Killing Them Softly

The lesson you need to learn about Shaun Rogers? Believe what you hear.

All of it. Crazy talk. Rumors. Even the stuff that can't possibly be true. Like the one about the Lions defensive tackle executing a 360 dunk at a charity hoops tourney. Given Rogers' girth-not to mention his penchant for practical jokes and, well, the laws of physics-the response from teammates and coaches to this alleged flush was skeptical. A guy pushing 360 doing a 360? C'mon. "Man, I just look like this," Rogers says, appraising his ample figure. "I'm an athlete on the inside."

And then, much as he's been doing his whole career, Rogers decides to prove himself. He grabs a forest-green throw pillow off a couch at the Lions practice facility, walks to the corner of the room and, one eyebrow raised, warns, "You better move back." With the cushion balled up in his fist, Rogers is suddenly airborne, flying past a chair and a table as he rises and spins. Tongue wagging, he gleefully jams the pillow into a corner of the 10-foot ceiling. When he lands, the impact rocks the building.

Maybe this is the year that people will finally buy what they hear about Rogers, at least when it comes to his get-out-the-camera-phone athletic ability. Opposing coaches have been calling him unblockable since 2001, when the rookie led all NFL defensive linemen with 97 tackles. Detroit defensive end Cory Redding says if Rogers had picked up a tennis racket as a kid in La Porte, Texas, he'd now have a Wimbledon cup in one arm and a Williams sister on the other. During training camp last year, Rogers brought practice to a halt when he jumped in with the Lions linebackers and breezed through their agility drills.

So, yes, Rogers has bulldozed his way to six blocked kicks in four seasons, and yes, Bill Parcells thinks Rogers is better than Panthers mauler Kris Jenkins. Basically, if you hear something crazy about Rogers' talent or body, it's probably true.

The same can be said about rumors that the Lions have made the smiling Rogers the new face of the club, at least until Joey Harrington proves he's a better QB than pianist. In January, Detroit made Rogers the NFL's highest paid defensive tackle with a six-year, $46 million contract extension. By investing in Rogers, the Lions are saying that a ferocious defense has to be part of the much-needed retooling in Detroit. The Motor City Kitties have been so bad for so long that their PR department has been able to save money on hopeful slogans. The Lions have been promising to "Restore the Roar" for at least 15 years, the last time in 2004 when they finished a meowing 6—10. "I don't want to spend my whole career trying to claw out of the bottom," says Rogers, who's suffered through 48 losses in four years. "I'm in a position to anchor what this team wants to do." For starters, Rogers would like to watch another team's highlight reel without seeing "all kinds of Honolulu blue flying across the screen."

If anybody can beat back Detroit's blues, it's Rogers, whose kidlike disposition has earned him the nickname Big Baby. Before Robert Porcher retired from the Lions last November, the threetime Pro Bowl defensive end called Rogers "a shining light," and he wasn't just talking about Big Baby's ability. Rogers is likely to run to get his mom, Gwen Hart, a soda everytime she complains of thirst. And just a mention of his deceased grandmother, Lee Ethel Rogers, can bring a tear to his eye. But five minutes after shaking his hand, you should expect Rogers to be making fun of your shoes, haircut, handwriting and dog.

One of his favorite targets has been veteran tackle Dan Wilkinson, whose feet have been severely mangled during 11 years in NFL trenches. Near the end of Steve Mariucci's first training camp, the Lions were worn down and tense when the blackout of 2003 hit. The locker room went dark, but before panic or anger could set in, Rogers calmly announced there was no need to worry. Only one event could overload the city's power grid: "Big Daddy's just getting a pedicure."

Earlier in that same camp, Mariucci introduced his defensive philosophy to the Lions: build from the inside out. Start with tough, physical players up the gut at tackle, inside linebacker and safety. Then add speed, at corner and defensive end. That's just what the Lions did on draft day, picking explosive USC end Shaun Cody and Stanford corner Stanley Wilson with their second and third picks. But make no mistake, Rogers is the cornerstone. "He's a load in there," says Tony Dungy. "He's a lot like Cortez Kennedy, or some of the bigger, more powerful guys who have really wreaked havoc in the NFL."

Good defensive tackles are earthmovers, with speed best described as glacial. They push the pocket and occupy double-teams and spit back fullbacks on short-yardage downs. Great defensive tackles add enough athleticism to occasionally disrupt the quarterback. Rogers is something more. He is a 6'4", 345-pound Deion Sanders. A playmaker. A game-changer. A rock star.

He opened 2004 with a blocked field goal and a fumble recovery that led to 10 points in a 20-16 win at Chicago. The next week, in another Detroit win, the Texans used three different blockers and several sets of double-teams; Rogers still scared the holy bejeezus out of QB David Carr. "He was throwing guys around like they were my 8-year-old son," says Detroit defensive tackle Marcus Bell. "Guys from both teams were shaking their heads going, `Damn, did you just see that?' "

Rogers' talent radiates outward, affecting every aspect of the Lions' defense. His ability to occupy blockers freed up rookie linebacker Teddy Lehman to make 120 tackles. Many of defensive end James Hall's 11.5 sacks last season resulted from Rogers' pocket push. Lions corner Dre' Bly has feasted on trigger-happy QBs, picking off 10 passes and two Pro Bowl bids the past two seasons. "That guy got us all paid," says Tampa cornerback Rod Babers, who played in Detroit last season. "He's big, he's loud and he thinks he's unstoppable. And 95% of the time, he's right."

