Joe Rogers will never forget how star-struck he felt while meeting the role model who inspired him to persevere through life’s challenges to realize a boyhood dream.
As a kid growing up in tiny Marysville, Mich., Rogers made an immediate connection with baseball player Jim Abbott, who was also born with an underdeveloped right hand. Abbott forged a 10-year Major League Baseball career through hard work and determination that did a number on an impressionable young Rogers, who faced a similar obstacle.
“I know exactly how it feels to be that little kid and feeling better about myself because there was someone out there just like me who made it,” said Rogers, a junior goaltender at the University of Notre Dame.
“Even to get a note from someone like that means the world to you. I was 17 years old when I finally met Jim, but it was still kind of a jaw-dropping experience because he’d had such a huge influence on my life.”
Earlier this season Rogers found himself on the other end of a similar exchange with a local youth hockey player prior to the start of the Ice Breaker Tournament in Kansas City.
For the past four years, Rogers has served as a mentor and role model to Elliot Huels, a 12-year-old youth hockey player from Overland Park, Kan., who has an underdeveloped left hand.
“I’m so excited to finally talk to him in person,” Elliot Huels said prior to meeting Rodgers. “I’m pretty shy, so I’m sure I’ll be really shy and nervous. But I’ll try my best.”
Elliot’s father, Ed, reached out to Rogers shortly after reading an article entitled “Not Your Average Joe” in the December 2008 issue of USA Hockey Magazine. At the time, Rogers played goal for the North American Hockey League’s Motor City Machine, and Elliot was in his first season of youth hockey.
“I was happy to find out I wasn’t the only one who plays hockey with a little hand,” Elliot Huels said. “I wanted to find out how his life is compared to mine because of the little hand thing. How people treated him because of it.”
Elliot struggled to keep the glove on his left hand, so his stick frequently dropped to the ice. The Huels improvised and used an Ace bandage to secure the glove and stick in place. The bandage extended up to the youngster’s elbow.
“We were concerned about the potential of injury as he got older because we knew he wouldn’t be able to drop his stick,” Ed Huels said.
“When I saw the article, I figured Joe must be doing something to keep his glove on, so I reached out to him just to see how he handled the same problem when he was younger.
“Joe was very up front with us and told us he went through the exact same thing when he was little. He answered all of our questions and pointed us in the right direction.”
The Chicago-based Shriners Hospital for Children designed a special glove for Rogers when he played forward during his youth hockey days. Rogers shared as much information on the glove as possible with Ed Huels, who approached the Shriners facility in St. Louis.
Rogers figured something might get lost in the translation, so he gave Ed Huels his cell phone number and encouraged him to call with any additional questions.
“I wasn’t making any sense at all to the occupational therapist, so I finally asked her to call Joe,” Ed Huels said.
“They must have talked for an hour and a half or two hours, going over ideas and designs for the glove until they finally came up with something where the glove would stay on Elliot’s hand and he could drop his stick if he needed to.”
But Rogers didn’t stop there. When Elliot began using the glove, Rogers wanted to know how well it worked. Before long, their correspondence expanded to other topics, such as school, family and friends.
Rogers and the Huels family have been exchanging phone calls and emails ever since. Rarely do they go more than a month without touching base.
“Joe has been very, very generous with his time, and he’s been extremely helpful,” Ed Huels said. “He always gets back to us right away if we have a question, you never feel like you’re bothering him, and he’s always happy to hear from us. He always wants to know how Elliot’s doing.
“I can’t think of a better role model for my son. He’s a stand-up guy, a straight-A student ... He’s just a great, great kid.”
“I can’t think of a better role model for my son. He’s a stand-up guy, a straight-A student at one of the top schools in the country and he always has his head on straight. He’s just a great, great kid.”
Rogers considers it the least he can do. His parents reached out to various sources to help him develop as a youth hockey player and, of course, he had all those trading cards of Abbott to inspire him.
Rogers has struck similar friendships with a few other children across North America.
“I’m at a world-class university, playing for a great college hockey program, and I’m making the best of it every day,” said Rogers, who is studying finance.
“You always hope that someone can take something from your story, learn from it and be inspired to believe they can reach whatever goals they set their minds to, but sometimes, you never hear a response to your story.
“I’m grateful the Huels and a few other parents have reached out to me. It’s uplifting to see that I’ve been able to make an impact on kids, because I grew up in a little town and had no idea I’d be able to make an impact on kids across the United States and Canada. I guess it’s my way of paying it forward.”