Back in Lawndale, Calif., Mark Rodgers' home far away from his current home on West Virginia's Evansdale campus, is a sand dune. Stand at the base and stare up at the peak and you not only see a lot of sand between you and the finish, but your life passing before your eyes.

"It's ridiculous," Rodgers said.

It became his worst enemy, but also his best friend.

Rodgers was headed to Division I-AA Portland State last summer to play football when a family problem popped up. It was his decision to stay home and help his mother and all he cares to add to the situation is that "I had to be there to help my mom out and take care of the household."

Rodgers understood he probably wasn't going to get another shot at Portland State, understood it was up to him to convince coaches he deserved a shot.

The secret was the sand dune.

It was a cruel and curious foe he'd met years before through Derrick Knight, who was a track star at UCLA before becoming an assistant track and football coach at Rodgers' Leuzinger High.

Rodgers made his first trip up the dune in ninth grade and he noticed he was a faster and stronger runner almost right away.

"As you're stepping, you're sliding back down, so it's really tiring," he said. "I mean, it's no joke."

Ask Tony Gonzalez, the All-Pro tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs. He uses the very same dune in his conditioning.

By the end of his high school days, Rodgers was recognized as one of the fastest kids in the state and also one of the best running backs. In his final two years, he ran for 4,819 yards and 50 touchdowns in California's second-highest level. He was the Los Angeles County player of the year as a senior, but had very little interest from major colleges.

"I guess it was because I'm a little running back and schools didn't want a little running back," said the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Rodgers. "I was a sleeper. They were sleeping on me, but that was fine with me."

Rodgers instead accepted a full scholarship offer from Portland State, which isn't all too common at that level, where schools use 63 scholarships and frequently break them up. Division I-A schools get 85 full scholarships.

During Rodgers' year at home, there was a coaching change at Portland State and Rodgers was released from his letter-of-intent in the spring. He was back on the recruiting radar, but not getting much more interest than before. He kept running up that dune, hoping something would happen.

If not, he'd accept Washington State's offer and player where his brother did as a defensive end.

"I noticed progress," Rodgers said. "I felt like I was faster and running better."

WVU took notice, too. The coaching staff was letting everyone know they needed running backs and Rodgers' high school quickly put a highlight tape in the mail. Rodgers was immediately intrigued.

"Noel Devine pretty much showed (last season at WVU) that little guys can do it," Rodgers said. "I was going to have to try to do that wherever I committed, but he was already doing it."

WVU's director of recruiting, Doc Holliday, got involved, offered a scholarship and asked Rodgers to travel across the country to visit. Almost 2,500 miles from home, he felt at ease.

"It was fun," he said. "It's no different than home as far as the people and how they treat you."

There was one other similarity -- the WVU Law School hill. When offseason conditioning comes around every summer and the players are pushed to reach the top again and again, they grow to hate it like they hate to lose. Rodgers was instead excited to give it a shot.

"The sand dune was harder," he said.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Rodgers is suddenly the top tailback behind Devine. Rodgers played slot receiver early in preseason camp, but was moved back to the backfield during the final week and took control of the backup responsibility.

"I wanted to play running back, but I liked slot," he said. "Both of them are good for me. I'm a big fan of Reggie Bush and I saw him play slot and running back all the time at USC. I think it's made me a better player."

That would be ideal for WVU, which not only needs someone to spell Devine from time to time, but welcomes game-breaking ability. Rodgers has that if he has the ball in his hands. All those trips up the sand dune developed speed. He ran the 100-meter dash in 10.5 seconds in high school and was timed at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash this summer.

The measure he prefers says a lot about his potential.

"The 100," he said, "because the football field is 100 yards long."

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