Whenever I have a correspondence with a young person or a parent with a child who was just born with a physical challenge, the best way I can describe it to them is that it comes and it goes. There's times when being different is very immediate and very forefront with what's going on in your life ... There are other times, long, long periods in your life, when you don't give it a second thought. It just doesn't even cross your mind. What I try to say to parents is that at some point in your life, those experiences where it's immediate and so in the forefront, seem to lessen as you get older and don't seem to be as prominent. They seem to lessen, they seem to shorten, and those times when you don't even think about it at all seem to grow longer."~ Jim Abbott, former Major League Baseball pitcher
Panicked, the nurse looked over at two first-time parents and said, "We have a problem."Scott Rogers with Joe. (Courtesy of Rogers Family)
Already, the nurse was yelling. Joe Rogers had been alive for less than three minutes in the delivery room at Port Huron Hospital in Michigan, not long enough to be cleaned, but long enough to cause a commotion. Panicked, the nurse looked over at two first-time parents, fresh and green at 25 years old, and said, "We have a problem."
Scott Rogers left the side of his wife, Lynne, and followed the nurse carrying his newborn son over to a cleaning station. He hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary, but still took another look. A fast count — 10 toes, 10 fingers, four appendages — showed nothing wrong. Looking back at the nurse, Scott said, "Well, what do you mean? I don't see a problem."
The room slowed down, silent but aware, like a neighborhood during the first snowfall of the year. It felt like forever, but it was probably closer to just a few seconds before the nurse directed Scott's eyes to his son's right hand.
Now, he saw five nubbins on an underdeveloped stump instead of a fully developed hand. The oversight wasn't purposeful — just a natural reaction from a father seeing his child for the first time.
Living with the unforeseen complication to Joe's birth, the Rogers and their son adopted the wisdom behind Abbott's words by instinct instead of by design.
"Honestly, I think that's how he's lived his life," Scott said. "Quite by accident, that was my honest and real reaction. It's really how we've lived it, we never saw it as a problem going forward, never once."
But that's a father talking about a son some 23 years later, after the son has won two amateur national championships and earned a spot as a goaltender on the Notre Dame hockey team. It's as easy as that, and yet, it's far more complicated.
* * *
To an outsider, part of the charm of Notre Dame — America's best-known Catholic college — comes from the way it both meets expectations and surpasses them, from the grandeur of the golden dome atop the main administration building to the way the brick buildings of the campus stand out from the surrounding countryside in rural Indiana.
For a school known for its football team, it's something of a surprise to discover a state-of-the-art hockey arena. Funded in part by a $15 million donation from the Compton family — also the minority owners of the San Jose Sharks — the $50 million Compton Family Ice Arena is both a revelation and completely within the character of the place. Here, in South Bend, one of the nicest college hockey arenas in the country is built like a cathedral.
Here, in South Bend, one of the nicest college hockey arenas in the country is built like a cathedral.
Tall, ornamental pinnacles shoot up from the roof of the long, Gothic-looking facility, the imposing front doors flanked by slender, vertical windows. Glass reaches almost from floor to ceiling at the front portal, and inside, signs and inspirational messages in Celtic-inspired fonts adorn the walls. Mahogany handrails supplement pristine marble floors. "God is the enemy of evil" is plastered on the main wall of the training room. The only things missing are stained glass windows and an altar. The building looks as if it has been there for years.
On the ice, when a visiting player is sent to the penalty box, the words on the inside of the door speak to a larger judgment: "Welcome to the Sin Bin ... Repent like a Champion Today ... this door is always open!" And if those players look up toward the rafters, displayed horizontally above the flags, they can see the biggest words of all: "God, Country, and Notre Dame."
On this Friday night in early December, masses of kids are running around, as usual. The building also holds practices and games for local youth leagues, so there is almost always somebody skating on the ice. The Fighting Irish have come back from road trips in the early hours of the morning expecting to find a quiet building, only to discover it overrun by another group of kids playing in another tournament.
The only time when it is truly quiet and empty on the ice are those moments just before a Notre Dame hockey game, when the house lights dim to a level just bright enough for people to find their seats and the ushers keep people in the lobby. Before Ke$ha's screeches invade the silence, it's a majestic, stunning place to play a hockey game.
