was expecting him over for one last dinner before he departed, but he and his friends hit the road that night – May 29, 2014 – one day earlier than expected. That’s when the wreck happened. Darryl was told that Chase had smoked marijuana with his friends before heading out and gave his car keys to a friend who had no driver’s license and let her drive in I-40 rush hour traffic. She and one other passenger survived the single-car accident near Wade Avenue.
Devastated, the family has tried to use the tragedy of Chase to help others.
Darryl Rodgers has written a book, “A Life Half Lived: A True Story of Love, Addiction, Tragedy, and Hope.” He has spoken around the country about the importance of making better choices and has produced a 20-minute film – “Deadly Influences” – he uses as a preface for his speeches.
Darryl Rodgers says Justin was better equipped to resist substance abuse than his brother, partly because he’d watched his family struggle to keep Chase on the right track.
“(Justin has) always had a good head on his shoulders; he’s more of a leader, whereas Chase was more of a follower,” Darryl said. “He’s never seemed to need the approval of his peers. That doesn’t seem to be all that important to him. He’s always been really good about choosing friends. All that happened with Chase, I think, has sort of solidified all of that. He’s even more careful now or determined now to make wise choices and to choose good people to surround himself with.”
Justin says when his dad speaks at events, people come forward to say how much it helped to hear his words about his Chase.
Justin, 5-9 and 170 pounds, was an all-conference defensive back this year. As he mulls his future – his 4.49 40-yard dash has caught the interest of some smaller schools like Newberry College (S.C.), St. Andrews and Averett (Va.) – he wants to keep the memory of his brother near.
Justin will likely sign with one of those schools around National Signing Day in February.
To play in college would be living out his brother’s dream: “to do what (Chase) never got to do.”