NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The fiancé of James “J.R.” Rogers said they had just bought a puppy and were talking about starting a wedding planning business before he was hit and killed on Christmas Eve.
Rachael Cunningham is still in shock after Rogers passed away Wednesday night at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She and others expected the 30-year-old father to recover, though they knew it would be a lengthy process.
The TDOT help truck driver was hit on Interstate 40 West near the Hermitage exit on Christmas Eve while helping a family change a flat tire.
“When he got to Vanderbilt that night, he was awake,” Cunningham told News 2. “Then yesterday morning, the doctor told us his condition was changing. Even the doctor told us he didn’t expect for it to change so quickly.”
Cunningham and Rogers were together for three years. They considered each other engaged, but he had not yet officially proposed.
“Last night some people came over and they told me about his plan for the proposal,” Cunningham said. “We bought a house together in August because we wanted to have a home for us before we got married.”
Rogers was the father of a 5-year-old son and a beloved member of the Cheatham County Community and coached football part time at Cheatham Central High School.
“I used to laugh because I could not go anywhere with him without someone stopping him to talk,” Cunningham said. “We have so much support coming in from family, friends, and others; it’s amazing.”
Metro police arrested Dennis Castellanos-Moreno for driving without a license and failure to provide proof of insurance. He is currently out on $5,000 bond.
But in light of Rogers’ death, charges against him could be upgraded by the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office.
TDOT mourns for Rogers
At the TDOT Region 3 headquarters off Centennial Avenue, the flags are flying at half-staff on Thursday.
Workers are feeling a mix of emotions after the passing of Rogers.
“It is a very sad day for this program,” HELP Truck Supervisor Emerson Boguskie said. “It is a sad day for the Department of Transportation as a whole.”
Rogers joined the department in April. Boguskie can still remember his interview.
“The moment he walked in the door to seek employment here those of us who do the interviewing knew he struck us as the type of young man we want in our program,” he said.
“He was doing his job and protecting the motorist,” Louis Friedmann with TDOT said. “The person he was helping was outside the car. JR said you need to get back in the car where it is safe then JR got hit. That is a hero.”
He continued, ”He was always happy and he told me one time that he got paid to put a smile on people’s faces every day.”
TDOT told News 2 that every day there are near misses because people do not obey the Move Over law.
The law requires drivers to move into an adjacent lane when an emergency vehicle or TDOT help truck is on the side of the road. If you are unable to change lanes, you are supposed to slow down.
If you violate the law you can be fined up to $500 and sentenced up to 30 days in jail.
Between 2005 and 2014, the Tennessee Highway Patrol issued 12,813 citations. More recent numbers were not immediately available from THP.
“You talk about what kind of character these guys have,” Friedmann said. “They come in every day and go out into dangerous conditions to help people.”
He continued, “It is serious out there, it is dangerous out there.”
Rogers is the third TDOT worker killed in 2016. In April, David Younger was killed when a semi-truck failed to move over and hit the work crew he was with on I-40 in Hickman County.
In July, James “Pee Wee” Hopkins was killed in Crockett County when someone hit him. Hopkins was working to flag traffic while a construction crew was working.
Close friend mourns loss of “positive, happy, kind” man
News 2 spoke with a close friend of Rogers on Thursday. Rachel Parker spoke highly of his character, saying he’s someone who will truly be missed by many.
“If you met J.R. and you knew J.R., then you loved J.R.,” said Parker. “He had a positive, happy, kind, personality, and a smile that was just infectious.
“He was always in good spirits, and he was always looking at the positive,” she added.
Parker said he considered his son Owen, who is just 5 years old, to be his greatest accomplishment.
“He held being a father in the highest regards,” she told News 2.
Parker went on to say Rogers “just wanted the best for everyone,” known for putting others above himself to help them where they needed.
“I think that one thing about J.R. that everyone should know is that he wouldn’t have wanted this to happen to anyone… He was just out doing his job,” she explained. “I think if this had happened to someone else, I think that he might have wanted to raise awareness about this type of accident.”
Rogers as coach at Cheatham Central High
Not only was Rogers a beloved football coach at Cheatham County High School, but he also played for the team and graduated in 2004.
Head coach Eric Hatley said in a statement that Rogers was a “strong supporter” of the school’s athletics, and he joined the staff “because he wanted to help change the culture of our football program.”
“He was a leader when he played for CCCHS and that carried over as a coach. He enjoyed teaching the game of football to our players, but he also taught them about life. He seized every opportunity to be better. His strength was undeniable, and his smile was contagious. He left us with a legacy of happiness, goodness and a winning attitude,” Coach Hatley continued.
Rogers also made an impact on both the players and their parents, one of whom issued a statement saying the 30-year-old died “while doing what he did best–helping others.”
“I have known J.R. since he was a child in elementary school with my daughters. I watched him grow to a big, strappy, young man who loved life and played football with a great amount of zest and determination,” said Hank Batts, former president of Cheatham County Cubs Football Association and father of one of Rogers’ players.
He continued, “His teammates loved him as he was always firing them up and cheering them on. I was thrilled when he became an assistant coach at his alma mater. He coached with the same attitude that he played with. My son played for him and told me this morning what a good coach J. R. was. He said that J. R. would rejoice in a player’s accomplishments, but would firmly reprimand and player for mistakes then slap him on the back and give him that huge smile.
Batts concluded, “He will be greatly missed by all his family, friends, and the football program at Cheatham County Central High School.”