The lights are dimmed until precisely 37 minutes before game time, so it's dark in the church until it's suddenly blinding. Then, according to tradition, the lights come on just as the players exit the tunnel. The glare that immediately reflects off Notre Dame's helmets, which are not just gold, but wrapping-paper gold, is so ludicrously bright and metallic that it seems as though you could take one, pop off the facemask and melt it down to make a necklace.
Joe is one of two players not wearing a helmet, at least not yet. His short brown hair bobs up and down, uncovered and unprotected as he skates around with the other backup goaltender.
The helmet finally goes on as Joe takes his place in the net for the only time all night, someone for the skaters warming up to practice against. Shooting his legs from one end of the imaginary crease to the other, Joe looks like he's getting ready for the real thing.
Jabbering words of encouragement back and forth with the skaters, he takes shot after shot, blocking some with his stick and others with his body, shifting back and forth while occasionally dropping to the ice to deflect shots off his pads and to reach out to smother the puck. He stops all but a scant few.
With the glove on his hand, it's impossible to tell that Joe is any different. But just before game time, when it looks like he's moving toward the crease and his natural spot in goal, he heads back towards the bench and sits down.
These warm ups are usually the only time Joe will see the ice on a game day, at least in the main arena. Hours earlier, he's performed the same duty on the auxiliary ice, blocking the shots of the team's six healthy scratches. Now, he's firmly planted on the bench for all three periods in Notre Dame's 5-3 win over UMass-Lowell, just as he was every game thus far in his senior year and just as he was in the 41 games the team played last year.
His life has always been about adapting, finding his own way to success. Nothing is different here.
This wasn't the way Joe's college career was supposed to go. Then again, since the moment he was born, not much has gone the way it was supposed to, yet it has still worked out. His life has always been about adapting, finding his own way to success. Nothing is different here.
Five years ago, Joe was the first goalie in his class to commit to Notre Dame after meeting assistant coach Andy Slaggert at a USA Hockey Select 16 festival, a national tournament that includes only young players already selected at a regional level. One of the goalies who Joe beat out to earn a place in the festival was his current teammate, Notre Dame starting goaltender Steven Summerhays. Eventually, Summerhays also committed to the Fighting Irish. After seeing Rogers in goal on the ice at Notre Dame for the first time, Summerhays thought, "What the heck am I going to have to do to beat this guy?"
From the start, the two players pushed each other for playing time, but eventually Summerhays earned the starting spot. He's held onto it ever since, becoming one of the best goalies in the country. His career statistics rank in the top-10 in Notre Dame's record books, and he is currently 15th in national goals against average on the No. 15 team in the country.
Meanwhile, the kid he was worried about having to beat out, Rogers, played just one game his freshman year and one game his sophomore year. The only ice time he's seen in his senior season was in early January, when he played the last five minutes of a 7-1 victory over Alabama-Huntsville, making one save.
Yet in a strange, unexpected and upside-down way, this, in itself, is a victory. Rogers' lack of playing time had nothing to do with his hand, with the things he can and cannot do, with anything not directly based on the structure of competition. On many other college hockey programs, Joe would be the main guy in net, but Notre Dame is one of the best hockey programs in the country. He just got beat out.
"That's probably one the toughest jobs in hockey, is to be the backup goalie," Slaggert said. "Twelve forwards get to play, six defensemen get to play — one goalie gets to play. To come to the rink every day and work hard ... it can be a grind. It's probably a bigger grind than we know, because the way he carries himself doesn't show that way."
It was never about talent, or a lack of effort, either. On the first day Notre Dame strength coach Tony Rolinski met Joe, each player had to do an initial battery of fitness tests. One of these was the chin-up bar. Assuming Joe couldn't grip it with his right hand, Rolinski told him to sit out, that he would find another equivalent exercise for him to do.
The rest of the team was milling around, watching and curious, still trying to get a feel for the new goalie with one hand. Joe looked right at his coach and said, "I can do this." Using his left hand and hooking the thumb of his right hand around the bar, Joe cranked out 13 chin-ups.
"Right then and there, you knew that this young man wasn't going to be beat by anything."(Courtesy of University of Notre Dame)
Everyone, from the seniors to the freshman, went nuts.
