A turf dispute, Rogers' mother called it, and when your family member is involved — her brother Lonnie was a member of a rival gang called the Bloods — you become a target too.

That was an early lesson for Rogers, 22, who managed to avoid the gang life and is now trying to beat the odds again by sticking with the Dallas Cowboys as a free-agent wide receiver from Division III Cal Lutheran University.

"She'd give the last clothes off her back for anyone in our family," Rogers said of his mother, Connie Baron. "Just seeing her struggle, continue to drive, push forward and say, 'Everything is going to be all right,' just motivated me to do better and hopefully one day take care of her."

Staying out of trouble was more complicated than simply avoiding the wrong crowd at school or in the neighborhood. Rogers said the house where he and his mother lived often served as a Bloods hangout. Three of his uncles were members, and his father was in a gang too before landing in prison on drug charges.

Football was Rogers' way out, and at 6 feet 3 and 210 pounds with a long, turf-eating stride, it is easy to imagine him dominating the competition at a small college. But it was his humility and character as much as his length and athleticism that attracted Cowboys scout Jim Abrams.

Every Sunday for his last three seasons at Cal Lutheran, Rogers came back to the locker room to scrub, wash, dry and hang every jersey as part of a work-study job. He'd throw four or five loads of grass-stained mesh into the washing machines, go work a shift at the school cafeteria and return four or five hours later to dry the jerseys.

The first time Abrams met Rogers, it was in that laundry room.

"I thought that was refreshing," Abrams said. "Most guys that you come in contact with, if you asked them to do that they'd be like, 'No way.' "

Rogers wasn't like that. He learned from the missteps of his father and uncles, and he listened to his teachers, coaches and mentors — his "angels," Baron called them.

Rogers sought to be a straight-A student, often challenging his older sister Donisha Rogers to see who could get better grades or finish their homework first, Baron recalled.

"He had a million reasons stacked against him to not do his best," said Roger Armijo, a special-teams coach at Charter Oak High.

Instead, a four-inch growth spurt and large confidence boost helped transform him from a physically awkward secondary target to an immediate impact playmaker at Cal Lutheran.

"The guy that we met was pretty shy," Cal Lutheran head Coach Ben McEnroe said. "As we progressed through training camp his freshman year, we saw his physical abilities and what he could do."

Rogers gradually rewrote the program's record book, even as opposing teams dedicated as many as three players to stopping him during his junior and senior seasons.

By the time his college career ended, he became Cal Lutheran's all-time leader in scoring and receiving. As a senior, he caught a school-record 91 passes for 1,298 yards, and a school-record 18 touchdown passes. He finished second in Division III touchdowns, and third in receiving yards and catches. He also ran for three touchdowns and threw for another.

Rogers was option 1 and 1A on every passing play each of the last two years. "It didn't even have to be the best option," McEnroe said, "as long as it was a decent option."

Abrams advised Rogers last year that if he wanted to take the next step to the NFL, he had to get stronger and meaner.

So, the summer before his senior year, Rogers stayed on campus to train. And, instead of doing the minimum in the weight room, he started doing the maximum. The first time Abrams watched him as a senior, Rogers leveled a cornerback on a crack-back block.

"That showed me that he had a nasty streak to him," Abrams said. "He needed that."

Rogers didn't slow down this summer, hitting the boxing bags with Green Bay's Clay Matthews and going head to head with San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick in agility drills while training in Thousand Oaks.

He clocked a 4.48 40-yard time at his pro day as interest ramped up from multiple NFL teams.

Matthews lobbied for the Packers to sign him, but Rogers chose the Cowboys, who hold part of their training camp in Oxnard. "I had to find the best situation and I thought Dallas was my best chance to stick around with a team," he said.

Rogers impressed Cowboys coaches at rookie mini-camp in May. He shined in red-zone drills, outplaying cornerback B.W. Webb, a fourth-round pick, and made an early case for a spot on the practice squad.

On the first day of training camp Sunday in Oxnard, Rogers reached back to snare an errant pass on a crossing route late in the Cowboys' first training camp practice. The fans erupted along the sideline.

"They kind of went 'ohhhh,' " Rogers said, a smile creeping across his face.

Dez Bryant has been similarly impressed.

"He's nice," said the starting receiver, his voice perking up along with his eyebrows. "I'm not just saying that because he's one of our receivers either. He's great. He's tall and fast, he's got hands. He's got it all."

Rogers knows he's still a longshot to make the active roster, but overcoming odds is nothing new for him.

He avoided gang life to become the first in his family to graduate from college. His degree from Cal Lutheran?

It's in criminal justice.

--- Published in the Los Angeles Times on July 25, 2013