WOODBRIDGE — In 1999, Woodbridge renamed the Occoquan Relays in honor of Haig Gojekian, a former student, coach and teacher at the high school.
This year the Vikings chose to honor another person that has become synonymous with Woodbridge: Jim Rodgers.
Woodbridge head track coach Jay Arther helped spearhead a secret effort to honor Rodgers on Saturday, which included a pre-meet ceremony in which the long-time Vikings coach was able to talk with many of his former runners from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Alumni came from as far as California to wish Rodgers a fond farewell to coaching.
Rodgers, who’s been at the school as a cross country and track coach a total of 23 years, was completely caught off-guard and overwhelmed with the appreciation shown by those in attendance.
“I didn’t have an idea what to say,” Rodgers said. “This just has to be the best thing probably that’s ever happened in my coaching career, to see all these people that I’ve coached that took the time and come long distance to be here today. I’m greatly appreciative of that.”
The feeling was mutual regardless of the age group. Don Lisenbee and Gene Johnson, two members of the Vikings’ 1974 and 1975 cross country state championship teams, were in attendance as well as 2002 graduate Mike Lyng, who now competes for the University of Virginia.
Lisenbee came all the way from Kansas to let Rodgers know what he meant to him.
“He had a knack to be able to relate to everybody on the team regardless of the talent,” Lisenbee said. “…He could take the most junior person where maybe you wouldn’t see a lot of talent in and make him feel special.”
“The whole four years [I was there] he’s just cared about each and everyone of us,” Lyng said. “He takes so much time and effort and puts it into us, and you can’t really ask for much more as a coach. He’s knowledgeable about the sport but he also cares about us which just makes him an extraordinary coach.”
Even coaches at rival schools will miss Rodgers. Forest Park track and cross country coach Dave Davis and former Potomac cross country and track coach Bill Stearns were in attendance on Saturday and both have immense respect for the Follansbee, West Virginia native.
After Rodgers’ brief foray into coaching in West Virginia in the 1980s, Davis –then the Vikings’ head cross country coach –brought him back to Woodbridge as an assistant in 1988. They won a cross country state title in 1990 as co-coaches before Davis, who had just spent the last two seasons as an assistant at Georgetown University, went to Hylton to take over its running programs.
“We’ve known each other for 17 years and my oldest daughter used to run around their pool when she was one,” Davis said. “It’s been a great thing. He’s [Rodgers] done a lot of good things here in the last 17 years, and he was here before that. Jim’s a fantastic man and a fantastic coach.”
“You could see the kind of closeness always among the Woodbridge kids,” Stearns said. “And I think to me, that is the greatest testament to what you did as a coach is when kids come back, whether it’s back to visit you, whether it’s give you a phone call, send you a Christmas card, whatever. To see all these people come back to pay tribute [to Rodgers] really says more than any words can say.”
Arther’s goal was to not have Rodgers help run the meet on Saturday. But as usual, Rodgers was out there, a bright orange hat on his head and the starter’s gun in his hand. Coming to a Woodbridge meet and not doing his part as an assistant coach was not acceptable.
“I have to do this,” Rodgers said. “It’s in my blood. How could I come to a track meet and not be timing and talking to kids and everything else?”
The next time Rodgers comes back to the track for a meet, he will probably see his name alongside the Howard Memorial Stadium sign. Pending the school board’s approval, the track around the football field could be named Jim Rodgers track by this May. That makes Rodgers unbelievably proud.
“I may pass away but that sign will always be there,” Rodgers said. “That’s great. Maybe my own kids may come back here someday when I’m gone and that sign will still be there and that may mean something to them too.”
Leroy Worley was Rodgers’ assistant in cross country last season and will take over the program next fall when Rodgers retires to the Winchester area with his wife. Worley may have his own expectations for the program but doesn’t mind following in the footsteps of a coach who has won 42 district titles and 21 regional championships in 36 years of coaching cross country and track.
“[I want to] do what I can to not miss a beat,” Worley said.