Life as a student-athlete at NJCAA and NCAA D1 with Craig RogersBy Jessica Fassnidge
Today we are live from a brand new studio and getting us kicked off is Craig Rogers from Liverpool, England. Craig still has his faint scouse accent blended with the numerous places he has lived around the world. It’s an honour to have you on the podcast.
When I first left, my accent was a lot thicker. I was living in Liverpool before I left and every time I come back I slide back into a bit of scouse for a few weeks and then it evens itself out when I talk to other people. It’s a language of the world now.
You were one of the early CSUSA clients we had and you worked with Stewart, our CEO. How did you find out about us at the time?
At the time I was playing for Vauxhall Motors a very small club where I was playing part-time. The first team competed in the conference North at the time and I was playing between the reserves and the under 18’s. One of the players I was playing with mentioned he was talking to people about going to the US. Through school, I always wanted to live abroad and continue to play football but I was due to go to a university in Liverpool, and the closer and closer it came around the more I thought I did not want to do this. Then conversations were happening about the US and I soon realised this is a possibility and begin doing research. When the day comes for me to sign the papers to go to University I sat across from the counsellor at the table and had this feeling like don’t do it. It wasn’t for me and we shook hands on that and as soon as I left the room the first thing that hit me was ‘what have I done’. That’s when I got serious and started to look around to find a way to make it possible and found Stewart.
You started at Cloud Community College in Kansas which is a 2-year institution before transferring to a school in Oklahoma. You touch down in Kansas airport, talk us through that initial experience.
Stewart through his credit worked with me for months and had landed three offers for me to move to university. My path was going to start at the junior college level as I had not been an academy player and did not have a huge network of people within the game. I was just a semi-professional player in the UK with a dream and ambition. Two of the offers came from North Carolina which at the time I did not know what it was. It is a coastal state with beaches and all the good things you see on TV about America. I said no to both of those and decided to go to Kansas as it felt right. We signed the papers and the day comes to get onto the plane and I landed in Kansas City airport. It is a young, modern city, with lots of new builds and at the time, Kansas City was growing so it was a vibrant place to be. I walk around and notice a lot of guys in tracksuits and running shoes looking for a coach. It soon dawns on me we are all looking for the same coach. Finally, we see him and he starts to round us up and there are guys from Brazil, Ireland, Australia, Venezuela, and from all over. We load onto the bus and are very excited as we start heading to the school and we drive through the city and out the other end. We all think that we will just be on the outskirts so we can get a train or taxi into the city centre but we keep driving and driving and there was not much around aside from cows. Finally, we go through a smaller town and we think ok this must be it and we stop for gas but then we keep going and there is nothing around and not even any cows at this stage. Your first thought when you land on a farm in Kansas when you come from Liverpool is what have we done…
Going from Liverpool to a smaller area in Kansas and a smaller community, how did you find the first few days?
Given the initial shock, it actually pertained to culture shock. It is something I have ever seen or experienced before. I had never emersed myself in a community like that and there was definitely an adjustment period. I count myself very lucky that I was with three other English guys and four Irish guys who come from similar places and cultures we stuck together at first. At the same time, we were getting to know the local people and the other students/players who had moved there. One of the coping mechanisms we had was if anyone was experiencing any homesickness we would get together in a dorm room. In there were flags and posters on the wall and we would have tea and biscuits in the middle of nowhere Kansas.
Would you say this experience in Kansas transformed you as a person?
I really can’t begin to put it into words or say enough how much of a transformative experience it was for me and the group of guys that were there as we were from all over the world. Football-wise we would all have different ideas and training could be quite lively. Through pre-season, we began to grow together and grow an identity within the team and would be enhanced off the field as well. Two things certainly come to mind that were transformative moments.
Could you elaborate on those two transformative moments you believe you had?
