Chris Rodgers hadn't heard a crowd cheering him while he wore basketball shoes in a long time, but it happened Monday in Fort Worth, Texas.
The 6-foot-7 Rodgers, who grew up in high-crime East St. Louis, Ill., before attending Creighton University on a basketball scholarship, stepped down as president of the National Association of Counties.
As a parting gift, the association — representing the 3,069 counties across America — presented him with a pair of Nike size-13 LeBron James basketball shoes.
Wearing a business suit, Rodgers smiled and donned the neon-orange shoes onstage at the national conference — a playful end to a serious year leading the organization.
Wish I had been there.
Chris arrived at Creighton in the late 1980s, five years after the departure of a player whose academic story haunted the university for years: Kevin Ross.
Ross gained national attention when he sued Creighton for educational malpractice, saying he could barely read after nearly four years at CU.
The university, which had accepted him as a comparatively low-achieving “special permission” student, admitted no liability, said it had repeatedly tried to help him and settled the suit in 1992 for $30,000.
Rodgers, now an elected Douglas County Board member, recalls his mother asking about the Ross situation when Creighton was recruiting him. Chris worked hard on academics and wanted assurances from Creighton.
“I said, 'Promise me I won't be back home after flunking out of college my freshman year,' ” he said by phone Monday as the conference wrapped up.
Despite having grown up in a tough area, Chris Rodgers has made the most of education — he has two master's degrees — and circumstance.
“Like I told everybody here,” he said, “the bottom line is that I've had opportunity. I owe a lot to my family, the County Board for their support, the people of my district and Creighton. Without opportunity, I wouldn't be here.”
This spring, Chris and I served as co-chairmen, along with KETV general manager Ariel Roblin, of a banquet celebrating 75 years of the Omaha Star, which bills itself as “Nebraska's only black-owned newspaper.”
I asked him then about his year leading the National Association of Counties — and joshed him about where he was in the line of succession to the U.S. presidency. Oops! The president of the counties association isn't in the Constitution.
Having seen him since he arrived at Creighton a quarter-century ago, it's been fun watching him as he has developed a public persona, not in athletics but in public service.
At 44, with his most productive years ahead, he's making a mark.
I've wondered how he got to this point, especially after growing up in difficult East St. Louis.
“I didn't know it was the brokest city in America until I got away from it,” Chris said. “Until I went home from college the first year, I thought it was a normal lifestyle. We didn't have all that much, but I grew up in a two-parent home and they kept me pretty level-headed.”
His father, James, worked in a bottling plant and then in construction. His mother, Maggie, who died in 2008, was the administrative aide to the director of a local college campus.
“My mother told me I'd better never come home from school without a book,” he said.
“One day in junior high I did, and she made me walk back to school to get one. I had to knock on the door to get someone to let me in.”
After playing on a state championship high school team, he was lured to Creighton by then-coach Tony Barone, who called Chris unselfish. He started nine games as a freshman, but injuries and surgery hampered his college career.
Ah, but there was that night at Cleveland State. Rodgers came off the bench as a senior and scored a career-high 20 points, making eight of nine shots from the floor.
“I was totally in the zone,” he recalled. “It was like playing in the backyard again.”
He played on two conference championship teams and graduated in 1992 with a journalism degree.
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In 1994, working on Sen. Bob Kerrey's re-election campaign, he met Sharlon Baldwin, a graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C. They married in 2001 and have two sons: Ellis, 8, and Evan, who turns 4 this week.
Chris served as an assistant to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey and as an elected board member of Metropolitan Community College before he was elected to the Douglas County Board in 2004. He became active in the counties association in 2005 and rose to president last year.
Rodgers took a special interest in cybersecurity and in a program he called Smart Justice. In Douglas County, his priorities have included public health, corrections and juvenile justice.
At the Fort Worth Convention Center, he presided from Friday through Monday at a conference attended by more than 2,400 county officials. It's a diverse group, from urban to suburban to agricultural.
His full-time job is back at his alma mater as Creighton's director of community and government relations. He and his family attend Salem Baptist Church, and he appreciates the Jesuit emphasis at CU on social justice.
A Democrat, Rodgers said that when the time is right, he probably will run for another political office.
“My desire in being an elected official,” he said, “is that I've always wanted a seat at the table. I've got something to offer, and I think I've moderated and grown politically more mature.”
A year as head of a national association of local government officials, he said, is nothing he ever planned.
“Opportunity came, and everything fell into place.”