The path was known, even if Erica Rogers didn’t embark on her personal journey in a straight line.
A former standout pitcher for the Alcoa Lady Tornadoes softball program, Rogers initiated her collegiate life at the University of Tennessee and in the school’s prestigious, rigorous engineering program.
Still, family and faith helped Rogers recognize she was destined for a different path in life.
“I kind of took a detour, but sort of have always known my calling has been to teach and to coach,” Rogers said. “At first I went the engineering path, I was an aerospace engineering major, and I love science and math.
“But you know when God nudges you, and I ended up working as a personal trainer for a while opening gyms. I helped open gyms in Asheville, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, before the gym moved me here to Cleveland.”
“I started listening more to God’s path,” Rogers said, “and doors started opening for opportunities I didn’t know about.”
Ultimately, those doors opened for Rogers at Cleveland Middle School, where she became a sixth-grade social studies teacher and ascended to helm the school’s girls’ softball program.
Those elements, as well as Rogers’ perseverance through personal tragedy to help lead Cleveland to an inaugural Tennessee Middle School Athletic Association state championship, led to her selection as one of 10 Distinguished Service Award winners for the 2021-22 academic year.
2021 Class AA TMSAA Softball Champions - Cleveland Middle School
Midway through the 2021 title-winning season, Rogers lost her father, Mark Wilcox, to cancer; earlier this year, she lost her grandfather, pastor Beecher Whitehead.
Rogers, assisted atop the CMS softball program by her husband, Steven, as well assistant Michelle Bradley and trainer John Bovee, traces her approach to life and her work as a teacher-coach to both figures.
“My grandfather recently passed away earlier this year. He and I had birthdays eight days apart, and he pastored the same church for nearly 70 years,” Rogers said of Whitehead’s Maryville-area pulpit. “So even growing up, I had an opportunity to be a vacation bible school teacher to younger children. When I was in middle school, at Eagleton, I had an opportunity to be a peer tutor in some of our resource classes, and I got to be a seventh- and eighth-grade peer tutor in those classes; it was kind of like occupational therapy.
“I have three sisters, I’m second-oldest, and I’ve always kind of been a helper, a doer and a people-pleaser. I love helping other people find that moment where they’re like, ‘Oh, I get it.’ We have gifts that are given to us, and I’m not saying teaching and coaching is mine. Mine may be communication, and just trying to help people.”
Rogers can directly trace her team’s ground-breaking title-run last year to the loss of her father, the man responsible for her coaching verbiage when she encourages players to “get your tailgate down on these grounders.”
Wilcox was diagnosed with a pair of different types of cancer last spring, and six weeks after his diagnosis, Wilcox’s father passed away.
“I could talk all day long about how amazing these girls are and their parents, even before their softball skills,” Rogers said. “I was trying to go back and forth, as much as I could, to see him. The last day I got to spend with my dad, we had an away game at Horace Maynard, and that was closer to his house. So I got to spend the day with him and talk to him about the game we had coming up, and the one thing he could kind of talk about with clarity was softball.”
Cleveland lost that game, in extra innings, and then it never lost again enroute to the crown. Yet Rogers bookmarked that moment in time for how her team rallied to her side.
“The girls were texting me, ‘Love you, sorry about your dad.’ It wasn’t about softball,” Rogers said. “Instead of being sad about losing a one-run, extra inning game, they were concerned about me as a human.
“After that evening my dad passed way, we did not lose another ballgame,” she said. “They were able to take adversity that wasn’t necessarily theirs, and it galvanized them. I don’t do anything. All I can do is teach them and trust them to make those decisions.
“And it goes back to God; he puts you in places and surrounds you with people and you have to trust. My philosophy is: teach, model, trust."
Rogers a year ago launched the ‘Miracle Game,’ a school- and community-wide effort to include special-needs youth in a softball game with her girls’ team.
Concurrent to this season and the loss of loved ones, Rogers also is prepared to continue the life cycle. She’s expecting a son later this spring, and is 29-plus weeks pregnant.
“James Beecher Whitehead was my grandfather’s full name, and he loved old Westerns. My son is going to be named James Maverick.
‘I’m hoping to get through the season (before delivery), and I think it’s great that after loss, the girls get to celebrate the coming of life with us. I think that’s super cool as well.”
TSSAA is proud to recognize Erica Rogers for her contributions as a coach, educator, and leader of student-athletes.