Division II Phenom Ready To Beat Odds

Henderson State's Kevin Rodgers, a three-time finalist for the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, was excellent on the field and perhaps even better off of it. (Courtesy Henderson State)

You might not know about Kevin Rodgers.

The scouts do.

Rodgers, the record-setting quarterback at Division II Henderson State, put up numbers so big that he helped draw 12 curious scouts to North Texas’ pro day on March 26.

The three-and-a-half-year starter threw for 13,678 yards and 124 touchdowns with a 66.5 percent completion rate for his career — better numbers than any quarterback to ever play collegiately in the state of Arkansas. In going 34-5 as a starter, he threw for 300 yards 26 times, 400 yards 11 times and 500 yards four times.

Yeah, but that came against the likes of Northwestern Oklahoma and Southwestern Oklahoma and Southern Nazarene. The scouts wondered if his prolific production was merely a byproduct of facing lousy competition or if he was a hidden gem.

“‘Does this guy have the arm strength to play at the next level?’” Rodgers said in echoing scouts’ No. 1 concern. “I came out there and there was probably a 25 mph, 30 mph wind and I felt great. (The weather) was a blessing. The balls were accurate, they were on point, showed velocity. I think I impressed a lot of the scouts and built some good relationships out there. I’d say it was a good day.”

Among the teams that sought out Rodgers and complimented his arm strength, accuracy and mechanics were the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. Rodgers especially recalled his conversation with San Diego Chargers senior executive Randy Mueller, the former general manager of the Saints and Dolphins. Mueller gave Rodgers his business card and offered some especially kind thoughts.

“It was awesome to get to know him and get some advice from him,” Rodgers said. “He had a lot of good things to say, which was good to hear.”

One scout’s reaction to Rodgers’ workout was, “Holy (expletive).”

For Rodgers, it was affirmation that he was doing the right things during a make-or-break workout.

“There’s always butterflies but that’s just natural,” Rodgers said of the pressure. “It’s the same as going into a game. But I know in my heart that I had prepared for that day. Just like a game, your preparation is your key to success. The more prepared you are, the more confidence that you have. You see that with Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and that’s what I’m striving for — to be like them and be one better than them. Preparation is the key. I know what I can do and I’m just here to show it.”

So how did the native of Rockwall, Texas, wind up at Henderson State, which is located in that noted metropolis of Arkadelphia, Ark.?

“Coming out of the Dallas-Fort Worth area at the time, which was 2009 and 2010, it was really saturated with talent,” he recalled. “My senior year was really my only year that I had a chance to play on varsity. Freshman year, I started on the ‘B’ team and I started on junior varsity my sophomore year and was a backup on varsity my junior year and then started my senior year. I didn’t really do anything to stand out too much (to recruiters before his senior year) because I didn’t have that much experience.”

About the only interest Rodgers received was from Division III and NAIA schools. One phone call changed it all.

“I came home one night about a week or two before Signing Day and my parents were looking around and they found Henderson State,” he said. “They said, ‘What do you think about this place?’ I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot. D-II’s not bad.’ So, I e-mailed the coach. ‘Here’s my film, numbers. Let me know what you think.’ He e-mailed back immediately and said, ‘We will offer.’”

Rodgers didn’t arrive at Henderson State with aspirations of the NFL. He redshirted in 2010 and threw more interceptions than touchdowns in six starts in 2011.

“When I first got there, my mind-set — because I didn’t get much response out of the recruiting process in the first place — is, ‘I just want to go play football and have fun and get an education while I’m doing it,’” Rodgers recalled. “My freshman year, I was just figuring things out and really learning the offense and learning the game, because everyone else was way ahead of me as far as game experience. And then my redshirt freshman year, those last couple games, it just kind of clicked. I was like, ‘You know what? There might be something here.’ I went into that offseason and worked really hard and watched a lot of film and trained and came out that next season and it just exploded.”

Exploded, indeed. In 2012, Rodgers threw for 4,002 yards with 41 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Then came 2013, when Rodgers threw for 4,807 yards, 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. As a senior, Rodgers threw for “only” 3,602 yards with 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Rodgers was a three-time finalist for the Harlon Hill Award — the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy — placing sixth in 2012, third in 2013 and second in 2014. His 13,678 career passing yards ranks fifth in NCAA history.

Rodgers isn’t just a great player. In 2013, he was named captain of the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team and earned his degree in finance, graduating magna cum laude and delivering the commencement address. In 2014, he was named one of 17 finalists (one of only two in Division II) for the National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award, which comes with an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship, and was named the Capital One Academic All-American National Player of the Year for Division II.

“Since I was a young age, I just wanted to be a positive influence,” Rodgers said. “When you’re a little kid — especially in Texas — you look up to high school football players. They have a big impact on you and they look up to you. So, I made that commitment to myself, and that came from my parents and my brothers to be a positive influence on this world, because there’s a lot that goes on in this world and we need that. If I use football to make a difference, then that’s what I want to do. That’s part of my drive.

The Good Works honor came from his numerous charitable efforts as part of Baptist Collegiate Ministries. Among them was helping the victims of the May 2014 tornado that tore through Mayflower, Ark.

“I sent out a Tweet and it developed into this, ‘Hey, let’s get a group together and let’s help clean up,’” Rodgers said. “The next thing you know, that’s what we did. About three or four days later, we went up there and we found a house and just started cleaning. We built a relationship with those people and eventually that couple came to a game that next season. We stay in touch with them and it turned out to be something that’s pretty cool.”

With his combination of on-the-field talent and off-the-field intangibles, Rodgers figures to be in an NFL camp next month. He probably won’t get drafted but all Rodgers wants is a chance.

“I think about it probably every day, just wondering, ‘Man, I wonder what it’s going to feel like,’” he said. “It’s always been a dream and now it’s a reality and that’s the best part of it. Now I’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity that not many people get. It’s a crazy feeling. It’s easy to get emotional about. It’s amazing. That’s one word to describe it: Amazing.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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