He was a child when he saw them – children not much older than himself, carrying guns.
He was about 6 years old, but he knew enough not to talk to them for fear that they would become angry. It was best to ignore them, ignore what was happening, as much as that was possible.
Now, some 13 years later, he lives on a different continent, a whole other world.
His name is James Rogers, and on Sunday he will put on the uniform of the New Mexico men’s soccer team. The Lobos will play Big Ten champion Penn State at home in an NCAA Tournament game in the round of 16.
Earlier this week, Rogers, with some nifty assists from senior Michael Calderon and freshman Niko Hansen, kicked in the only goal in New Mexico’s 1-0 second-round win over George Mason. Rogers, a junior forward, has scored other goals (seven this season, with 19 points in 19 matches). He’s a good soccer player.
And yet …
“I don’t look at myself as a soccer player,” Rogers says. “I look at myself as a person who has been helped throughout my life, every single day. I’ve been so blessed. So I should do something with my time, something that will remind me of that.”
Out of Africa
James Rogers was born in Sierra Leone in the midst of a brutal civil war. Prior to 1992, Sierra Leone had been a mostly peaceful place, with a promising economy (diamond mining in particular) and miles of unblemished Atlantic coast beaches.
“It was considered the Athens of the west because of the development,” Rogers says.
But the war changed that. In a span of about 10 years, 50,000 were killed, hundreds of thousands were displaced.
“The violence escalated to a level you never imagined,” Rogers says in a voice low and measured. “Kids were given drugs. They didn’t’ know how to react and became violent. That was very scary. Seeing child soldiers was very scary because you never knew what they were going to do to you.”
Rogers’ family is matriarchal. His mother (her American name is Mary, but her Mende tribal name is Karta) went to her older sister, Jenna, and asked her to take James out of the country, away from the killings.
“My aunt was very influential,” Rogers says. “She had a very high position. She was like the man of our family. She does everything for us.”
First, she took him across the border to Liberia. Then it was off to the Ivory Coast, then Ghana.
“Every country you go to in Africa is a new experience, a new language,” Rogers says. “It was good and it was bad. You had to learn everything differently. Meet new people. Experience something you never experienced before. Different cultures, different practices. It takes a while to assimilate into the culture. It was interesting to learn something different, but sometimes it was hard.”
Soccer is huge in Africa. But, ironically, it wasn’t until his aunt resettled in Utah in 2004, with young James in hand, that Rogers truly took to the game.
Journey of exploration
In many African towns, there are two or three soccer teams and hundreds of kids who want to be on them.
“To play on a team, not even start on a team but even be recognized, it’s very hard,” Rogers says. “By everyone focusing on soccer, it doesn’t really help you. All they do is think about soccer, but what do they do if they don’t make the team? What will they rely on? So that’s why education is a good place to start. From there, you can always explore other directions.”
It is with that mindset Rogers began playing club and high school soccer.
“I always felt I wanted more, especially at that age,” Rogers says. “When I first came here, it was the biggest opportunity I had to do things, travel places. I felt like I had to push it harder and want it more than everyone around me. If I wanted to go to the next level, I had to.”
Rogers moved from Utah to Colorado, where his guardian Tom Thompson, a minister, had moved. The college recruiters followed him, including some from UCLA and Stanford.
“He was a national-level player,” UNM coach Jeremy Fishbein says. “He wasn’t hidden. We really recruited him aggressively.”
Rogers became a Lobo in 2011 and started 19 of 22 games as a freshman, scoring three goals with five assists. He followed that with eight goals and 21 points in 18 games as a sophomore.
“Sometimes he’s too fast for his own good,” Fishbein says. “He’s a pretty special athlete and a pretty special player. He’s a hard matchup.”
Adjusting to New Mexico wasn’t too difficult, mostly because his life had become a series of adjustments.
“I have been to different places, different cultures, so it was very easy to assimilate,” Rogers says. “But I didn’t’ forget where I came from. I assimilate, but I use that to move on and do what I have to do. I didn’t change. I just included certain things in my lifestyle and kept going.”
In his free time, Rogers volunteers. He has worked for Habitat for Humanity, and has plans to volunteer this winter for the International Rescue Committee which helps immigrants and refugees.
“He’s politically active,” Fishbein says. “He wants to get involved in some kind of international policy. He wants to give something back, based on his background. I think he feels a real commitment to make an impact.”
Based on the horrors of his childhood, Rogers could have retreated from the world. Instead, he has become fascinated with how governments work, with how politics vary from country to country.
“I’m learning as much as I can,” Rogers says. “Understanding how things work. Understanding why things happen. I’m trying to learn enough to educate people, to understand why these things happened and what is the best way to prevent it from happening again.
“My big problem with Africa, not just Sierra Leone, is corruption. If you eradicate corruption, most of the problems will go away.”
Rogers has not been back to Sierra Leone since leaving as a refugee. But he plans to return.
“Yes, absolutely,” he says.
His journey has brought him to New Mexico. He is playing soccer for the Lobos, and playing it well.
“I know I was blessed with this ability, and I have to make the most of it,” Rogers says. “When I came to college, I realized there was so much more I could do with it. I have an education. I have to take advantage of it and explore more things. That’s what I try to do here.”