Alas, that other 5% is a constant knock on Rogers, who came by his tools naturally. His father, Ernie, played college ball at Rice and offensive tackle in the CFL and USFL. Given his talent and demeanor, it's no surprise to learn that young Shaun was laid-back about the game, and everything else. It set a pattern for his career: he doesn't take football seriously until someone threatens to take it away.

The first threat came from his mama. During Rogers' junior year at La Porte High, near Houston, Hart received a progress report that included a C in English. She marched onto the football practice field, yanked Big Baby by the earhole of his helmet and took him home; his teammates and coach begged her to reconsider. She did, a week later, after Shaun turned in a late assignment to bring his grade up to a B. "Never had a problem with that again," Hart says.

Rogers earned a scholarship to Texas and, as a junior, finished with 27 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and a spot on the All-Big 12 team. He loved college life so much that he stayed in the dorms all four years. That decision was pure Big Baby: I got food downstairs 24/7, cable TV, a short walk to practice and my best friends living 10 feet away. Why would I leave?

Rogers was projected as a first-round lock until a chop-block mangled his ankle early in his senior season. Hobbled by a high sprain, his production fell as his weight ballooned. So too did his rep for playing soft. The ankle required surgery that had him in a wheelchair at the NFL combine. Rogers still thought he'd go in the first round and, in a classic draft-day gaffe, he invited what season's halfway mark, he'd already had an 11-tackle game against Tennessee, a two-sack game at Minnesota and two blocked field goals at San Francisco. He singlehandedly accomplished a feat most thought to be impossible: boosting Matt Millen's rep as an executive.

In that first season, teammates and opponents alike discovered that the only time Rogers isn't fun to be around is early in games, when he works himself up into such a trash-talking, eye-gouging lather that even Mama can't watch. "I may get hyped up a bit," says Rogers, "but it's not like I want to kill anybody."

"Oh yes you do, Baby," Hart says.

"Okay, but after I get one big play, that first bump," Rogers says, "the show is on."

From time to time, though, that show still goes on hiatus. In 2002, Rogers broke his thumb during a September loss at Carolina. He missed four starts and had to wear a cast the rest of the season. His discipline waned along with his stats, and back came the questions about his giving up too easily. That off-season, Millen even dangled him as trade bait.

Rogers admits that the mental side of the game, especially off-field discipline, is a challenge. After the NFL season some players can take two months off from training. Some can double-fist Detroit Coney Island chili dogs, then crash-diet three weeks before camp. Once in camp, those same players can even stay out all night and still be sharp in practice the next day. "But Big Baby sure can't," Rogers says with a knowing laugh. "I've learned that."

After the 2002 slide, Rogers came into his next camp lighter and more focused, and he immediately started lighting people up. In 2003, he was voted the Lions' most improved player and made his first Pro Bowl. Team officials quickly started working on an extension, but they couldn't get the deal done before the 2004 season. Rogers made sure to remind Millen about it on the team bus after each game. In October, after sacking Mike Vick twice, he leaned over and whispered to the president, "I want it all in small bills … 10s and 20s." After eight tackles and a blocked field goal at Tennessee, Rogers asked if Millen knew where he could rent an armored truck for his signing bonus.

Millen is happy to let Rogers laugh all the way to the bank. He transferred a good deal of pressure for a Lions turnaround onto Baby's round shoulders. "Shaun Rogers is the best defensive lineman in the game," Millen says, "not just the best defensive tackle. He's a guy you want to build around." Rogers is unfazed by the praise. Asked what kind of leader he'll be, a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full guy, he says, "I'm a shut-up-anddrink-the-rest-of-your-damn-water guy."

Good thing, given how parched this team is for success. The Lions have one playoff victory in the past 47 years. But thanks to parity, six teams have gone from worst to first in the NFL since 2000. Last season it was the Chargers and the Falcons. This season? In a weak NFC North, with Rogers anchoring the D and the trio of running back Kevin Jones and the wideouts Williams (Roy and newly drafted Mike) adding pop to the offense, it's not crazy to think the Lions could make the leap.

To prepare for it, Rogers has been a regular on metro Detroit's hoops courts this spring. (He's added a cartwheel dunk to complement his 360, by the way.) Every time he drops a game, several fans wait for him on the bench or near the water fountain. They know all too well that Ford Field will host next year's Super Bowl, and they usually have a question: yo, Big Baby, do we have a shot at homefield?

"The Super Bowl?" Rogers answers. "I'm trying, trust me. But man, we were 6—10 last year. Let's all take this one step at a time, okay?' "

Absolutely. Big Baby steps.