It was the kind of moment that makes everyone forget about football.

With just a minute left in Illinois State’s quarterfinal game against host Eastern Washington, a fan in the stands had a medical emergency. The game stopped, and medical staff rushed to help him.

That man was John Rodgers, father of Eastern Washington offensive lineman Jake Rodgers. Suffering apparent heart problems, John was taken to the hospital. He died December 27.

His death shook the Eastern Washington family—and it stayed with the Redbirds. On Saturday, when Illinois State faces North Dakota State in the FCS title game, every Redbird will have a “65” sticker on their helmet, in honor of John Rodgers. No. 65 is Jake’s number on the Eagles.

“We’re just so thankful and truly humbled by this gesture,” said Bill Chaves, athletics director at Eastern Washington. “It just goes to show, at the end of the day, people are doing things for the right reasons.”

Jake Rodgers 65

Another look at the “65” decal on the Redbird helmets.

The decal idea came from coach Brock Spack and his players. They’ve spent the past two weeks battle-planning for the most important game of their lives, but still found time to think back to John and Jake.

The Redbirds and Eagles know each other well. The Redbirds lost in the “Inferno” (Roos Field) in Cheney, Washington, in the 2012 FCS playoffs. The ’Birds got their revenge December 13, with that 59-46 victory.

“All credit (for the ’65’ stickers) goes to Illinois State and its coaching staff,” said Chaves. “Brock was one of the first people who reached out and really wanted to do something (to honor Rodgers).”

Spack said the December 13 episode shook up his players, some of whom called their dads right after the game from the locker room. It was a wake-up call, he said.

“It hits you right between the eyes,” Spack said. “It was heartbreaking to see Jake run off the field when his dad was taken off in the ambulance. We were hoping for the best. … We were all hoping he’d pull through.”

Added Spack: “(The decals were) the least we could do. We’re all football players, and we’re all in that football family. It’s a tough thing for another person or any kid to go through. It hit home for a lot of guys.”

While Chaves says he has great respect for North Dakota State’s championship-winning program, he knows it’s just human nature for some Eagles to be rooting for Illinois State on Saturday.

“You hope you lost to the team that won it all,” he said.

 Ryan Denham can be reached at

2 thoughts on “Redbird helmets to honor opponent’s late father

  1. Christina says:

    What a very beautiful and touching gesture by the team.

  2. Christina says: