Before the Sugar Bowl, which presented an opportunity for the Auburn Tigers to claim a stake of the NCAA football title and was the biggest game of Carlos Rogers's life, he had other competitions on his mind. For Rogers, every day is an opportunity to prove his superiority in one fashion or another -- no matter how inane -- and in the week preceding January's crucial game against Virginia Tech, he was consumed with oysters.
Despite his relatively slight frame (6 feet, 195 pounds), Rogers orchestrated a team-wide oyster-eating contest during training for the Sugar Bowl, proclaiming his willingness to take on all comers, even linemen who tipped the scales at over 300 pounds. It's the kind of thing Rogers has been doing since his earliest days -- his mother has eight brothers and two sisters, so there were 20-odd cousins to compete with -- and is an ebullient part of his personality that he cannot repress, on or off the field. It's what drove Rogers to go from being a 165-pound freshman to the ninth overall draft pick after his senior season, and what the cornerback believes will make him an impact player sooner rather than later at a position that is so cruel to the NFL novice.
"I just am not into oysters, I'm sorry," said Auburn's star nose guard T.J. Jackson, a 305-pound bruiser, "but we're down [in New Orleans] at the Sugar Bowl, and Carlos is going at it. I thought that was the craziest thing I've ever seen. Why would somebody sit there and compete in how many oysters they can eat? But that's just part of his character. That's why I know Washington got a quality guy when they drafted him, because this dude is going to compete for a job no matter what. That's just the kind of guy he is."
Rogers draws few boundaries. As a child, he would race anyone, any time, and still does. He pestered Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville relentlessly to let him return kicks and punts, even though he was too valuable to expose to those rigors. After the Auburn staff told Rogers that he had to gain weight, fast, he challenged anyone on the team to put on more weight than him, and planned outings at local chicken wing and barbeque joints, then held widely attended weigh-ins to determine a champion. ("Guys would even try to cheat and put weights in their pants," Rogers said.) He admits his limitations playing video games, but that never stops him from testing others in Madden football or anything else.
"I'll try anything," Rogers said. "I'm always looking for a challenge. I don't just carry it on the field, I carry it throughout life."
During his rookie season, there will be no shortage of wide receivers looking to challenge him. Rogers, named the NCAA's top defensive back last season, was limited to riding a stationary bike for most of the spring because of an ankle injury, missed the first two weeks of training camp, practiced just three times last week and yet, with so many corners injured, started Friday night in his preseason debut against Cincinnati.
In the first quarter, Rogers was a rock, shadowing top threats Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, answering them pass for pass and barb for barb (he chided Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowler, for being averse to blocking), and whooped it up after intercepting a pass.
In the second quarter, when Rogers grew tired and his back-peddling became sloppy, the Bengals rotated fresh receivers his way on four straight plays. On the third play, Houshmandzadeh tore past him but dropped a sure touchdown, and before the fourth play the Redskins' other defensive backs urged him to play deeper on Kelley Washington, protecting against another long ball and giving up an intermediate route, but Rogers came in tight again. His natural competitiveness -- normally a source of strength -- became a weakness.
"I should have backed off," Rogers said.
Washington easily hauled in a 45-yard touchdown pass. It was Rogers's welcome-to-the-NFL moment, and it came as no surprise. "They're going to gun after a rookie," he said. Still, Rogers was yapping away, keeping himself pumped up, and preparing for the next confrontation. "I'm always talking, even when I'm beat," Rogers said. "If I wasn't tired and could get some words out of my mouth, I'd still say something then."
The sequence was a flashback for Rogers, who started in the Southeastern Conference as a true freshman. His speed and recovery time became an immediate asset. "He makes plays you don't think he has a chance to make," Auburn receiver Courtney Taylor said. "The guy is super fast and you think you've got him, and then he just gets there and makes the play." And he was relentless.
"They tested him every week," Auburn senior linebacker Travis Williams said. "And he was always up for the challenge. It was like that with him from Day One here, and everybody here knew he was going to be a great player just from his confidence and competitiveness." On an Auburn team that went 13-0 and accounted for four of the first 25 picks in April's draft (including two in the top five selections), Rogers stood out for his ability to trash talk, and back it up.
"He might talk a lot," said Auburn redshirt freshman quarterback Calvin Booker, who opposed Rogers daily running the scout-team offense, "but he's going to work three times as hard to make sure it happens the way he wants it to happen. That's why I think Carlos might be the most successful out of all the guys we sent to the NFL this year, because they all have talent, but it's that will to win that Carlos has that separates him from a lot of guys."
Getting up to speed, adapting to the pro game and regaining his full conditioning will not be easy. With veteran Walt Harris, the projected starter at corner alongside Shawn Springs -- hobbled for much of camp -- Rogers's time might arrive quicker than most thought. His competitive fire and gift of gab are already NFL caliber, it seems; now he must get his football intellect, technique and awareness of the defensive system ready for Sundays.
"I really like his presence and his confidence," Redskins cornerbacks coach DeWayne Walker said. "We just have to help him catch up in some other areas, and I think he's going to help us a lot this year. He sits right next to me in the meetings, so there's never a dull moment, but the thing is he's hungry for knowledge, and he wants to do well, so we're just going to keep working on it. He has a long way to go, and he knows it, and the clock is ticking."