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Father's Day Takes On Extra Meaning For Atlanta Falcons' Rookie Trio


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Father's Day takes on extra meaning for Atlanta Falcons' rookie trio
Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Jake Rodgers wiped a tear from his left eye before it trickled down his cheek. His lip quivered briefly before he composed himself.

It was easy to understand the Atlanta Falcons rookie offensive tackle’s display of emotions as he stood after practice last week and reminisced about his late father, John.

"He would always want to play catch with a baseball," Rodgers said. "He was a big baseball guy, so we’d always throw the ball around in the backyard. I was always competitive growing up, and I started throwing the ball as hard as I could. Eventually, I started throwing it back harder and harder. And I kept getting mad at him because he kept throwing it back at me harder and hurt my hand. I’d just get frustrated and quit, all the time."

Rodgers smiled recalling such memories. The circumstances behind his father’s death, however, continue to be difficult to accept.

On Dec. 13, Rodgers and his Eastern Washington University squad hosted Illinois State in an FCS quarterfinal showdown. Late in the game, right before Eastern Washington attempted an onside kick and last-ditch comeback, the action stopped after a fan collapsed in the stands.

The spectator was Rodgers’ father.

"I remember I really didn’t know what was going on, but I just knew they brought the ambulance on the field," Rodgers said. "I had kind of known that he had some respiratory problems going into the game and wasn’t feeling too great. So, in the back of my head, I was thinking about it. I was looking up the stands where he was sitting and I couldn’t find him. And then, somebody told me he had a heart attack there and was in the hospital. He just really never recovered from it."

John Rodgers, an iron worker, died 13 days following his collapse. He was 54.

Father’s Day always will be a moment of reflection for Jake Rodgers, as well as for a couple of his fellow rookie teammates. Wide receiver Justin Hardy, a fourth-round draft pick from East Carolina, lost his father in February 2013 as a result of heart attack. And pass-rusher Vic Beasley, the team’s first-round draft pick from Clemson, lost a father-like figure when his uncle died of cancer on March 1.

To this day, Rodgers, a seventh-round draft pick, wears one of his father’s old Johnny Cash shirts and uses a bottle of his father’s cologne as tributes. The Norse mythology tattoo on Rodgers’ back is another reminder.

"It’s like the Odin [Norse god], some ravens and his pet wolves," Rodgers said. "My father always liked to talk about that stuff because we’re part Norwegian. He would always say that [Odin] was supposed to really be my first name, but my mom wouldn’t let him name me that.

"Yes, Father’s Day always will be special."

FROM THE HEART

Justin Hardy didn’t know any other coach but his father growing up in North Carolina.

During Pop Warner games, his father was there. On the baseball diamond, his father was there. In the basketball gym, his father was there.

Sam Hardy (right) was an inspiration to his son, Falcons fourth-round pick Justin Hardy. Courtesy of Justin Hardy

"He’s the reason that I’m here," Hardy said. "He taught me everything that I know. Coming up, he just wanted me to be the best that I could be. He didn’t want to burn me out with one [sport]. He wanted me to be an all-around guy. That was one of the things he taught me: Don’t just have your mind set on one thing."

To this day, Hardy finds it hard to fathom how his father passed away as the young age of 48. Sam Hardy, who owned a logging company and also operated a crane, suffered a heart attack inside his home.

"We didn’t know anything was wrong with him. It just happened," Hardy said. "Everything was good with him. He didn’t have any problems or anything like that. He did smoke, and we tried to get him to go to the doctor, but he always felt like he was in good health."

There are so many memories Hardy shared with his father, such as the times he used to visit the logging company and drive the crane for extra summer cash. The most lasting memories evolved when they looked eye to eye during the course of competition.

"Any time we had a game, he would beat his chest and say, 'Play with your heart,’" Hardy said. "He always told me to play with my heart and leave it all out on the field."

Hardy strictly followed the advice. College football’s all-time receptions leader (387 catches) turned heads with his performance during the Falcons’ three-day mandatory minicamp last week. Quarterback Matt Ryan singled out Hardy’s play and called Hardy and important element of the offense this coming season.

Sam Hardy would be proud.

KEEPING THE FAITH

Vic Beasley expressed his respect for his father by asking to be referred to as Vic Beasley Jr. on his Falcons uniform and on the team roster. There was another father-like figure he’ll always have the utmost respect for: his uncle.

Pastor John Simuel Beasley, a father of five who was once named the most valuable defensive lineman at Jacksonville State University, lost his battle with cancer March 1. He was 60.

The funeral was March 4, one day before Vic Beasley had his pro day at Clemson. Beasley left the family's hometown of Adairsville, Georgia, at 4 a.m. March 5 in order to make it back to school in time for his 7 a.m. weigh-in. Though obviously emotionally drained following the tragedy, Beasley generated enough energy to huddle with NFL coaches and scouts then address the media.

The most difficult part about Beasley being drafted by the team he grew up rooting for was not having his uncle there to share in the moment.

"Right now, he would just be proud of me and would be all smiles and just excited, especially that I’m here in the home state," Beasley said. "He would just be very, very excited for me."

Beasley already has given the Falcons plenty to be thrilled about. His quick first step and athleticism should translate into a productive season from his "Leo" pass-rusher role.

Those who know Beasley say he’s a man of character and faith.

"I put God first in everything that I do," Beasley said. "I know that's the biggest reason I’m where I’m at today."

Certainly his uncle helped positively influence his religious values. And Beasley vowed to keep his uncle in mind every time he suits up on game day.

"I didn’t play lights out on every play like I wanted to in college," Beasley said. "So I want to do every play like that now and honor him."

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This article really hit home for me. I just lost my dad on Saturday (6/20), so father's day was especially rough for me yesterday.

So sorry, that's a heart-breaker. I lost my Dad 7 years ago, and it still hurts. The first Father's Day without your Dad is the worst, but time and God will help heal the pain.

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This article really hit home for me. I just lost my dad on Saturday (6/20), so father's day was especially rough for me yesterday.

So terribly sorry to hear that man. You're family is in my thoughts. If there is anything at all possible we can do let me know.

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I feel for everyone of those players. My dad had two ruptured aneurysms in his brain seven months ago and survived. He is in a wheel chair today but he is getting back to normal. I am about to play black jack with him today. I hope everyone appreciates their loved ones before it's too late

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