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Well worth the pain: Chris Rodgers coaches for life

Red Wing coach Chris Rodgers addresses the 12U AA team after a game against Farmington on July 25 in Red Wing. Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 5
Standing along the third-base line, Red Wing 12U AA coach Chris Rodgers watches his youngest son Tyler step into the batter's box during a Metro Baseball League tournament game against Farmington on July 25 in Red Wing. Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 5
Red Wing's Mitch Seeley throws a pitch during a Metro Baseball League playoff game against Farmington on July 25 in Red Wing. Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 5
Red Wing's initials are spelled out in chalk outside the Wingers' 12U AA dugout. Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 5
Red Wing's William Hanisch takes a swing at a pitch during a 12U AA Metro Baseball League game against Farmington on July 25. Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 5

Each breath and each swallow for Chris Rodgers is painful.

Diagnosed in 2009 with pseudomyxoma peritonei, a rare type of cancer, Rodgers was given a year to live.

And yet, for nearly a decade, he has defied the odds to the amazement of his doctors. He's terminally ill, but Rodgers keeps pushing forward.

"My doctors have said they have no idea how I've made it as long as I have," Chris said. "They ask me all the time and I tell them I think it's being with my kids, being in sports and keeping my mind occupied with all these activities with my kids."

PMP usually starts in the appendix. The cause isn't known, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders. The mucus-secreting tumors create jelly-like liquid that spreads and swells inside the peritoneum or layer of tissue that lines the abdomen and pelvis.

This summer, Rodgers continued to battle through his daily aches and pains and helped his youngest son and his teammates become state champions.

A season to remember

As the head coach of the Red Wing 12U AA baseball team, Chris led the youngsters to 40 straight wins, capped off with a first-place showing in the 2017 Gopher State Tournament of Champions on July 16 in Sartell.

"It was a run where you always knew the kids were going to come through," Chris said. In the state tournament, Red Wing was a perfect 3-0 in pool play, outscoring opponents 41-12. Then in the tournament, Red Wing picked up a quarterfinal win against Prior Lake (5-4), followed by a victory in the semifinals over Bloomington (11-1). In the championship game, the Wingers scored double digits again for an 11-1 tournament-clinching win over Mankato.

"No matter what situation they got in, somebody always came through and made a play," Chris said. "They kept learning all year long. They got better and it was so much fun to watch."

The state tournament also provided plenty of family time for the Rodgers. With Chris coaching in the dugout and the third-base line and son Tyler in uniform, Chris' eldest son, Jordan, was in the dugout pumping up the players.

"Since my brother started playing ball, I've been trying to help as much as I can with them. I always love being around these guys and they like having me around so it's been a lot of fun," Jordan said. "The state tournament was a lot of fun being with them. It was always our dream when me and my friends were their age to be in the state tournament and winning it all."

Meanwhile, daughter Hannah was keeping pitch count for the 12U Wingers.

"Hannah jumped in there for us, too," assistant coach Steve Reinitz said.

Fellow assistant coach David Hull added, "So it was a total family affair."

In need of an outlet

Today, Chris, a former social worker at Red Wing High School, isn't working anymore. Naturally, all that time cooped up at home has made him antsy. Coaching was his way to avoid cabin fever at home while acting as the perfect motivator.

"To have this as an outlet for me is what I've looked forward to every single day," Chris said. "I rested for a couple days at a time just to be at the ballpark. This is where I want to be. Being in the dirt and the green grass at a baseball game with a group like this, with Tyler on the field and Jordan coaching with me, it was great for my health and, at times, not great for my health. It would get stressful but overall, it was good for the long run."

Even before he was sick, coaching was a part of Chris' life. He coached for Jordan and Hannah, so the advancing PMP certainly wasn't going to prevent him from coaching Tyler.

"This is nothing new for him," Jordan said. "He just does this because he wants us to have fun. He wants to have our experience be enjoyable."

There were days when Chris couldn't make it. Weekend tournaments, according to Chris, were the toughest with upwards of eight games over a three-day stretch.

But, Chris added, "We had a great coaching staff to where I could take days off and everyone picked each other up and I could rest and could come back."

"Yeah, he missed a couple games," Hull said, "but he's always in contact. We really rallied behind him."

And whatever pain Chris may have been feeling earlier in the day, he wouldn't show it on the field.

"You wouldn't even know he's sick," Hull said. "He's got his heart and soul and he's a great inspiration to us. And he's a darn good coach."

Wherever the Red Wing team went, people across the state's baseball community checked in on coach Rodgers, Hull said.

"At a tournament in Apple Valley, the guys at Byron ended up signing a "Get Well" card," Hull said. "There was a young umpire who'd ask how Chris is doing. Everybody, from other coaches and teams to umpires, it's a neat thing to see they care."

Hull continued, "It's good to see people caring about more than just baseball."

It's not the end

On July 25, the 12U AA team's season came to an end in a 2-1 loss to Farmington in the Metro League playoffs as the team finished with a 42-2-1 record.

"We gave it all we got," Chris said after the loss. "We worked really hard and these kids worked really hard for what they got."

Hull added, "It's been, in a lot of different ways, a special season."

Chris is done coaching. It's up in the air how much longer his battle with PMP will last. But there's no quit in him.

"The prognosis isn't good for me right now but I'm fighting through it," Chris said. "The most I can do is get rest and stay positive. My kids know this and everyone close to me knows this: I'm going to fight and keep going for as long as I can. ... It's going to be a tough battle here for the next couple months. But I'm going day to day and I want to keep going for my family and my kids."

As far as his kids go, Jordan is headed to the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. Hannah, a volleyball, girls' basketball and softball player for Red Wing, enters her junior year of high school. And Tyler will be in seventh grade at Twin Bluff Middle School and will compete in football, basketball and baseball.

Chris has been fortunate enough to coach all three of his kids. And while there's been plenty of wins and losses along the way, Chris hopes his resolve in the face of mortality is his ultimate legacy.

"I want them to realize that life throws these roadblocks at you and it may be tough but it's not the end," Chris said. "You can't treat everything like, 'Oh my God, it's the end.' When something's in your way, you can't let it stop you, and I want (my kids) to know that and hopefully, I've lived it and not just said it."

Joe Brown

Joe Brown is the sports editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. Previously, he worked at the Marshall Independent and the St. Cloud Times. For updates on local sports, follow Joe on Twitter at @RE_JBrown.

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