A DIVE INTO THE ARCHIVES: MR. ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD
By BRANDON HURLEY
EDITOR’S NOTE: With the dire times facing us and no live sports, the Jefferson Herald is ready take a look back on some of the county’s greatest spring athletes, putting a shine on the area’s most tremendous and interesting stories. This week, we feature Jefferson’s first track champion, Joe Rogers, Class of 1930 in a two-part series. The second part will run in next week’s Herald, March 26.
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When Joe Rogers laced up his shoes and dug himself into starting position, the state stopped and watched.
The dust and grime of a dirt track did little to curtail the electric speed of the Jefferson High grad 90 years ago. Despite suspect training facilities not even on school grounds, the former Rambler is forever etched in high school lore thanks to his magnificent talents.
One of the greatest sprinter’s in school history stole the show back in 1930, becoming a legend in mere seconds. He later built an interesting coaching career, striking up an unlikely friendship with one of college football’s most iconic figures.
Rogers had his fingers in almost everything for a span of about 30 years. From his days as an athletic marvel to possessing a tremendous mind for knowledge, the former Rambler is as intriguing as they come.
He’s placed in the Jefferson record books for his remarkable prowess on the high school track, setting the state ablaze while becoming the first Jefferson athlete to win a state title. He dominated the 1930 Iowa High School state track meet, winning a pair of individual medals – in the 100-yard and 200-yard dash. He also anchored a historic relay to another championship (440-yard relay), cementing his spot in a rare corner of the history books.
To this day, Rogers remains the only Jefferson athlete to win three state titles in a single season. While 1995 Jefferson-Scranton graduate Brent MacLagan owns four state titles to his name, he won those across a span of three years. Many others have won multiple championships as well, but, Rogers stands in a class of his own, he was a giant among boys nearly a century ago. He went on to perhaps enjoy the most successful administrative career of any Jefferson graduate within the realm of sports, as well.
Rogers’ name now graces the annual Ram Relays’ 100-meter dash, but, in a way, he should be honored on a much grander scale than that. After Rogers’ stupendous senior year, Jefferson would have to wait 54 years before another sprinter – guy or girl – won a state title in either the 100-meter or 200-yard dash. Jefferson even went 23 years between any type of state championship before the Jefferson one-mile relay squad won a state championship in 1953.
Rogers set the bar of excellence, and no one has eclipsed it since. During his long, fruitful life in athletics, Rogers built a hall of fame coaching career in both Iowa and Michigan, becoming a true friend of the late, great Harold “Fritz” Crisler, for whom the University of Michigan basketball arena is named after.
This week, in an effort to re-create the by-gone glory days, we embark on the wonderful, winding journey Joe Rogers created thanks to the exhaustive archives of the Jefferson Bee and Herald, the Globe-Gazette and the News-Palladium in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
Here lies the tale of the often forgotten sprinter who kicked the world’s butt.
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Joseph John Rogers was born March 15, 1910 in Platte, South Dakota. Rogers lived until he was 90, carrying the baton of life into the new century before passing away in 2001 in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
He was the star son of Ezekiel Riley and Loye Waggner Rogers, one of eight children. He navigated his childhood most likely fighting for attention – he did have seven other brothers and sisters, after all. It’s probably where he picked up his electric speed – hoping to escape the hectic harassment of siblings can do that to you.
By the late 1920s, most schools in Iowa had transitioned to cinder tracks – surfaces made with pieces of tiny cinder – which was a surface more conducive to running, whereas today, schools throughout the world utilize all-weather, turf-like tracks. Unfortunately, Jefferson High School did not possess such luxuries, leaving Rogers and his teammates to train on a well-groomed dirt track on the Greene County fairgrounds.
(Ahem, can we bring that back and name it the Joe Rogers Track, please?)
That meant Rogers and his peers battled dust, grime, mud, and sometimes, ridiculously hard track surfaces from hours baking in the sun on a daily basis. Surprisingly, Mother Nature didn’t hamper Rogers’ speed, in fact, it most likely enhanced his leg strength and endurance. His so-called “hardships” are similar to today’s runners training on sandy beaches or climbing large hills – whatever gets you results, right?