One was in a game we had argument at half-time. One of the Brazilian guys stood up saying we were bringing these qualities but we are not bringing them together and we need to focus on this. Mark, an Irish guy who was captain at the time said exactly the same. In the second half, we went out and scored 3 or 4 goals and you could feel the energy change. These are my people, these are my family and I will fight for them and do everything I can to support them and this translated off the field as well. Another time some athletes from other teams were playing music instruments. One of the Irish guys was a guitar player and they were playing a song called ‘mash king abba’ and as we wandered in we were passed basic instruments like a tambourine or bucket to bang a drum on. After a few minutes, most of the soccer team are playing and singing words we don’t know or understand properly but it is a transformative experience. We walk into the room as footballers who play together and we leave the room as a family. It was incredible.
After your time at Cloud, you transferred to Oral Roberts University but after playing club soccer in the US. How did the opportunity come about to go to Oral?
Aside from being in college and having these great experiences with people from all over the world, I went out there to push myself to the absolute limit and went with an open mind to see where it could take me. The PDL looked like a great opportunity to get more exposure than five fans at Cloud so I went to Springfield, Missouri my second summer. The coaching staff came from Peru and the owners were from the US very well connected with colleges for recruitment purposes. I had a few conversations with them and explained I was at an NJCAA at the moment and what my situation was. The PDL games were all over the country and we were able to travel to places like Canada. My performances that season made an impact on the owner Chris, who then had conversations with other coaches. I then had a call from the someone at ORU, it was the head coach at the time, and he asked me to go down for a visit and train with the guys. From the first minute, it felt like the right place for me to go and I was sold, so did everything I could to make it happen.
Did you find a big difference between the sizes in school?
The school had a population of about 6000-7000 people so was about ten times bigger than Cloud. The funding for NCAA Division 1 sports is insane. To put it into perspective, at Cloud we had a gym in the school, the soccer field, and a running track we could train on. At ORU, we had an indoor facility that we could train on in all weathers, two gyms one being just for the athletic teams and another on campus which was very big as well. We had access to nutrition, to training plans, to personal trainers, essentially a professional environment. I remember walking through the door the first season I was there and I felt like all these things were at my fingertips and I was given everything I needed with a three-year window to utilise a professional environment and professional people to elevate myself.
You seem to have a hard-working approach to life where nothing can stop you from reaching the top. Is this what you believe got you to ORU?
Speaking more broadly and more profoundly, it’s the approach to life that I love. I do get a thrill and a sense of achievement if I can pick something that is a little out of reach. When you pick your targets and people around you say you are reaching and setting your sights too high and you shouldn’t and need to go for something more achievable. It has never been a consideration for me and now and then I see something where I want to do that or I really want to test myself and then the decision is made at that point. With Oral Roberts, the period of moving into the university I did have a few issues making the financials work at first, and thanks to them they were helpful with scholarships to make it work. With the first two weeks during pre-season and the first week of classes, I wasn’t registered so I couldn’t go to class or train due to paperwork not being done. That set me back a little back but looking back in time it was a blessing in disguise as the first year at ORU was very physically transformative as I could do a lot of gym work, fitness work and get my body into the best shape it had ever been. I did this for a month and for those that don’t know there is a redshirt system. It allows you to sit out for a year if there are things you need to take care of on the opposite end to athletics. We went to a game at Eastern Illinois and we had lost a few games in this season but I was desperate to play. I sat on the bench for this game and at half-time, we were losing 1-0 and the performance wasn’t great. The coach told me to warm up and I knew in my head I was like here you go, this is what you have been grinding and struggling for, and here is your moment. The second half started with the same team that ended the first half and 5 minutes in the coach called me over and told me he had thought about it and it is not the right thing for me as we are halfway through the season and they wanted to red-shirt me. They wanted to give me two full seasons to have a proper go at this. I refused outright and said we need to win this game and I want to play. Credit to Steve, he said I would thank him for this and just relax and settle down so I went and sat back on the bench and at that moment he was absolutely right.
You say a blessing in disguise because you got better as a result of this redshirt. Was that the end result or because you got to spend more time at Oral Roberts as a result of redshirting?
