NOTE: This is the second of three profile stories of the EIVA Hall of Fame Class for 2019. Douglas Emich was profiled last week, and Ron Larsen will be profiled the week of April 8.
When Tarik Rodgers enrolled at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, he was a 16-year-old freshman with no intention to play intercollegiate athletics.
He had played a little volleyball, but his interest was mechanical engineering.
But when NJIT coaches caught a glimpse of Rodgers’ raw athletic skills – by the time he graduated he had a 46-inch vertical leap – they coaxed him into the Highlanders’ gym.
It turned into a smart decision for both, elevating the NJIT program to be competitive with the powers of east coast volleyball and turning Rodgers into one of the nation’s top players in a sport in which he was still competing on a national level as recently as last year.
The career also was good enough to earn him a place in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association Hall of Fame. He will join Doug Emich and Ron Larsen for their induction April 20, during the EIVA championship match at the home of the conference tournament’s top seed.
Rodgers grew up on Chicago’s south side, and then in various places in and around Newark, N.J. He enjoyed playing the sport a little, but he had bigger goals, intentionally not exploring where athletics would take him.
The Highlanders coaches including Dave DeNure – a 2018 EIVA Hall of Fame member – saw him anyway.
“I wasn’t that great – pretty raw – but I had some volleyball skills,” he said. “They saw me playing and said ‘You’ve got to come play for the team.’”
The raw talent was sharpened pretty quickly as he became a four-year starter. By his final season in 1995, his resume was solid. He was team captain the final two years, finishing both seasons ranking in the top 10 nationally in blocking, and one season he was third in hitting percentage. He made the EIVA All-Tournament Team both in 1994 and 95, was the Most Valuable Player of the EIVA Division III Championship and in 1995 was the Asics Small College Player of the Year.
He is considered one of the greatest players in NJIT history, and even after he left school he was still inspiring others. He played multiple seasons for the New York City Open team in the Empire State Games, a statewide all-sports, Olympics-like competition. Across the gym during practices was a young Sam Shweisky – now Princeton’s head coach – with the New York City Scholastic team.
“Growing up in New York City in the mind 1990s, the Empire State Games was the Holy Grail of top-level volleyball for any high school volleyball athlete,” Schweisky recalls. “As a young high-schooler watching Tarik Rodgers fly through the air – touching over 12 feet! – and bounce balls left many of our mouths agape in awe.”
In addition to the athletic ability, Rodgers also had a competitive fire that was tough to beat. Even though he was hesitant to play the sport in college, he was never going to give anything less than a full effort, and certainly not back down when NJIT ran up against the bigger schools like Penn State, George Mason and Rutgers-Newark
“I didn’t have goals and my main focus was on school,” said Rodgers, who was inducted into the NJIT Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010. “But volleyball was something I was really good at. I wasn’t looking at volleyball as a long-term career that I really wanted to master going into it, but once I am engaged in something … I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it well.”
After earning his degree in 1996, and attending graduate school at Northwestern, he pursued a number of entrepreneurial ventures, and is now the plant manager in Dallas for Sanmina Corporation, an electronics manufacturing company. With his success he also has made a point to remember his path and try to help those who follow. He has set up four $1,000 scholarships to be given annually to students from his high school in Newark – Science Park – to attend NJIT.
Lending a hand to younger generations is not recent. After some of those Empire State Games practices, Rodgers even gave Shweisky the occasional ride home from Queens College to lower Manhattan.
“I can’t remember exactly what we talked about on those rides back to the city,” Shweisky said, “but I remember feeling important, valued, and heard, which is a rare feeling in high school. Tarik supported me and encouraged me and made me feel like I belonged. Almost 25 years later, volleyball now my living, I think back to guys like Tarik who took the time to encourage us youth and to grow the game.”
Rodgers played for the Creole club team in New York after graduation until about 2012, then joined the team again for one more go-around last year, and he said it didn’t take long to shake off the rust.
He is thankful for what the sport brought out of him, and how it made so much more possible for his life after college.
“It was definitely part of my life, part of my lifestyle, and was definitely something I wasn’t giving up,” Rodgers said.
Others also were enriched by Rodgers’ presence.
“Tarik – thank you for all you have given to the sport of volleyball, to the EIVA, to the fans, and to all the young kids who watched in awe as you sored through the air killing ball after ball,” Shweisky said. “You inspired us, you encouraged us, and we are where we are today because of you. Congrats on this great honor. It is well deserved.”