Well, varying state publications still found Jefferson’s dirt track as a “handicap,” thus propping up Rogers’ accomplishments even more.
His proverbial sprint through the school record books from 1928-1930 was a thing of absolute beauty. Rogers was much more than a track star, he excelled in basketball as well as football, playing all three sports at the collegiate level for William Penn in Oskaloosa.
Rogers’ performance at the 1929 state track and field meet in Ames did little to indicate his impending success the following year as a senior. He placed fifth in the 220-yard dash that spring, winning his preliminary heat though he failed to qualify for the 100-yard finals. The Jefferson relays didn’t enjoy much success, either, struggling to place as the Ramblers scored just a single point in the team standings. For folks who followed Jefferson athletics closely, they knew the potential Rogers possessed. His time would come when he exploded onto the scene.
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Track and field was the sport of choice as the world transitioned into a new decade in 1930. It was a booming industry, with newspaper publications throughout the state dedicating a big chunk of their coverage to the sport.
The Jefferson High boys’ track team wasted little time in making its presence known. The Ramblers closed the season with quite a bit of momentum, setting records in five consecutive meets, punctuated by a third place finish at the state meet.
One of Rogers’ most distinguished feats was appearing in eight straight Drake Relays from 1927 to 1934. His final appearance as a high school athlete was easily his most magnificent at the tail end of April. He anchored both of Jefferson’s Drake Relays Class B championship relay teams in 1930 – the record-setting 440-yard relay as well as the 880 yard relay event. The 440-yard relay squad of Fred Morain, Marvin Lyon and Leonard Scharff put the state on notice with a then Drake Relays record in their preliminary race, sprinting to a magnificent time of 45.9 seconds, more than three seconds faster than their time in the previous Drake Relays, shattering a record that had stood for three years prior.
Back then, a victory in the Class B finals (which featured the state’s smaller schools), earned you a date in the all class championships.
Jefferson couldn’t quite pull off victory while racing with the big boys in the Class A finals though, but a runner-up placement in a thrilling, photo finish in the 880-yard relay was featured prominently in the Des Moines Register. Rogers also helped anchor the history-making 440-yard relay to a bronze medal.
Jefferson was the only high school in 1930 to snag first place victories in two different events, coming home with 16 medals overall. The 1930 Drake Relays featured 173 high school and colleges and even showcased the “Century of the Century,” a highly-anticipated 100-yard dash between two of the nation’s premiere sprinters. TCU’s Cy Leland and Rice Institute’s Claude Bracey captivated the Des Moines crowds that ballooned past 10,000. Bracey burst out of the blocks for a quick lead before Leland overtook him at the halfway mark, edging him out by less than half a step to capture the Drake Relays title. Drake was THE ultimate spectacle back then, drawing immense coverage from the Des Moines Register as well as many other publications. The Register dedicated several pages and bylines to the nation’s most popular track and field meet.
Jefferson’s Des Moines success carried over well as they settled back into the normalcy of the spring schedule. Rogers kept growing and enjoyed a record-breaking night at the Orient Relays roughly a week later, surpassing the meet record in the 100-yard relay by cruising to a time of 10 seconds flat.
Jefferson trekked up north for a district meet in Fort Dodge, and though the Ramblers competed in only six of a possible 17 events, they announced their superiority by setting meet records in four of those races. The Ramblers miraculously pulled off a runner-up finish, racking up 32 points to place just five points behind meet champion, Emmetsburg. The most peculiar aspect of the 1930 Jefferson squad was how they achieved their greatness. They stock-piled points without a single field event. They lost points each meet in the discus, the shot put, the high jump, the javelin or in the pole vault.
Rogers erased any feelings of disappointment, as he broke two of those records on his own, yet again running the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat while winning the 220-yard dash with a time of 22.3 seconds. He also anchored the district-title winning 880-yard relay.
Everything was pointing toward a spectacular state meet in Ames, and Roger predictably didn’t disappoint.
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The future hall of famer was a cut above the rest when state finally arrived, earning the Des Moines Register’s distinction as “Iowa’s Best Sprinter. He engineered the Ramblers on a miraculous sprint to the bronze medal, beating out 44 other teams in the single class competition.
