Mississippi military family reunited at football ‘Wish’ weekend
Published 11:38 pm Monday, November 6, 2023
Four young boys ran into their father’s arms Saturday (Nov. 4) in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, kneeling and crying as they met him on the field.
For a moment, it didn’t matter that 65,680 people were focused on the reunion in the roaring stadium. It didn’t matter that the four boys had just led the Walk of Champions or sounded the Magnolia Battalion Cannon.
The only thing that mattered was – for the first time in 10 months – their father was home.
Kyle and Elizabeth Rodgers and their sons – Ryan, 10; Will, 8; Josh, 6; and Adam, 4 – were the university’s most recent recipients of Ole Miss Wish, a philanthropic effort of the University of Mississippi Office of Veteran and Military Services that seeks to give military families unforgettable experiences.
“I’ve been wanting to hold the boys for a while now,” said Kyle Rodgers, chief warrant officer III in the Army National Guard. “It amazes me to this day how blessed I am by Jesus Christ, by these people who came together to put this event on.”
At a soccer game over the summer, Elizabeth Rodgers, of Batesville, met Andrew Newby, assistant director of veteran and military services, and the two began talking.
“She said, ‘I’m a single parent right now because my husband is currently deployed in Egypt,’” Newby said, recounting the day he met the family. “I asked her, ‘When is he supposed to get home?’ and she said, ‘Sometime in November.’ That got my wheels turning.”
Over the next months, Newby worked with Josh Edwards, assistant professor of military science; Matt Smith, assistant athletics director for marketing and fan experience; Kirk Purdom, executive director of alumni affairs; and a dozen others to make Kyle Rodgers’ homecoming a once-in-a-lifetime event.
“He’s a humble guy, and at first he thought it was too much,” Newby said. “I told him, ‘You’re not doing this for yourselves; you’re doing this for your kids.’
“And he said, ‘I’ll do it.’”
Newby and Edwards worked with Rodgers’ command staff to ensure that he could come home in time for the game, but it almost didn’t happen. As the conflict between Israel and Palestine in the Gaza region became violent, Newby said he thought they would have to cancel the homecoming entirely.
Rodgers was stationed in Egypt just 10 miles from the Gaza border, and said that the day of his departure was pushed back twice before Newby and Edwards stepped in.
“For a second, we were going to cancel it all because we didn’t believe that he could make it, but we didn’t give up,” Edwards said. “We kept calling and asking and calling. We called in a few favors.
“We got told ‘no’ a couple of times, but we got our yesses eventually.”
While coordinating for Rodgers to come home – which was kept a secret from everyone except Elizabeth – Newby also arranged for the brothers to get their Ole Miss Wish.
“Along the way, I asked the family, ‘What do your boys love to do?’” Newby said.
The boys are avid sports players, Ole Miss fans and particularly big readers, he said. They have each been members of singer, songwriter and philanthropist Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a free book gifting program that delivers books to young children from birth until they are 5 years old, since they were born. Between the four boys, the family has been a member of the library for 10 years.
“So, I wrote a request to Dolly,” Newby said. “And she agreed.”
With that, the stage was set for an unforgettable weekend.
“This was magic,” Newby said. “We did everything that we could with God and an act of Congress to make this happen.”
Elizabeth and Kyle Rodgers first met as undergraduates at Delta State University in 2006, where Kyle said he knew within a year of dating that he would ask her to marry him. He proposed just before leaving for military training on a private picnic in his hometown of Rockwall, Texas.
The couple married while Rodgers was in flight school in 2011 at Fort Novosel, formerly known as Fort Rucker, in Enterprise, Alabama, and had their first son, Ryan, in 2013. The family moved to several duty stations over the next years and, in 2019, Kyle Rodgers left the Army active duty and joined the Army National Guard in Jackson, where he flies EMS helicopters and trains pilots.
