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It had been almost two whole years since Matawan senior Darrell Rogers wore his No. 5 Huskies jersey, and as Matawan head boys basketball coach John Giraldo watched his point guard lightly jog through the pregame introduction routine on the team’s Senior Day this past Saturday, he could not help but think: What if?

That question carries with it two sides, both very heavy and very sobering.

On one hand, Giraldo and anyone else who watched Rogers blossom as a sophomore starting point guard at the varsity level can’t help but wonder what Rogers’s high-school career might have looked like and to what heights he would have climbed in the game had it not been for the events of May 21, 2018.

At the same time, Giraldo knows an all-conference season, a state championship and a college scholarship is just one side of the what-if scenario. The other is one that would have ended everything for Rogers on that fateful May afternoon.

“He loved playing,” Giraldo said of Rogers. “He had the work ethic and the physical tools for it, he had a great sophomore year and he was the best of his group and in that class. Seeing him in the uniform brought back a lot of what-ifs, but at the same time, it also reminded me that it could have been a lot worse. We have to be appreciative that he was able to do this because there was a moment in time there where we weren’t sure what was going to happen to him.”

Twenty-one months after suffering a cardiac arrest that nearly took his life, Rogers finally donned his Matawan uniform and heard his name announced as a starter in his home gym once again before Matawan’s 73-51, Senior Day win over Jackson Memorial. While it is far from the end of Rogers’s journey to rebuild his life and himself since his near-death experience, it was a milestone moment for him and the Matawan community.

“I was shocked and really just – it made me want to cry,” Rogers said of the Senior Day event. “Putting on the uniform for the first time in the locker room, I started tearing up. It meant even more than I thought it would. That’s something I really wanted to do.”

Giraldo and Matawan athletic director Phil Tyburczy planned out Saturday’s pregame festivities over the course of the last two months while balancing how much to keep Matawan’s players – most of whom are seniors who grew up playing with Rogers – in the loop. Recognizing Rogers as one of Matawan’s seven senior players before the game was no issue, but dressing him in uniform meant technically including him on the roster for the game and the team and the department had to clear that with the school, the officials for the game and the opposing team.

“That uniform hasn’t been used in two years,” Giraldo said. “We purposely took that uniform out of circulation because this was a long-term plan in my head that we wanted it to be his uniform, his spot – especially for Senior Night.”

Darrell Rogers (5) with senior teammates (from left, uniformed) John Beukers, Carlos Zeno, Zaire Williams, Niles Haliburton, Elijah McKenzie and Ethan Okello. (Photo by Matt Manley)

With everyone in tune with what the team and the school were trying to make happen for Rogers, it was not much of a chore to get the necessary clearance. Giraldo told the team about the plans for Rogers the night before the game and the group was on board, to say the least.

Rogers was the introduced to a standing ovation as the last senior in the group and to an even louder reaction when he was introduced in the pregame starting lineups as Matawan’s sixth starter.

“Whatever needed to happen – I would have taken five technical fouls if that’s what it took to let him have that moment of being announced and being the last guy in that huddle,” Giraldo said. “That’s a special moment that he deserves and his teammates deserved. I know Darrell was really, really happy, but the rest of the team was extremely ecstatic too.”

Giving Rogers a chance to take the court in his full uniform was about so more than giving a young man who had been through trying times a chance to smile. Since regaining consciousness in the hospital, Rogers has been literally been piecing his life back together by taking steps to regain memories that were lost or clouded as a result of trauma to the brain. Rogers’s good friend and senior teammate Ethan Okello likened it to putting a puzzle back together and his friends and family have been trying to help him gather all the pieces in order to put them all together.

As much as Saturday was about recognizing Rogers and his journey, it was also about helping him remember.

“That was the goal – get him that feeling that he hasn’t had in a couple of years,” Giraldo said. “The feeling of being around the team is still there but that feeling of being a basketball player, that was the ultimate goal we wanted for him. It seemed to me he was a little overwhelmed at first but I don’t think he realized how much he missed that feeling until he got out there.”

For Rogers, the 21-month-and-counting journey has been painful, confusing and frustrating at different points and while his friends and family share in those emotions, they also marvel at how far he has come in less than two years.

As Giraldo and Okello describe, conversations with Rogers are a little slower-paced than they used to be as he measures his thoughts and words before sharing them. In time, though, he finds the words that remind them that he is still the same guy they have always known.

“He is the same Darrell,” Okello said. “There are some symptoms he has because of what happened, but on the inside, anyone that knows him, it’s the same inside jokes, the same personality, the same Darrell. All that matters is he’s alive. I’m friends with the same person I was friends with before it happened. He’ll be my best friend for life and I’ll always take care of him. This is a big step in getting Darrell back to being himself.”

It took quick action and a lot of good fortune to prevent the worst-case scenario two years ago and to give Rogers a chance to fight his way back. During a spring AAU practice in 2018, Rogers collapsed suddenly and laid on the floor without a pulse before two of his coaches performed CPR and revived him right there on the court. He then spent the next three months in the hospital as he fought to overcome the trauma to his brain that the episode caused – a loss of memory, motor skills and a significant amount of strength while he was bedridden.

According to Giraldo, some of the first things his caretakers had Rogers do to both improve his physical condition and trigger his spotty memory was to put him through simple basketball drills: dribbling, passing and catching the ball.

His friends, meanwhile, tried to help the process along by listening to music, watching movies and television shows that they knew he liked before the incident. All of that helped him further tap into his old personality, but nothing resonated with him as much as basketball.

“It’s what I have always been doing,” Rogers said of basketball. “I just loved it. It just felt normal to me.”