Rogers’ ground-breaking performance allowed him to tally the most points among all individuals that year, scoring 10 points, which eventually won him the title as the “High point” man. He blitzed his way to victory in the 100-yard dash, distancing himself from the field with ease, winning by three full yards and followed that up with an easy victory in the 220-yard relay, winning by six feet.
The championship-sealing 880-yard relay was of course anchored by Rogers. He received the final pass of the baton with just 220 yards remaining and a slight lead. What happened next would cement his place among the legends as Rogers kicked it into high gear, blasting away from the field and crossing the finish line for a comfortable victory.
The beautiful words of Jack North and Sec Taylor – two iconic Iowa journalists – spoke poetically of Rogers’ prowess during the 1930 meet.
“Joe Rogers was the class of the sprinters,” North said. “Jefferson’s classy aggregation of sprinters was too fast for the field.”
Rogers historic showing allowed Jefferson to tally 16 points, securing them a tie with Newton for third place. Mason City captured the team title with 23 points while runner-up Perry barely edged Jefferson with 17 points.
Rogers and the Ramblers weren’t done with the track season just yet, their tremendous showing allowed them a chance to display their abilities on a national stage.
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What’s most interesting about the 1930 performance is not the various accolades (those are truly magnificent and set an early standard of excellence), but how well they fared at the nation championships in Chicago.
As were the standards in 1930, there wasn’t much for an athletics budget back in those days, so assistant coach Clyde Slininger loaded the five Jefferson track stars into his trusty Packard sedan, a trek that most likely wasn’t the easiest. One can only imagine the state highways were in back in 1930.
Coincidentally, Jefferson was given the short end of the stick upon their arrival at Stagg Field May 30, 1930, tucked neatly within the heart of University of Chicago campus. The meet featured 600 athletes from 23 states, including teams from Chicago, Louisville, Kentucky, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Gary, Indiana, making it the largest high school track event of the year. Not only were the Ramblers competing against all star teams from large states all over the country, but the meet officials did not take into account the natural inefficiencies of an oval track. So, it’s quite obvious why Columbus, Ohio’s mishmash of track stars captured a national record in the 440-yard relay, as they drew the inside lane for the championship race – lane 1 – while Jefferson was slotted in lane 5. Unlike today, the runners all started from the same exact spot, not staggered as you see in track meets all over the world. This meant Ohio was required to run the shortest distance in the inside lane while Jefferson had to run the furthest. Despite that, the Ramblers still put up one heck of a fight, finishing runner-up in an absolutely loaded field.
Rogers was with held from the 220-yard finals despite his qualification by head coach Ward Rockey to keep him fresh for the relay. The decision almost paid off if it weren’t for Ohio’s team of elite athletes and their shortened route, as they set a record with a championship-sealing time of 1:31.3, almost a second and a half faster than the previous mark.
Rogers and Scharf joined a pair from Des Moines for the medley relay, placing fifth overall in the finals, capping the most tremendous track season in Jefferson history. Each of the Jefferson boys were given a gold medal for their spectacular efforts in Chicago while the Jefferson Bee thanked the Ramblers for “Putting Jefferson on the map” in what the headline writer described as the “Hottest competition ever known.”
Slininger took advantage of having access to his car in the big city, guiding the high school athletes on a tour of Chicago. They visited a former Jefferson resident, Arch Reeder, who took them on an adventure of many of Al Capone’s legendary hangouts.
Rogers was a man of many talents, and he didn’t just leave his mark on the track. He was quite the football star as well, which led to a tremendous athletic career at William Penn. He later excelled in the coaching ranks, developing a unique and unlikely relationship.
At his death in 2001, he still held the William Penn record in the 100-yard dash. The distance tally for yards is no longer in use, as both high schools and college measure race distance in meters, so that mark will stand the test of time.
Stay tuned next week, as we dive into Joe Rogers’ exceptional prowess for a record-setting football squad as well as after high school, a tale that’s almost as enthralling, but not nearly as well-known as his athletics career. The charismatic Rogers struck up a life-long friendship with Michigan legend Harold “Fritz” Crisler while piloting his own hall of fame coaching career. It’d take him places he never even imagined.