Rogers Gaines says the critics began to speak up when he was at White House High School.
As Southeastern Conference schools turned away when it became obvious he didn’t have the grades to be immediately academically eligible, his skeptics gained more ammunition. When he redshirted his freshman season at Tennessee State and spent the next two years as a backup, his dream of playing in the NFL didn’t fade, but others were less optimistic.
Was he fast enough? Skilled enough to block explosive defensive ends at the highest level?
That remains to be seen and Gaines will find out if any pro team believes in him enough to use a pick on him in next weekend’s NFL Draft.
For all the doubts he heard, Gaines said he never was criticized to his face. Probably a smart move considering he towers at 6-foot-7 and 330 pounds.
“I haven’t had any encounters,” he said laughing. “There were people that never even showed themselves to me. There are doubters and haters everywhere.”
Gaines hopes to silently prove them wrong.
After impressing scouts at the NFL Combine and a workout at TSU last month, the gigantic left tackle is projected by some draft analysts as a seventh-round pick. Gaines is trying to become the first TSU player to be drafted since running back Javarris Williams was taken by the Kansas City Chiefs in the seventh round in 2009.
“Obviously, I think he should be drafted,” TSU coach Rod Reed said. “His body of work over the last couple of years was impressive. He dominated at this level.”
A knee injury limited Gaines to just three games in 2009 and he spent the next fall learning from left tackle and Whites Creek alum Gershom Jordan. When Jordan graduated, Gaines took over the starting job and was named to the All-Ohio Valley Conference second team.
In 2012, he earned first-team all-conference honors and was named to the Football Championship Subdivision All-American team. He didn’t allow a sack, blocking alongside center Sherman Carter and paving holes for Trabis Ward — both are also NFL Draft hopefuls. As a result, Ward led the league with 134.7 yards per game.
“He just worked at it. He is a worker,” Reed said of Gaines. “I think he started to understand and grow into his body a little bit. … He gets off the ball. He has a great bend and good flexibility. He can do anything a tackle from USC or anybody else is doing.”
He just needed a platform to display his talents.
That opportunity came when he received an invite to the combine in February.
“The combine was really a blessing in disguise,” Gaines said. “I had an injury and I missed the last two games so I didn’t get to play in any all-star games. That was a big stage for me.”
Gaines’ arm length was the second-longest of the combine at 36 ¼ inches. He also ran 5.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash and recorded 28 repetitions on the bench press.
He believed some teams might have been worried about his smaller lower body — “I’m strong lower-body wise but I just don’t have big tree trunks for legs,” he said. So at his pro day in March, he tried to squash those concerns with an 8-foot broad jump and 26 ½ inches in the vertical jump.
His times and measurements can’t be downplayed, especially considering he played at the FCS level in college.
“I definitely felt like I proved myself,” he said. “I always say if you can play, you can play no matter where you’re at. Do I have to prove myself more? Yeah, I think so just because I wasn’t playing on ESPN or playing in any bowl games. That is just more fuel to the fire for me.”
Of course, he never has been one to back down from a challenge.
The former Mr. Football finalist and all-state lineman has come a long way from White House. Just reaching this point, being considered as an NFL Draft pick is a success in itself.
“It really shows that hard work really pays off,” Gaines said. “I feel like I definitely proved my doubters wrong. A lot of people wouldn’t have thought I’d be here right now, especially coming in and not starting right away. I’ve proved them all wrong.”