From a relatively early stage in his recovery, Rogers remembered he knew how to play basketball, that he was pretty good and, more definitively, that he loved to play. But with limited physical ability and a substantial part of his memory still dark, he did not have a complete handle on how good he was.

His friends found an easy solution to that problem: they showed him.

Okello would go over to Rogers’s house and watched entire games from their sophomore season at Matawan on Hudl with Rogers and watched as his friend began to recall playing in those games. By the end, Rogers said he was starting to recount moments in the game before they happened on the video.

“I remember all the games,” Rogers said. “I watch Hudl and it just brings everything back to me.”

Matawan senior Ethan Okello (left) with classmate Darrell Rogers before opening night of 2018-19. (Photo by Matt Manley)

If Rogers was looking for evidence of his basketball ability before his collapse, those videos showed it. He was the third-leading scorer on a 20-win Matawan team at 8.8 points per game and nearly two years ago to the day from Saturday’s Senior Day moment, he scored a career-high 27 points in a win over Marlboro.

Armed with memories of his sophomore success for the Huskies, Rogers has been motivated to get back on the court and that process is where he has encountered the most frustration. He has managed to return to school full-time, further normalize his school and social life and even get on track to graduate with his classmates with an eye on going to college. He hopes to attend Brookdale for two years, then enroll in a four-year college to study physical therapy.

“It’s pretty normal again,” Rogers said. “I don’t get any extra attention anymore. At first, I was struggling and I needed the extra attention. It’s good to have people want to help but it gets a little annoying after a while. It’s more normal now and I like that.”

“There is no doubt in my mind he is going to be able to do the things he wants to do and he is just going to progressively keep getting better and better,” Giraldo said. “Who knows how far he can go, but I am taking him at his word. The family is all behind him, he has a great circle of friends that has been with him the whole time. He has everybody in the school and the community and his coaches who make sure that whatever he needs, he is going to get.”

When it comes to basketball, though, the process has been much slower. It is, in fact, the last thing he was doing before his heart gave out and the risks involved in playing the game are significant. Rogers had a defibrillator implanted in his chest to monitor his heart and while there is precedent for competing with the device, the severity of Rogers’s injury left him with a significant loss of strength and a long way from being cleared to play any sort of organized basketball.

“It used to be me and Darrell would wake up every day and go play to get better,” Okello said. “When me and Darrell go play now, it’s because it’s bringing back that old feeling of brotherhood because that’s what we always loved to do.”

“Nah, I’m not patient,” Rogers said with a smile. “That’s the hardest part – just waiting for everything. Waiting for my strength to come back so I can do more.”

Still, Rogers has soldiered on and still holds onto his dream of returning the court and pursuing a professional career. At this stage in his rehabilitation, he goes to the gym to work on his leg strength and even played in some pick-up games with Okello over the summer. He still can’t run much harder than a light jog but Rogers is hoping to be even better by the time this upcoming summer rolls around.

“I still haven’t given up on my dream of playing basketball, going to the NBA one day,” Rogers said. “But my other plan is to do physical therapy, go to school.”

In the meantime, Rogers has done his best to provide his Matawan teammates with moral support. On his end, he is just trying to remain part of the program in any way he can – attending practices, scouting meetings, sitting on the bench at home games and making the road trips when he can.

“All my friends, they all support me very strongly and they are all there for me through everything,” Rogers said. “It brings my spirits up being around the guys. I couldn’t ask for a better group.”

For the team though, his presence is a constant reminder that these last two years have been about so much more than just basketball for the other six seniors on the roster.

“At first, I felt like I lost my best friend on the court,” Okello said. “It felt really weird at first last year. I played with him all my life. Whatever we did in basketball, we did it together and it was crazy for all of us to not have him. Now, he is cheering me on and I’m trying to make him proud. That’s what it is now. If it was the other way around, I know he’d do the same thing.”

Starting this Monday, those six seniors – Okello, John Beukers, Niles Haliburton, Zaire Williams, Elijah McKenzie and Carlos Zeno – will face the prospect of their high-school careers ending each time they take the floor. Matawan opens the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III Playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the section by hosting No. 11 Burlington Township. The pairing is a rematch of a first-round game from a year ago, which saw the Falcons handle host Matawan, 66-37, en route to reaching the sectional final.

Whether this two-year journey ends with another loss or with a storybook run to the program’s first sectional title since winning CJ II in 2014, Matawan’s players know their preparation and effort in their remaining time together will reflect the appreciation they have for sharing the game together for the last four years of high school.

“They have been playing together for a really long time and while Darrell went through what he went through, this group had to go through that too,” Giraldo said. “It was tough on them too. They weren’t sure what was going to happen to one of their friends and one of their teammates who has been with them for so long. This is definitely a goal for them that they want to go out on a high note and make a deep run in the state tournament and leave a good legacy behind.”

“Of course we say ‘For Darrell’ in the huddles all the time, but I think that is something that, individually, we have to all play with,” Okello said. “Knowing that you have to play every game like it’s your last and you can’t take anything for granted. We know we are never going to get this back, so we’re giving it our all.”

They have Rogers to thank for that appreciation. Even more than appreciating their ability to play basketball, though, Rogers has showed his teammates the importance of making and holding onto memories. Much of the last two years for Rogers have been about remembering but Saturday’s show of affection was also about being remembered.

“He called me the night after the game and he said, ‘Say thank you to everyone that was behind this’ because this means so much to him,” Okello said. “He didn’t want all of these people to forget about him. That’s what he was scared of happening and we made sure that didn’t happen.

“He’s happy, he’s getting better and that’s what’s important. It’s bigger than basketball.”