They were heading to the place billed as “One Happy Island.”
Greg and Bonnie Rodgers decided to visit Aruba in June, to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.
It was Dec. 30, and she planned to book the trip after her husband set off for work. She set the bag with the vacation brochures aside, and they said their usual goodbyes.
Ten minutes later, Greg Rodgers died after a massive heart attack while stopping at a gas station near his home in Clinton, Md. He was 53.
In his day job, Mr. Rodgers was a site review engineer with the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services. But on NFL Sundays, and at lengthy midweek practices, Mr. Rodgers played center snare with the Washington Redskins Marching Band.
In that role, as leader of the drum unit, Mr. Rodgers set the tempo for the other percussionists and, by extension, the entire band, which marches 120 volunteer musicians at Redskins home games.
“Simply put, he was one of the best percussionists I’ve ever been around,” said Kenny Scott, who played a set of tom-toms behind Mr. Rodgers for a decade in the NFL’s oldest marching band.
Scott, like Mr. Rodgers, had played in the Norfolk State University marching band, though Mr. Rodgers was there first — in the late 1970s, when the drummers acquired a nickname: the Million Dollar Funk Squad.
The name is still used by the school’s percussionists, but Mr. Rodgers was one of the originators, said Scott, who left the Redskins band several years ago. “I always paid deference to him because of that,” he said. “And he always had a position of authority within the Redskins Marching Band.”
Gregory Leroy Rodgers, whose father served in the Air Force, was born on Tachikawa Air Base in Japan on April 29, 1960. He grew up in Suffolk, in southeastern Virginia.
He began playing the drums when he was 3 and never lost the beat for the rest of his life, playing in school bands, at church, in a fife-and-drum corps and with the Redskins.
He graduated from Norfolk State in 1983 and the next year married Bonnie Silver. They soon moved to the Washington area for work, and Mr. Rodgers joined Fairfax County as a civil engineer in 1987. Officially, he retired from the county last February.
“That was Friday,” Bonnie Rodgers said. “And Monday morning, he was back in the same chair, doing the same job on contract. I said to him: ‘You did what?’ I thought we were going to move from Maryland.”
“It was the Redskins band that was keeping him here,” she said.
On game days, she recalled, Mr. Rodgers would leave the house by 8:30 to meet the other musicians for a tailgate. They would head into their FedEx Field locker room three hours before kickoff and play before, during and after each home game — “Hail to the Redskins” ad infinitum. Then they would tailgate some more.
“For a 1 o’clock game, sometimes I wouldn’t see him again until 2 a.m.,” Bonnie Rodgers recalled. “I was constantly asking him: ‘When are you going to retire from that? When are you going to give it up?’
“But he assured me he was going to keep going. He loved doing it. He had to have, to do it for 20-some years.”
Mr. Rodgers joined in 1990, after a friend from Norfolk State got word that the band was searching for qualified percussionists. Mr. Rodgers aced his audition.
“It was a fun time to join the band,” he said last year in an interview with Team Fairfax Insider, a newsletter for county employees. “The Redskins were doing great, Joe Gibbs was the coach, they won the Super Bowl in 1991, and we were still at RFK Stadium, where you could really feel the vibe from the fans.”
Eric Summers, the director of the Redskins Marching Band, said Mr. Rodgers “stood out” during his 24 years with the group, during which he helped elevate the percussion section.
“He could read music exceptionally well, he could play exceptionally well and he had outstanding technique,” Summers said.
Members of the Redskins Marching Band are not paid, although the team provides uniforms and a locker room. Each band member also receives a pair of free tickets to each game, which Mr. Rodgers often gave to colleagues, friends and relatives.
Over the 24 seasons that Mr. Rodgers wore the band uniform — which used to include a colorful feather headdress — the Redskins had a losing record 12 times and made just seven playoff appearances. Mr. Rodgers and other members frequently found themselves telling people: “The band never loses. The band is undefeated.”
In his early years with the group, Mr. Rodgers didn’t even use his county leave time for vacations. “It went for band,” he told Team Fairfax Insider last year.
Mr. Rodgers wasn’t even slowed by hip replacement surgery, said Scott, his old bandmate. “He had such dedication to the band,” Scott said. “He wanted to be out there with everybody.”
In August, doctors said Mr. Rodgers “had a blockage,” according to his wife, a nurse. “But it wasn’t bad enough to do surgery.”
He was supposed to have seen a cardiologist later this month. “It was taxing him — I could see him slowing down,” Bonnie Rodgers said. “He was tired. But nobody expected this.”
In 2010, team owner Daniel Snyder honored Mr. Rodgers and other 20-year veterans of the Redskins Marching Band, presenting them with personalized rings for their dedication. Mr. Rodgers will wear his ring during viewings in Fort Washington, Md., on Monday and in Suffolk on Wednesday, though it will not be buried with him, Bonnie Rodgers said.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Rodgers is survived by their daughter, Gabrielle Rodgers of Clinton; his mother, Julia C. Bradley of Suffolk; and a sister.