What is your purpose?
It was July of 1998, as a child, that NASCAR driver Will Rodgers began the fateful path to his purpose.
At that time, rural Easton, Maryland, was home to the Rodgers family. Will had just become a big brother with the birth of a sister. The family had recently moved to the area from Maui, Hawaii, a year prior, due to a new job opportunity for his dad, Bill. With a new area to explore, and a new member of the family, the jubilation seemed high for the Rodgers family. However, that excitement was brought into check when Will began to suffer ongoing symptoms from otherwise common childhood ailments.
The energetic 3-year-old was not as active as usual, and his typical eating habits began to deteriorate.
“Will was not having fun and jumping around like a toddler should,” his mother Shari said. “That was very unusual. We knew there was something terribly wrong.”
As fate would have it, Dr. Ali Mehrizi, a well-respected pediatrician in Easton, who co-authored two books including Congenital Heart Disease and Major Problems In Clinical Pediatrics, was the Rodgers family pediatrician.
On a physical exam Dr. Mehrizi felt something concerning.
“He turned white as a ghost, and said, ‘I can feel Will’s liver,’ ” Shari said. There was no known liver disease on either side of the family.
Dr. Mehrizi rushed Will to The Johns Hopkins Hospital to see Dr. Kathleen Schwarz, head of Pediatric Hepatology.
The coming weeks and months would be turbulent for Will and the Rodgers family, with countless blood tests and liver biopsies to determine the cause of his illness.
It was confirmed that Rodgers had Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a chronic liver disease.
Specialists from around the world were called to Johns Hopkins Hospital to assist in treatment and diagnosis.
“Will’s case was evidently very rare, and they really wanted to study it,” Bill said. “Will was a bit of a poster child at (Johns) Hopkins. One of the doctors told me that, in his estimation, Will was very lucky because many pediatricians may have not diagnosed PSC in a child. Therefore, he may not have received the necessary treatment.”
There is no present cure for PSC and the emotional distress was mounting for the family.
“We were informed in so many words that there would be no guarantee and that we had to consider preparing ourselves for the worst,” Bill said. “That is incredibly difficult with a toddler and a newborn in the house. It was immensely difficult.”
Treatment continued for two years that seemed endless to his parents. It was early 2000 when both Shari and Bill could begin to breathe easier with a remarkable turn of events.
Following two years of treating symptoms, Dr. Schwarz examined the 5-year-old Rodgers. To the delight of the specialist and his parents, his symptoms abated and prayers had been answered.
The milestone was a celebration for his parents and his team of doctors. Schwarz told Rodgers that she hoped to never see him again in her professional career, signaling an end to his care. Rodgers burst into tears, not registering that it was not an insult but a celebration.
Some years later, work brought the family back to Maui where the racing journey for their son began to take shape.
After being introduced to go-karting at the age of 8, he won the Hawaii state championship in karting, within 18 months.
Family work opportunities, and some racing opportunities for Rodgers, brought the family of five to California. Will practically raced anything that had a motor, from motorcycles to off-road vehicles. He became a regional champion in motocross racing, a stadium series champion in off-road UTVS and a 2015 West Coast NASA champion in sports car racing. In 2016, Rodgers became the winningest driver in the Pirelli World Challenge Pro B Spec class.
Rodgers’ achievements and experience paved the way to NASCAR. He would go on to become a winner in both the ARCA Menards Series East (2017-2018) and the ARCA Menards Series West (2018).
In 2018, Rodgers personally garnered sponsorship to race in the ARCA Menards Series and was named to the (2018-2019) NASCAR Next Class. In 2019, Rodgers secured sponsorship and made his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut, becoming NASCAR’s only active driver from Hawaii.
Alongside racing, Rodgers has been on a mission to raise awareness for liver disease and cancer. He has adopted a ‘liver healthy lifestyle,’ with high-quality food, a rigorous fitness routine and limited drinking of alcoholic beverages.
The Maui-born driver found racing as a passion, but his purpose in life was about to be realized when a trip to the West Coast revealed a new path.
Rodgers was given an opportunity to race with Levine Racing in the ARCA Menards Series West race at Sonoma Raceway. After flying to Tucson, Arizona, to meet with the team, a decal on the car caught the eye of a crew member.
“He turns to me, and he says, ‘Will, what’s this deal with the American Liver Foundation on the car this weekend,’ ” Rodgers explained. “So, I gave him a full rundown of who I am, where I came from, and what I’ve been trying to do.”
After Rodgers shared his story, the crew member revealed to someone who he just met that he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. The conversation sparked a unique bonding moment as the crew member previously failed to disclose the diagnosis to anyone because of the stigmas attributed to the disease.
Just before entering the fabrication shop, the crew member told Rodgers, “Will, this probably won’t impact you the way it has impacted me, but I need you to know that you’ve changed my life forever.”
A surprised Rodgers didn’t fathom what those brief moments together meant to the crew member, but it wasn’t until Saturday, during qualifying at Sonoma, where the true power of Rodgers’ story would be showcased. The crew member told Rodgers before his race that he finally had the confidence to tell his friends and family about his diagnosis and received nothing but support from them. The development also led to the crew member beginning proper treatment for Hepatitis C. Twelve weeks later, the crew member was officially deemed free of the disease.
“It was pretty incredible because we barely even tried,” Rodgers said. “We pretty much just put logos on the car and went racing, and we changed somebody’s life because of it.”
The experience motivated Rodgers to take his purpose to the next level. After looking into other liver health organizations, he realized that a gap needed to be filled. Will established the Will Rodgers Liver Health Foundation in 2020 to help realize his goals and visions. Rodgers formed the not-for-profit organization and worked tirelessly to move it and his racing career forward.
“They’re very much focused on the research and patient side — getting the patients all the information they needed during the therapy process,” Rodgers said. “We are really focused on the awareness and education portion, making sure the message can be voiced to millions of people.”
The foundation is now initiating “connect-to-care tactics,” with interactive fan experiences at select race events and in-community events to encourage others to take their liver health seriously. In the near future, fans will be given the opportunity to get a Hepatitis C finger prick test and see the results in minutes.
The foundation’s effort, driven by Rodgers, is culminating into his overall vision — a brand new philanthropic campaign to raise awareness for HCV — RaceToEndHepC.com.
It is those stories, similar to the crew member, that drove Rodgers to begin building a new initiative.
“A major element of the Race to End Hep C initiative is the at-track and in-community activation space,” Rodgers said. “It’s important to reach the communities affected by Hep C, in-person, to communicate the importance of education, testing and treatment. Together, with our supporting partners, we’ll be providing a step-by-step process for any individuals wanting to learn more about Hep C and how we’re racing to end it.”
The new project is backed by some major names in the medical field including GoodRx, OraSure Technologies, and others to be announced.
Through his personal experiences, Rodgers is a professional athlete who brings a unique voice and leverageable platform to the liver health community. With the help of the national NASCAR platform and partnerships with sponsors dedicated to the cause, Rodgers and his Will Rodgers Liver Health Foundation are determined to bring awareness, treatment and medical advancements to beat liver diseases.
To join Rodgers in the race both on and off the track, visit us at RaceToEndHepC.com.