"Right then and there, you knew that this young man wasn't going to be beat by anything," Rolinski said. "You could tell the way he was raised and the challenges he's been put through — he didn't care. He was just going to go do it. I knew that I could pretty much make this kid do anything."
Even though Joe doesn't start, four years later not much has changed. Earlier this season, he had a job interview in New York and had to miss a lifting session. Before doing anything else, he rescheduled with Rolinski to make sure that the session could be made up when he returned.
Senior backups with no real chance at serious playing time don't usually do that.
"To be there out there practicing every day and working your hardest," Summerhays said, "especially for a guy like Joe who has overcome so much in his life but still always succeeded and thrived in what he's done ... I know for me, freshman year was my worst year. I struggled a lot with not playing, just wanting to be in there. But you never hear any complaints from Joe. He's always the first guy to come in and say ‘Great period' or ‘Don't worry about it, you're playing great.' He's always right there."
It would be a lie to say it hasn't bothered Joe, that he is fine with never playing. It's probably made worse that he and Summerhays are both finance majors in the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame and have a lot of classes together. When your only options for playing time are having the starter struggle or get hurt, being close with the guy isn't easy. He's not even the true backup anymore — freshman Chad Katunar will likely be the starter next year and needs experience, so he's the primary backup. Another player might have chosen to transfer to a lesser program for playing time, yet Rogers is still out there practicing with the healthy scratches on game day, acting as if he's warming up for the real thing.
Sitting in a team room after one of these skates, Joe smiles, but looks toward the ground. His phone rings, but he apologizes and turns it off as he searches for the words. He can talk about his hand all day, but discussing his lack of ice time is where things get difficult.
Joe raises his eyes, leans back in his chair, and smiles. His voice starts out strong and loud as usual, but dips lower when he says, "It's worked out great, wouldn't change it. I haven't played much in my career, but it's been an incredible experience and I wouldn't change it for the world. It does get hard. I'm a competitive guy and I would love to play, but I try to bring that positive attitude every day for my teammates and know that if I'm working my hardest in practice and making it hard for them to score, it's making them better. If it translates into goals in games, everyone has to fill their role."
Theoretically, the senior could make the freshman Katunar take shots from the healthy scratches. The thought has never even crossed his mind.
"Joe just does his job and will never say a word," Summerhays said. "I think that's another thing that guys look up to him for, because he's never complained and just keeps his mouth quiet and does his job whenever he's asked to do it.
"It's something you just can't teach. It's just who he is."
* * *
For the first few years of Joe's life, his father tried to practice doing everyday things with one hand. He would try tying his shoes and picking things up and in their backyard in Marysville, Mich., Scott even studied video of former Major League baseball pitcher Jim Abbott — perhaps sports' most famous single-handed athlete — and practiced the technique that the pitcher used to catch the ball, then free his hand from the glove so he could throw it.
The experiments weren't necessarily to find the perfect method to teach Joe. He just wanted to get a feel for how Joe would someday have to do it. Scott thought he had it all figured out, but when Joe started playing baseball, he had already developed his own way. Same with the shoe tying. Same with everything, really.
Scott remembers saying to his wife, "We don't have to worry about how Joe is going to handle the next step." The roles for who was teaching whom switched quickly. Joe always found his own way.
From the time he left the hospital as a newborn, Joe was Joe. There were no sit-downs or special talks, only a few doctor's appointments that double-checked to make sure the initial birth defect hadn't affected anything else. The new parents needed to know they hadn't done anything wrong during Lynne's pregnancy, or if they had a defective gene, but everything was normal. The Rogers ended up having two more children, daughters named Jena and Jacque, with fully developed hands. Joe simply had a random birth defect, one that affects fewer than one percent of the population. Doctors still don't know what caused it.
Still, there were difficult medical decisions to make. Not having a fully formed and functional thumb made it difficult for Joe to grip things.
The young parents didn't want to have him undergo an elective surgery, like removing several of his toes to create a thumb, which might cause unforeseen problems later. What if he wanted to run track, but couldn't because he had toes removed? Then again, what if he wanted to become a surgeon and couldn't do that without a functional thumb? Would a prosthetic be a better choice? Every option, every solution, created another question.
Eventually, Scott and Lynne found a procedure that fit their criteria at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago, one so specialized that the pediatric surgeon who performed Joe's two surgeries only operates on the right hands of children. No left hands, no adults.