It did lead to an extra year and my time at Oral Roberts started on that day. We took the bus back from Eastern Illinois which is about a 7-hour journey and I had calmed down from the emotion of the game and not playing. I began to accept that I have all this time before the next season and to flip it on its head and know I have all the time with these resources around me to make myself into the best version of myself as a soccer player, as a student and to put myself to be in the best possible position to be successful. The indoor facility we had was open until 1 am so I would be sure to go out as much as possible either alone with a bag of balls or with other guys. I did that consistently and helped me in football a lot and helps on the college side to best prepare you with classes or a test. In a broad sense, I think if you set your mind on something and actively do it every day mentally, physically, or anything you can do to push yourself on that extra 1%, you will eventually get there. You have to put yourself in the best position to walk through the door when it opens.
When you started to play official games at Oral Roberts, you of course were studying towards the final part of your bachelor’s degree. Why did you decide to study psychology?
To be completely honest, it was something I had done in sixth form in the UK and enjoyed it. The people in human behaviour have always fascinated me on an academic level so it is always good to learn more about theories and the way people perceive behaviour. I had been through some interesting times in my personal life, particularly in family life, and psychology was a way for me to work some of those things out. It has given me a lot of life skills that I have taken from that and thoroughly enjoyed studying the subject itself. The head of the department might be the smartest I have ever met in my life. With it being a Christian school he would know the bible word for word, back to front, and the same with the textbooks he uses. He is like a human google and it was fascinating to learn from him.
You talk about the element of Oral Roberts being a Christian school, what does that entail?
Oral Roberts is known for evangelism which is a branch of Christianity where they are very open and welcoming to people. They like to use Christianity and the bible as a way of life that they see could maybe influence other people’s way of life. I did not find it intrusive and I am not trying to put it into those terms but it was very much this is how we do things and we like people to either conform or take an interest and understanding of what they do. I got to learn a lot about chapel services and devotionals. The coaching staff that came in were very active on that but never pushy and would have open conversations to see where I was at with faith. Having seen what the community can offer to believers and how close together they are and supportive they are, it is a good thing for those that follow.
Was it a strange experience or just something completely different than you were used to?
It certainly brought interest and debate on the way people would live life or the rules they would follow. Going to ORU we had to go into chapel twice a week and must scan in using your student card so they can check you were going. The dorms that we were living in were strictly all male and all female and there was a set day in the month where for a few hours there were open dorms. It was rigid in how they set life out but as students, there was not much problem with it. I was there to get my degree and play the highest level of soccer that I could and explore options that would come after that, so that was my focus.
When we talk about being a student-athlete and even the religious aspect, do you think this community and togetherness was an important aspect to be emersed in?
A general rule for life, all the people you meet and have good conversations with there will always something to take away. Someone will always give you something that you have not experienced or seen before and you never know where those conversations may take you. As I say, a conversation with the owner of a PDL team turned into three years at a Division 1 school and was quite an important step along the path for me. The religious side of things hasn’t changed in my life but there are some things you can take and apply to your life. Charity and volunteering are something I love to do. One of the coaches of the team was working with refugees in the US and the kids of the community would come and play at our pitch at the weekend and I would always get involved. Whether doing a little coaching or just playing with the guys but every opportunity I got to do it, I absolutely loved it and never regretted it and always had a good time.
At the end of your time in college, many experience a proud moment of graduation with the cap and gown. For you, life seemed to move really quickly. How did it play out for you after you had finished classes?
Things changed very quickly for me at the end of ORU as I was invited to the USL 1 combine, not the MLS level, but the next level. At the time it was nowhere near as funded as what it is now, but was a professional league but almost a semi-professional set-up. I had set my sights at that point to give it my best go during those two days and have all the league coaches in front of me. I was going to give it everything I could, break my back and run myself into the ground to give myself an opportunity. During my time there I had a coach approach me from La Vegas Mobsters, which are known as Las Vegas Lights, which are a PDL team that I said no to at the time. Dayton Dutch Lions approached me as well as Kitsap Pumas calling me the Monday morning after the event while I was in college. I went between the two offers and the Dayton offer was the most attractive offer at first and they had put a contract on the table. After a few days I went back to them but they had already signed another player from Brazil so I lost that opportunity and the decision was made. Off to Kitsap Pumas I went. Everything was signed and done and they wanted me to report to pre-season two weeks before pre-season which was a no-brainer and I was on my way.
