CALUMET CITY | This Mr. Rogers favors T-shirts and football cleats over cardigans and sneakers.
But there's one personality trait that binds Artie Rogers with the children's-TV legend who shared his surname: a desire to accentuate the positive.
While T.F. North's new head football coach can't promise the same kind of frustration-free environment that earmarked Fred Rogers' neighborhood, Artie Rogers is mostly about words of encouragement. He feels that might have been a key missing ingredient within the program the past two years, a period during which the Meteors won just 3-of-18 contests.
And it didn't take long for the players to take notice of their coach's desire for change in that area.
"Last year, we didn't have second chances," senior receiver Elijah Sofawara said. "This year, they're giving us second chances to make it up and keep our heads up. (They tell us), 'Don't worry about it.' If we drop a pass, we get another one the next play."
"It's real big," senior receiver Katrell Sykes said, referring to the favorable feedback. "We know we've got the coaches behind us and it's teaching everybody to never give up."
Sofawara and Sykes aren't complete strangers to Rogers' methods. The latter was in his fifth and final season as North's defensive coordinator under Tim Zasada when both players were freshmen.
Sykes' brother, David, remembers that time as well. Those were good days for the Meteors, who garnered four playoff berths in the span of six seasons after going nearly two decades without a postseason invitation.
Now, David Sykes is hoping the Rogers-Zasada tandem can rekindle the magic.
"We don't want to be 1-8 again, and we got the coaches to (help us not) do that," Sykes said. "We were just out here to be out here (in 2008); now, we're out here to make plays. The intensity is really up, and I feel like the guys that are going to play are ready to make something (good) happen."
Relighting the competitive fire
Fueling intensity is something at which Zasada was particularly adept during his six-year tenure as North's football boss. That hasn't changed, even though his position has.
These days, Zasada is Rogers' assistant, serving as offensive coordinator. The job switch might strike outsiders as somewhat unusual, but both men are excited about the chance to join forces once more.
"I'll coach with him anytime," Rogers said. "He knows what's going on and he knows what he's doing. He's an excellent coach."
Zasada is happy to be "helping out my buddy Artie, as he did with me," but he also likes to poke some fun at the role reversal.
"When I was offensive coordinator before, I was a little conservative -- now, I'm going to do whatever it takes," Zasada said with a laugh. "I'm going to cut it loose, and I couldn't care less what happens. He gets to take a lot of the criticism if we lose, and I just get to go home and be with my family."
Kidding aside, Zasada has no intention of losing. Nor does Rogers, who considered his initial order of business to be the restoration of player confidence.
"There's some talented kids here," Rogers said. "I think they had some talented kids before, but it's (about) getting the kids to believe. When you lose, guys start getting their heads down, so we're building on whatever successes they've had.
"We have tough kids and we build on that toughness. We have had all kinds of bad things happen to kids and families in the program, but it's how you respond to that. Are you going to come back and be a man, take responsibility and do the best you can?"
Rogers admitted to only being "disappointed once or twice with the effort and how hard we played" while an assistant, and he expects similar player dedication in 2009.
"We want every kid to come and be a part of it, but they've got to adapt to what we're doing," he said. "If they're on their own program, they've got to go because when it gets tough, those kids aren't going to be there for you anyway."
A welcome approach
If Katrell Sykes is representative of most athletes on the Meteors' roster, Rogers' hard-nosed approach is being received with open arms.
"The coaches bring a lot of energy to the field, so the players aren't out there doing it by themselves," he said. "We didn't always have that (before)."
"They're just good coaches," Sofawara said. "They're telling us what to do and walking us through it."
Despite their respective job shifts, Rogers and Zasada aren't about to undergo personality transformations. The latter, whom Rogers says is the best motivator he's ever been around, will continue to be the fiery guy who's able to easily interact with teenagers.
"We kind of know what we're doing, but I think our best advantage is we just relate to the kids real well," Zasada said of both himself and Rogers. "We keep it simple and we get them playing confidently. If it's easy, then they can be athletes and the athletes can excel."
As for Rogers, he's still the lower-keyed counterpart to his pal.
"We're similar in a lot of ways, but I'm just not as animated as Tim," Rogers said. "That's his personality. I'm myself.
"The kids know when you're phony and I don't want to be anybody I'm not. They don't respond to that. We try to be as genuine and down to earth as we can and say, 'This is what's going to happen,' and follow through with what we're going to do."
Winning is what both men expect the Meteors to do in short order, and their attitude is quickly becoming contagious among Meteors players.
"Hopefully, we can bring the program back and get it back on the good side," David Sykes said.
"Everybody's underestimating us," Sofawara said. "But we're going to come out with a bang."
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