It was just the second time in the world the procedure had been attempted, but it worked.(Courtesy of the Rogers Family)
The operation was done in stages, beginning when Joe was 2, preparing his thumb joint to accept the bone taken from the ring toe on his right foot. The doctors assured them it would not affect their son's ability to run. Three years later, once Joe's bones had filled in and healed with age, the Rogers trekked from their home in Marysville to Chicago for the operation that would change Joe's life.
It was just the second time in the world the procedure had been attempted, but it worked. Essentially, the bone from his toe created a thumb, giving Joe the extended digit he needed to use his hand. An opposable thumb is one difference between humans and monkeys — Joe likes to joke that the surgery helped him become the latter.
Joe spent his recovery bouncing around Shriners. He played wheelchair basketball, clambered through a big play area and watched the high-speed trains zip past the M&M factory across the street from his room. The casts on his right hand and right foot didn't slow him down. He was happy.
So happy, in fact, that 10 days after the family returned home, Joe came up to his parents and began to proudly wiggle his ankle around, still inside his cast. Scott and Lynne laughed until they realized a cast isn't supposed to wiggle at all and that Joe had been running around so much he had broken it and had to have the cast replaced.
Joe was himself despite surgeries, and that's all that mattered. Only once was he caught being embarrassed by his hand, when his grandfather saw Joe tucking it into his pocket whenever he had the opportunity to keep it out of view.
Joe's grandfather pulled Joe's hand out of his pocket, looked at him and gently said, "There's no reason to hide this. It's who you who are, and people should know who you are."
* * *
At 9 years old, while sitting in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena with his father, Joe got his first real sense of who he was and who he wanted to be. The two had attended plenty of college hockey games in the past, but this was the Central Collegiate Hockey Association's Championship game. Joe had been playing the sport since he was 4, and was getting to an age where the game itself was becoming more interesting than climbing over the seats, clapping along to music and eating popcorn.
Sitting in the stands, Joe was quieter than usual, watching the game intently, before he turned to Scott and said with complete seriousness, "Dad, I'm going to play Division-I hockey." Like any father, Scott said, "OK, that's good. I'm sure you're going to do great."
Joe shook his head and said, "No, Dad, you don't get it. I'm going to play Division-I hockey."
With his new thumb working better than anyone imagined it could, Joe began doing things with one hand that most kids couldn't do with two, carving his own narrative both on the ice and off it, meeting every challenge. Joe was so athletic that once his classmates saw his natural ability, nobody made fun of him for his hand. They were all too busy trying to be on his team.
"One kid said something when I was in elementary school," Joe said. "I can't even remember the situation exactly anymore. I just went and did what he said I couldn't do, so that shut him up, and my buddies were there too. That's about the closest thing I can remember to being bullied."
Before focusing only on hockey, Joe played first base and outfield on the high school baseball team, hitting .486 and serving as the team captain his final year while leading the team in steals in consecutive years. Yes, the hockey goalie missing a bone in his toe was also the fastest player on the baseball team.
But Joe didn't tell his Dad he was going to be a baseball player. Hockey was always his sport, even though he didn't become a goalie until age 9 when the team he was trying out for needed a goalie. Originally a defenseman, Joe stepped in, wielding the glove in his right hand, a rarity among goaltenders.
He became one of the best amateur goaltenders in the state of Michigan.Joe with his Under-18 championship team. (Courtesy of the Rogers Family)
While training with a goaltending coach, he became one of the best amateur goaltenders in the state of Michigan, to the point where opposing coaches knew that if they gave up two goals with Joe in the other net, it was going to be a loss. You weren't getting more than one goal off Joe. The same coaches often had no idea that he was playing with only one hand until the postgame shake.
It didn't matter that even with his surgically altered thumb, Joe still couldn't completely close the glove on his right hand. He needed an extra strap on the goalie glove to make it stay on his hand, and instead of squeezing the puck, he had to cradle it after the catch by securing it between his glove and chest. And he couldn't always stab the puck out of the air, which actually made him better — quick on his feet. Joe's positioning always had to be perfect in order to be able to trap shots.
He nearly was, winning his first national championship with the Belle Tire AAA Under-16 team, where he was teammates with current Boston Bruin defenseman Torey Krug and many other current college and professional players. Torey's father, Kyle, first recruited Joe to play for Belle Tire after coaching against him before, yet it wasn't until the last time Krug coached against Joe that he realized the goalie terrorizing his team had only one hand.