It is a huge achievement just to be on the USL combine and experience that in itself.
I counted myself very lucky when we went through the paperwork while registering for the event. I felt like something may change or may go wrong or this is for granted, I wouldn’t go as far as imposter syndrome because I was too focused on taking the chance more than anything. When the time came and I was there I played with guys who went on to play in the MLS and guys who played for the best colleges in America who may not have made the MLS combine. It was great company to be around and I thought if I could put my mind to sporting college and get to this point in a professional environment over two years having not been an academy player, then what is possible next and how far can I take this?
You have played football in many different countries but how did you end up in Norway?
I will try to put a couple of years into a small picture but at Kitsap, I broke my foot and was not able to get fit before the end of the season, and at that point they wanted to sign someone who was fit and could play. I left Kitsap at that point, and was going to struggle to find a new club and keep my visa alive for the US. I moved to Jacksonville, Florida, and lived there while training and playing for Jacksonville Armanda u23’s and was looking around to see what would happen next. I happened to meet a guy who worked at a representation company called Soccer Visa and that is where I met Joe who is a fantastic guy. I worked with him and went to a few combines and was able to train in front of Scandinavian coaches. One thing led to another and as I am sat on the beach in 35 degrees weather Florida I got a phone call that said Thor In Iceland would like to have you for a trial and would like me asap. Before I know it I am on a plane from Florida to Boston to fly to Reykjavík to then land in Akureyri. There is snow on the ground and I am in a t-shirt. I had two sessions with Thor and the first one was 14 hours after I had got off the plane having travelled 24 hours to get there. I tried to do everything I could to convince them but in the end, Thor did not work out for me. They said they like what has happened and wanted to send me to another club in Iceland called Dalvic. I went down, did a training session, and signed on the day.
Fast forward a few years and you end up in Norway. You spent nearly 3 years working at the club and playing for the academy in Norway, did they take good care of you?
I can’t say enough good things about Bergsøy, another blessing in disguise. After Iceland, I had gone back to the UK and signed for Warrington Town, and was geared up for the season. Then I had a club in Norway that wanted to sign me and very similar to Kansas, I put the phone down and thought where have I just decided to go. I didn’t do the homework it just felt right and I was going. I called Warrington and explained the situation and the coach said it was a great opportunity, so go. It was a very community-centred club where people of the town, their kids would play for the club so being in the academy you would know pretty much everyone in the town. You got to know everyone very quickly and I was accepted from the first minute and looked after almost like a guest at the time. At the time the club was ambitious and it was everything I needed to throw myself at. I had everything I needed to train to get in my best condition to perform for this club and achieve something for this community.
You were an integral part of the proudest moment of that club’s history or at least one of them, talk to us about this.
I think so. In the past they had a couple of successful teams they would talk about while I was there. There is an atmosphere and energy about Bergsøy that is hard to describe in words but is a feeling that you get when you are there, where this is something bigger than it may present itself. There was a budget, they built a fantastic stadium for the community and had the ground to do something to achieve something big. I found myself in this team that was tasked with delivering something like this and we were unable to push through the second division which was the goal at the time. The cup game, was unbelievable. To put that into a phrase, it is what I went into football for, and to feel and to achieve I got everything I had been grinding for and working for that day.
In a tight game when it was tied 1-1 your team get a free-kick and you stepped up to take it. You scored an absolute screamer and it gets a lot of attention in national media and you knock them out of essentially the Norwegian FA. Was this everything you had dreamed of?
