His story rings apocryphal: A young man, 21 years old and about to leave the military, telephones Riverside (Calif.) Community College coach Barry Meier and says he would like to play for him. Meier asks the caller where he went to high school. He tells Meier that he attended St. Augustine High, a New Orleans-area powerhouse that has produced such NFL players as Leroy Hoard and Tyrone Hughes. Meier asks what position the caller played there. "The trumpet," the young man says earnestly. Whether this is a joke seems to matter little to Meier. He tells the young man to drop by when he is discharged. He'll see what he can do.
Two years later, his football days at Riverside a glorious memory, Derrick Rodgers finds himself at Arizona State, where he's a defensive end and a central figure on a Sun Devils team that could be the biggest threat to unseat USC as Pac-10 champion. His is an improbable tale: former high school trumpet player turned quarterback terrorizer. "If I didn't know Derrick, I'd guess it was a made-up story," says Meier. Says Washington offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, "He certainly looks like he's been playing all his life."
In Arizona State's season-opening 45-42 victory over Washington, Rodgers had seven tackles—three for losses—three quarterback hurries and a sack, despite frequently being double-teamed. He also forced a fumble deep in Huskies territory that led to an Arizona State touchdown. In the Sun Devils' 52-7 barbecuing of the University of North Texas last Saturday, Rodgers had six tackles—3½ for losses—and two sacks and caused a fumble that cornerback Lamont Morgan returned 92 yards for a TD. With the game safely in hand, Rodgers was pulled late in the third quarter.
"I was at USC for six years, and with his takeoff and ability to make a move on his blocker, he's real similar to [former USC linebacker] Junior Seau," says Arizona State defensive line coach Kevin Wolthausen. "I'm not saying he's that type of player yet, but I think he's headed in the right direction."
Rodgers, who turns 25 on Oct. 14, first donned pads at age eight in a Pop Warner league in Panama City, Fla., where his mother, Regina Miller, was stationed as an Air Force lieutenant. But his real love as a youngster was the trumpet his mother bought him when he was 11. While many of his friends pursued their football careers, Rodgers would slip into a woodshed behind his home after school and practice on his horn. Later, at St. Augustine High, he was in the marching band for four years. "It was great," says Rodgers. "We played during halftime of New Orleans Saints games. We played at the 1988 Republican Convention in New Orleans. Playing football never crossed my mind."
To get some money for college, Rodgers joined the Air Force after graduating from St. Augustine in 1989. As a medical lab technician stationed in Okinawa, he joined a flag football league. So effortless was his game that some of his buddies suggested he consider college football. He initially dismissed the idea. However in '94 he was transferred to March Air Force Base in Riverside. While contemplating whether to enroll at nearby Riverside Community College to study science, Rodgers gave Meier a call.
Success didn't come easily. Rodgers, who had grown to a svelte 6'2", 195 pounds, rode the bench until midway through his freshman season. That nearly caused him to give up the game. During his second year, with much of his savings exhausted, he had to get a job. He would go to work at 3 a.m. and spend the next four hours transporting blood from convalescent homes for a medical research lab. He would then catch an hour of shut-eye in his car before attending classes at Riverside, where he took a full 12-hour course load.
He nonetheless averaged 9.8 tackles and was timed at 4.54 in the 40 that second season. Yet, when Meier first told him that he had a chance at a scholarship from a major program, Rodgers appeared dumbfounded. "He had no idea," says Meier. "I'd tell him, 'Come back to me with some schools that you might be interested in.' He comes back and asks, 'How's the University of La Verne?' " La Verne is a Division III school located about 25 miles from Riverside Community College. "He's one of the nicest kids you'll ever meet," says Meier. "He's also one of the most naive."
Questions about whether Rodgers, who now weighs 223 pounds, could be an impact player in Division I-A were answered quickly. During spring practice and summer two-a-days at Arizona State, Rodgers lined up across from 6'8", 320-pound Juan Roque, widely regarded as the second-best left tackle in the game behind Ohio State's Orlando Pace. "It probably took until the last day of spring practice before Juan could say he had a solid performance against Derrick," says Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder.
To compensate for his relative diminutiveness, Rodgers has honed a slap-and-rip move in which he slaps an offensive lineman's arm away with one hand and fends off the lineman's other hand with a tomahawk chop. "He does it everywhere, all the time," says his younger brother and apartment mate, Zenji Reynolds. "I walk by him in the morning outside my room and he's putting that move on me. We're walking down the street, and he uses it on a telephone pole or a tree. We walk across campus, and he sees a group of students walking toward him, and he puts it on them. He doesn't make contact with them—unless he knows them."