Extra presents from Santa Claus will magically appear Friday morning when Jeff Rodgers walks into his brother’s house. It happened the last few years in Denver, too, a surprise for Jay Rodgers’ three kids.
They’ll have breakfast on Christmas morning: Jeff, the Bears special teams coordinator; his brother, Jay, their defensive line coach; Jay’s wife Melissa; and their kids Avery, 7, Rock, 5, and Harper, 2.
Then, midmorning, the Rodgers boys will walk out the door and head to Halas Hall.
Christmas is a working holiday in the NFL. It’s a lifestyle the brothers chose — that their father embraced, too — but it’s not always easy. Having a brother as a coworker, a rarity for coaches, makes it better.
The two spent the last four years together in Denver. After a few weeks of uncertainty, they reunited on John Fox’s Bears staff this offseason, allowing the Christmas tradition to continue.
“His kids mean everything to me,” Jeff said. “His wife’s like a sister to me.”
When he worked for the Panthers, coaches and their wives would invite Jeff over for Christmas. Exhausted from a long season, he’d politely decline, saying he had other plans, and hang out alone at home.
This is better.
“It’s been great,” said Jay, who’s a year older than Jeff. “Any time you can keep your family together, that’s a good thing.”
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Broncos star Von Miller was in his third year before he knew they were brothers.
Bears running back Ka’Deem Carey had to be told.
“There’s at least one guy every two weeks that walks up to me and says, ‘I had no idea,’” Jeff said.
It’s hard to blame them. Brothers working on the same staff doesn’t happen often — Jay and Jonathan Hayes coach for the Bengals; perhaps the most famous duo, Rob and Rex Ryan worked for dad Buddy with the Cardinals — and the Rodgers’ personalities aren’t similar. Jay, who played sports with boys a year older, is probably more mature, while Jeff shares his dad’s bone-dry humor.
They don’t coach many of the same guys. Few defensive linemen cover kickoffs.
“They’re really completely different,” Fox said. “But they come from a really good family.
“They’re both excellent teachers and great people. Those are prerequisites that I like in coaches.”
Jay played quarterback at Indiana from 1996-98 before transferring to Missouri State for his senior year. Jeff played linebacker at North Texas from 1996-99.
They grew up competing in everything from footraces to ping-pong — with each other and youngest brother Jonny. He tore his knee playing quarterback in high school, and was replaced by a kid named Drew Brees. Jonny now works in Texas real estate.
The three grew up in football. Their dad Randy was John Mackovic’s recruiting coordinator at Illinois from 1988-91 and at Texas from 1992-97.
Ask Randy how his coaching style rubbed off on his sons, and he’ll quickly — and proudly — declare that they’ve “far exceeded me.”
He was raised on a dairy farm in Monmouth listening to Bears games on the radio. When he watches the Bears in person — the best part of his boys coaching together is the family can go to one stadium, not two — he can’t turn off his coaching brain.
“I get my souvenir cup of Diet Coke and plop down,” Randy said, “and don’t move unless I have to go to the bathroom.”
He knows the stakes, but offers fatherly support more than coaching tips.
“When you’re involved in athletics, especially at the professional level, and that’s what your livelihood is, every win and every loss is that much more exaggerated,” Jay said. “It’s what we do.”
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For a few days, Jeff and Jay were unsure they’d coach together again.
Jay interviewed with three teams this offseason before joining the Bears.
“It is stressful, but it’s what we signed up for,” Jay said. “I didn’t know what my next opportunity would be. I’m sure Jeff didn’t know what his next opportunity would be.
“It worked out. But even though that was a short amount of time, it felt like three years to me.”
Fox hired Jeff in 2009, and brought him from the Panthers to the Broncos in 2011.
Jay, who Fox didn’t know, was there already there, coaching for Josh McDaniels as a low-level assistant.
Jay had taken a different path than his brother, working at junior college, FBS and FCS schools — and for Ohio State’s John Cooper and LSU’s Nick Saban, among others. Fox kept Jay when he got to Denver, and promoted him to defensive line coach in 2012.
His background as a quarterback helped him scheme ways to attack — “He knows a lot of the formations and tendencies,” defensive lineman Mitch Unrein said — while Jeff’s job requires more patience.He’s always been the one who can plan ahead, finding ways to use the ever-changing bottom of the roster.
In January, Fox hired Jay six days after Jeff.
“Getting into the league, you gotta get a break,” Jeff said. “Staying in the league, you usually gotta do well.”
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It’s not a typical Christmas, but football families don’t have those, anyway.
“We’re all part of the entertainment business, right?” Jay said. “Football keeps moving through the holidays.”
It moves to Tampa this weekend. Jeff and Jay’s parents and kid brother will watch them coach against the Buccaneers in person.
“I think Jeff is a great uncle, and they’ve included him,” Randy said. “The fact that both of them are together give them an opportunity to spend holidays together.
“When you’re a football family, holidays are really hard to gather everybody.”
They’re lucky to be able to.
“They’re my only family in town,” Jeff said. “If Jay and I didn’t work together, it wouldn’t be close to being that atmosphere. It’s cool that that can happen.”
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