"One day, when we were shaking hands after the game, I grabbed his arm and said, "Whoa, what's going on here?' "Krug said. "That's when I realized he didn't have a fully developed hand. I had no clue. That was the last time I coached against him, and I told him, ‘If I ever have the opportunity to coach against you, I'm going to go for it.'"
After Joe joined his team, Krug decided not to tell his assistant coach, Rob Smith, about the birth defect. Smith found out at Joe's first practice, and immediately went over to Krug, who could only say, "Just wait until you see this kid play." Five minutes later, Smith didn't have any more questions. All he could think was, "It's unbelievable how good of a goalie he is."
"He deserved to play on the best team in the country, and he ended up being a huge part of that team," Smith said. "If you watched a game and didn't know anything about him, you would never say that the kid has something wrong with his hand. You'd never think that. We didn't play Joe because we thought he would be a great story. We played Joe because he earned that No. 1 goalie spot, took charge and won. He was a special player."
The best team in the country that year had a goalie with a glove hand that couldn't close and was so good it didn't matter. Two years later, Joe won his second amateur national championship with the Little Caesars program at the Under-18 Tier 1 level after joining the team midseason. Bill Ciraulo, the director of hockey at Little Caesars, still tells stories about that season to his current squad, and about the hardest working goaltender he's ever seen. Recently, one of his goalies took a shot to the shoulder and told Ciraulo that he wouldn't be able to play. The coach laughed and told him about Rogers, about a kid who won him a national championship while inspiring his teammates just by getting dressed. The younger goalie with a bruised shoulder stopped complaining pretty quickly.
It's been much of the same at Notre Dame, despite limited playing time, because Rogers' contribution has been measured by more than just the score or goals against average. In 2013, Rogers won the CCHA's Terry Flanagan Award for "perseverance, dedication and courage while overcoming severe adversity," but that isn't what comes to mind when he thinks about the 2013 season.
"I wanted to be that guy who anytime you played against me, you knew you were going to lose."
In March of that same year, Rogers skated on the ice at Joe Louis Arena, the same building where he first told his father of his dreams. He sat on the bench as his Notre Dame team won the last-ever CCHA tournament, beating Michigan 3-1, this time viewing the conference championship from the ice instead of the stands.
Afterwards, he supported the championship trophy with his right hand and held it above his head, lofting it toward the bleachers at the top of the arena.
"I never thought about it, but I didn't just want to be the goalie with one hand," Joe said. "I wanted to be that guy who anytime you played against me, you knew you were going to lose. Really anything I did, I wanted to be known for those things, I didn't just want to be known for having one hand ... if you let your personality show through, those things overshadow the fact that you only have one hand."
* * *
The only people who ever asked Joe about his hand are generally strangers, who stare for a few seconds and then ask questions. Every time, Joe shrugs his shoulders and say, "It's how God made me."
Religion has played a part in Rogers' upbringing, but the role that faith plays in his life is quiet and understated, something he doesn't often draw attention to. Still, something about a higher power called to him. It was one of the big reasons he was initially attracted to Notre Dame, and one of the big reasons why he even got there in the first place. In a way, believing that he was made that way on purpose, rather than by a random genetic mutation, made it easier to accept the fate he was dealt.
"I really think that because of the way my parents raised me and because of my faith growing up ... there was something bigger than me," Joe said. "Knowing that God made me different for some reason kind of put me a little bit at ease."
Joe speaks often of the plan being crafted for him. He's not entirely sure what it is, but he gets glimmers of it by giving kids the same feeling that his idol, Jim Abbott, once gave him in high school. When Joe was growing up, he had the Flint, Mich., pitcher's baseball card, so Abbott, who pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees and won almost 90 games in the major leagues, was a role model about as soon as Joe could read. Abbott even sent Joe a letter and a signed baseball.
When Joe was 17, he met Abbott at a March of Dimes event in Detroit. After the speech, he went up to meet his idol, just like many other kids that see Abbott speak. Being right-handed, Joe usually shakes with his right, underdeveloped or not. With Abbott, though, the two shook left hands. As they talked, the pitcher made him feel like the only kid in the room. Abbott was immediately drawn to Joes' humbleness, but also to the confidence it takes to stroll into a room and not try to hide the thing that blatantly makes him different.