“I always felt the call to join the military,” he said. “And I really love flying. To take that passion and give it back to the community is one of the most rewarding things.”
Though Kyle grew up in Texas, his family was originally from Mississippi, as was Elizabeth’s. The two decided to make their home in Oxford, where they could be close to family and friends. At home, Elizabeth said the boys stick to their father’s sides, always wanting to do what he is doing.
“Me and the boys like to play sports outside, like to go fishing,” Kyle Rodgers said. “I bring them along for any home projects. They’re my little helpers. They just like to be where Dad is.”
Kyle Rodgers learned in the summer of 2022 that he’d be going to Egypt for an extended time and said he took time to explain what deployment means.
“My oldest one, Ryan, he understood,” Rodgers said. “Some of the younger boys, I don’t think they really understood, but it set in midway through. I sat them down and told them they had to help Mom out while Dad was gone, and I think they’ve done a great job.”
Over the next 10 months, while Kyle was flying UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters near the Gaza border, Elizabeth home-schooled their sons and took the boys to every soccer practice, every doctor’s appointment, every church service.
“She’s the real champion of this journey we’ve had,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think people realize on a detail level what that entails; she carried everything. It amazes me every day.”
This reality – military families being separated for months at a time – is often forgotten, Edwards said.
“You forget that people are gone for so long away from their families,” he said. “It’s a hard thing – it’s probably the hardest thing. And families are going through that every day.”
Kid Presidents go to DollyWood
Elizabeth and her children arrived on campus early Friday (Nov. 3) to meet with members of the university leadership. As a part of their Ole Miss Wish, each of the boys signed a proclamation declaring them kid presidents for the weekend.
“We are so proud of our military at this university,” Chancellor Glenn Boyce said at the signing ceremony. “We absolutely want to do whatever we can whenever we can to support those who serve.
“And boys, if you want to extend it longer than a weekend, you just let me know.”
After being named to the first four-way presidency in Ole Miss history, the brothers took a tour of the Oxford campus and athletics buildings and met many members of the Ole Miss football team and athletics staff.
As the day came to a close, 6-year-old Josh had only one question: “Can we shoot the cannon now?”
On Saturday morning, Elizabeth and her sons led the football team down Walk of Champions, high-fiving the thousands of fans crowded around the brick walkway. Will fired the Ole Miss Army ROTC Magnolia Battalion Cannon, and the family sat back to watch the game.
Between the first and second quarter, Newby lead the family out onto the 25-yard line, while Ole Miss Rebel and Texas A&M fans fell quiet.
“Please welcome to the field the Rodgers family, who are the recipients of Ole Miss wish,” announcer Glen Waddle said. “Their dada, Kyle Rodgers, is serving a 10-month deployment in Egypt.”
Dolly Parton appeared on the big screen, welcoming the family to an all-expenses-paid vacation at DollyWorld, which the Office of Veterans and Military Services sponsored.
“Now boys, pay close attention: there’s another special guest I want you to say hello to right now,” Parton said. “And remember, I will always love you.”
Newby, hands on Ryan’s shoulders, turned the boys around, where they saw their father for the first time in nearly a year. They met with a clash of tears as Kyle knelt on the turf and circled the boys in his arms.
Following moments after the brothers were Elizabeth and Kyle’s parents, Ted and Linda Rodgers and Tim and Mary Cain, who only recently had learned Kyle was coming home. For a long moment the family knelt and held one another.
Rodgers sported his combat uniform and a trim mustache that he’d grown out as a bet for his eldest son, Ryan, while he was deployed. Throughout deployment, Rodgers promised Ryan he would not shave it, despite Elizabeth’s protests.
“Oh, she hates it,” Rodgers said, smiling widely. “But Ryan, he kept saying, ‘You’ve got to keep it, and you’ve got to kiss Mama on the mouth with it when you get home.”
And, in front of a crowd of Ole Miss Rebels welcoming him home, that’s exactly what he did.