In his hometown, Drake Rodgers is what is known as a Marlton Rec Council kid. He grew up playing sports, surrounded by family and friends.
In a culture of camaraderie and competition, Rodgers came to understand the value of those other guys in the same-colored uniforms, especially in tough times. He came to appreciate their support after bad games and difficult losses.
He knew he wasn't alone. He knew he always could count on his teammates.
"Drake and his buddies are really close," Cherokee football coach P.J. Mehigan said. "They are all around him all the time."
Tough times for most high school athletes involve poor performances on the field. Maybe there's a wide receiver who drops a key pass. Or a quarterback who throws a costly interception.
Maybe there's a senior who has spent much of his life dreaming about playing football for his hometown high school and he's a star wide receiver and he has to watch the first four or five games of his final season because of a freak injury.
Rodgers can relate.
But the Cherokee senior knows truly tough times have nothing to do with games. And he knows that teammates – true teammates – are there at difficult moments that have nothing to do with dropped passes or interceptions.
"I don't know what I would have done without my friends," Rodgers said. "I can't even explain how much they've meant to me."
Rodgers lost his mother, Kathy, in April. She was 45. She was one of those moms who was always around for games and practices, who cheered for everybody. She was elected to the Marlton Rec Council Hall of Fame for her work with the cheerleading program.
"She was always there," said Cherokee senior quarterback Andy Martin, one of Rodgers' closest friends. "We all were close with her."
That's the way it was with the Rodgers family. Drake's dad, Don, has been a longtime coach of youth football at the Marlton Rec Council. Drake's older sister Kylie was a youth cheerleader in town and participated in that activity at Cherokee.
"They are down-home Marlton people," Mehigan said of the Rodgers family. "They are the kind of people that make towns click. And Drake is just like his mom and dad."
After the death of his mother, the Rodgers house became a gathering place for Drake's teammates.
"They were over my house every day," Rodgers said. "They always were trying to cheer me up, make me laugh, get my mind off things."
The boys had something to anticipate: their senior season.
Rodgers had caught 38 passes for 484 yards and four touchdowns as a junior for a Cherokee team that went 11-1, won the South Jersey Group 4 title, and was No. 1 in The Inquirer's final Top 10.
Mehigan said Rodgers was poised for a big senior season.
"He's a stud," Mehigan said. "He's got great hands. He gets his hands on it, he catches it."
Martin was coming back for another season as the starting quarterback for Cherokee. Two-way star Mike Zeuli was coming back. Tight end Connor Stahl was coming back, as were several other key players.
"That's all we talked about, what we were going to do as seniors," Rodgers said. "We couldn't wait to play together for our last year. But then things started to get messed up."
Stahl injured his knee this summer and was lost for the season. Rodgers suffered a bone bruise that forced him to sit out the Sept. 10 opener against Lenape - and then things took a bizarre turn for the worse.
Rodgers was standing on the sideline in that first game when a teammate who was running off the field accidentally collided with him. Rodgers broke his right fibula.
"I was in the emergency room and they were wheeling me out of the X-ray room and the [X-ray technician] said, 'I don't think you'll be playing football this season,' " Rodgers recalled. "That was when I broke down."
It wasn't that bad. Because the fibula is a non-weight-bearing bone, Rodgers is expected to recover in time to play this season.
He will sit out again Friday night, when 2-0 Cherokee, the No. 1 team in The Inquirer Top 10, hosts Washington Township in a West Jersey Football League American Division clash. He'll probably miss next week's game against Williamstown, too.
But he plans to play Oct. 15 against Cherry Hill West. Or maybe Oct. 22 against Shawnee.
"I'll definitely be back," said the 6-2, 180-pound Rodgers, who has drawn recruiting interest from colleges such as Bucknell, Monmouth, and Stony Brook.
That's great news to Martin.
"I'll be extremely excited to have him back," Martin said. "Me and Drake, we just have this connection."
Rodgers' teammates will be waiting when he finally returns to the field.
Of course, they've been there all along.