It was insane. When the game started we were under the cosh and we were 10 men behind the ball. We got through to half-time at 1-0 and felt we still had a chance. There was an atmosphere or something about the game if we could hold it at 1-0, and because we are good at set-pieces, we might get a chance here. The second half was strange, we grew into the game as if we were another Premier League team. We had players from the Croatian under 21’s and Lithuanian Youth Team and players who played a high level in Norway. John Arne Riise’s brother was playing in the game and he argued with one of their center backs and we knew we had them rattled. We had 1000 fans in the stand who were singing songs getting louder and louder with drums banging and it was building towards something. The free-kick opportunity comes with about 5 minutes from time and is about 40 yards out and a good crossing position. I should interject that I did have a free kick in exactly the same position with Cloud in a conference final and hit the crossbar. Here I am in this position and I look at the group of players to see where I am going to put this but I notice the goalkeeper is about 5 yards off his line expecting a cross. In the back of my head, I was like I am hitting this. The whistle went and as I went for the near post, as soon as I hit it with my foot I was like it is going in. The ball goes just over his fingertips and off the bottom of the crossbar and goes in. At that point, I couldn’t have told you my name as a minute of my life seems to be missing as guys are on top of me and the stadium of fans celebrating this goal and Bergsøy are beating Aalesund which may have been a 1000/1 before the game. The final whistle finally sounds and there is an outpour of emotion to say look what we did, look what we achieved, this little community on the side of a mountain on a small island in Norway have beaten a premier league team.
NB! Check out THAT free-kick Craig scored below!
After Norway, you then went back to the UK and are now working in recruitment?
It is not the most linear path afterward but it is unfortunate the way things ended with Bergsøy as the project tailed off and some of the funding dropped. It was not viable to stay there any longer so I spent some time training looking for the next thing in the UK. I trained with Bury for a few weeks where something similar was happening to what happened at Bergsøy. Mentally I needed a break as I had been playing non-stop football and chasing it for so long so I decided to travel for a few months. I saw some guys I played within the US and then headed to Ireland and saw some guys from Cloud, and we went to a concert to music we use to listen to 11 years ago. When I came back to the UK, I realised I am still in love with football as it is my passion so decided to play part-time again. I always had an interest in business and good conversations with my mum previously so approached different companies and went for interviews. I was shortlisted for the place I am at now and decided to go in headfirst as we started in the UK side of things and I was about to graduate into a full-time consultant then COVID hits. I got furloughed thinking I may lose my job and football stops as I was playing for Airbus in the Welsh Premier League and it was just at a standstill. Three weeks into being furloughed I get a phone call from my boss about setting up a business in the US. We have no background or contacts and we would be starting from zero with this. He said to me do you want to do this? The first thing I thought was how on earth will I do this but the second thing I think is, yes let’s do it. I am a year and a half in now, but I am now a Director at US Recruitment at Short List.
You have certainly earned it and this internal drive you have is very strong to go for things and experience things. Do you think this became stronger as you went to the US and became more instilled as a result of being a student-athlete?
Absolutely. Growing up there were things I had to overcome in family life but both my parents, my mum, and dad, had always personified working hard for things you want. I had always been told to give everything and if I genuinely wanted something do not just put 50% in as it won’t work. If you are going, then go and go for that one thing only. Going to the US, I went as an 18-year-old with not much life experience and at that point, you are basically on your own. You control your entire life from your diet, how you spend your time, studying, training, and all these things you now have complete autonomy over. That experience turned me into the person I am today.
You will have opened up a lot of people’s minds about the opportunities that can open up if you just go for it.
There is a Winston Churchill quote that goes somewhat along the lines of ‘if you can’t go a day without thinking about something, then you should never give up on it’ it is words to that effect but it can be a curiosity or a passion or something you want to go for and want to experience then do something every day to get you close to that. The life I have lived up to now is a testament that if you are willing to do that and do it to the nth degree then that opportunity will present itself and once you have been through the grind, you’ll be ready and be able to walk through the door.
We couldn’t have said anything better to end the podcast today. Craig, it has been fantastic to have you on, and thank you for sharing your story. We helped you back in 2009 and had a little part to play but this is all you and it is inspiring to see how this journey unfolds still.
Without Stewart and the work you guys do it probably would not have been possible and I couldn’t have reached out to US universities by myself at the time or make a scholarship happen. That part at least and that moment, turned my life around and opened up all this possibility and is a testament to the work you do at CSUSA. You are not selling athletic experiences or academic experiences you are working and facilitating transitional periods in people’s lives. I do not think there is anything more rewarding.
We love what we do. Thank you for the kind words, it has been a pleasure.