He knows he has a great opportunity to give the kids the same type of confidence.
Let's make this very clear: Abbott doesn't want any credit for the person Joe Rogers has become. He never does, always reluctant to talk about the children he's inspired.
"He's nice to me and gives credit to me for being an inspiration when he was growing up," Abbott said. "But it really goes both ways."
They didn't even talk about their hands. That connection is unspoken, a given. Instead, Abbott just paid attention, making sure he met Joe as a real person, and they just talked about life. That's another reason that Abbott is hesitant to talk about Joe and other kids like him. Everyone has a different story. No one takes the same path or does things the same way.
Joe eventually took that lesson to South Bend. Since joining the Fighting Irish, Joe has met with several kids who have similar physical challenges, even though not all of them are hockey players. They've contacted him from all over the country. Minnesota. Kansas City. Texas. Iowa. There are tours, shootarounds, and tickets to see the Fighting Irish, and when he meets with them, Joe thinks of Abbott and what it felt like to know that his journey wasn't going to be a solo one. He knows he has a great opportunity to give the kids the same type of confidence.
"To see the smiles and constant joy and happiness radiating from them was just a great feeling for me to be a part of that, to give some kid that look and to show them they can do anything they set their minds to," Joe said. "I was 17 years old when I met Jim, and I had that same smile and the same joy. I didn't know what to do when I met him for the first time. It's the same excitement and joy that I see on these little kids' faces."
Like Abbott, Joe doesn't have any grand conversations where he doles out advice on how to live life with one developed hand, or mapping out a path to follow. It's just being there, real and open, speaking friend to friend that matters. Thanks to Abbott, Joe gets that.
The only piece of advice that Abbott can remember ever giving Joe is he didn't have to accommodate or please anyone. He didn't have to fit into anyone else's roles. Just being Joe would be enough, a proper measure of success.
"That's why everybody has their own story," said Abbott. "Everyone deals with things in a different way."
That's just what Joe Rogers, the backup goaltender on one of the best hockey teams in the country, has done.
* * *
After Notre Dame's 5-3 win over UMass-Lowell, Kevin and Gayla Compton — the couple responsible in part for the hockey facility — sit quietly in a meeting room, waiting patiently to meet the third-string goalie.
Their sojourn in South Bend is sandwiched between a stay in Pittsburgh to see the Sharks play a road game and a stop in Worcester, Mass., to see the Sharks' minor league team. If the Comptons wanted to meet a big name in hockey, whether its Sharks star Joe Thornton or a top prospect like Harri Säteri, they could do so with a phone call.
Instead, they wait in the back of the media room after for a player who has seen the ice just a handful of times in his collegiate career.
After the postgame press conference, Fighting Irish coach Jeff Jackson sees the Comptons waiting in the back for Joe. He greets them, and the topic quickly turned to Joe. "He's just such a good representative of our program, isn't he?" says the coach.
The Comptons nod and smile, then follow Jackson out into the hallway. Eight minutes later, Joe steps out of the locker room, shakes hands and greets the couple like old friends. They will fall into easy conversation that has nothing at all to do with his hand.
The only topic of conversation is Joe's future.
The interview that forced Joe to miss that lifting session was worthwhile — it turned into a job offer to work on the trading floor at Credit Suisse in New York City, one of the top investment banks in the world. When Joe graduates in the spring, he'll head to New York.
At the beginning of the process he emailed Kevin Compton in to get some advice. Now meeting in depth for the first time in person, the couple wants to hear about the new job.
Eleven Notre Dame hockey players currently on the roster have been selected in previous NHL drafts. Joe is not one of them. His hockey career, almost assuredly, is done when this season ends. There will be no Olympics in his future, no pro hockey.
Right now, all we can know for sure is that Joe is going to be different. There isn't a single person close to him who doesn't see success in his future, whether it's Abbott or his youth coaches, some of whom he hasn't spoken to in years. They could just tell, even as a teenager, that Joe was going to be different.
That feeling had nothing to do with a birth defect. It never has, and it never will.
Take a close look, because here stands Joe Rogers, hand out of his pocket, with the world at his fingertips.