Jack Rogers is fast.

Like 21-seconds-from-a-four-minute-mile fast. Like state-finalist-in-the-1600-meter fast. Like on-the-No. 2-track-team-in-the-country fast.

Put him on any course and the Gators cross country and track runner is instantly a top contender. In fact, he’ll suit up with the UF men’s cross country team in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Friday to run in the NCAA South Regional Championship.

But the redshirt sophomore has a secret. A cuddly, caring secret.

When he isn’t placing in state championships and shattering personal records, Jack soothes his competitive edge by bonding with all types of animals. Whether he’s saving stray boxers, filming hippos at the zoo or thrusting his arm inside a cow, Jack has always turned to his furry friends to keep him grounded.

“He just has a very calming nature around animals,” his mother, Ann said. “They all love to just kind of sit on his lap or on top of his feet.”

Growing up in the Rogers household, you could count on more than one curious cat circling your feet. The companionship of animals is a tradition long lasting for the Rogers. Jack’s grandfather kept dogs that Jack and his siblings would play with when they went over. Animals continued to be a part of Jack’s father, John’s, life when he became a parent, raising cats as part of the family.

“(Jack is) just very comfortable with them, and cats and dogs seem very comfortable with him,” John said.

That connection became obvious to his father in an incident with two stray boxers when Jack was 8 or 9. One day while living near Tampa, Jack called his father outside, where two frightening and full-grown boxers sat outside the front door.

“My first inclination was to get Jack the hell out of there,” John said. “I didn’t know these dogs, (or) what they’re trained for.”

“You always hear stuff about pit bulls and it terrified me.”

John pulled his snooping son away from the large dogs, one of which was bleeding. But Jack wasn't keen on leaving so soon. Jack insisted the dogs were safe and said he had already been outside playing with the boxers and recording them on a small video camera. After realizing Jack was unharmed, John saw the innocence in the situation.

“He was trying to help one of them, one of them had a cut on his paw, and they were just wagging their butts and they’re trying to lick him on the face,” John said. “He was little at this time and it was just the cutest thing.”

It ended with Jack returning the displaced pair of pooches to their owner, but the story still amazes his father. Animals were just as important to Jack as placing in the next race. They were just another unique aspect of “Jacky boy.”

Jack’s fascination with animals is more than just a hobby to his mother, Ann. She said Jack filmed one of the family’s favorite home movies one day at the zoo as they passed by the hippos.

“He caught it right when it was pooping,” Ann said. “It started splashing its tail and splashing the poop all over. That was like the kids’ favorite video to watch over and over again.”

As Jack grew up, his connection to animals didn’t fade. Even at UF, Jack pursues a biochemistry major, and was recently introduced to the idea of veterinary school. The idea sprung to life last summer in an animal sciences class.

“My advisor tried to switch me to an Animal Science major without asking me,” Jack said. “So he put me in that class, (and) it ended up just being how-to-raise-cows-before-you-slaughter-them type of class.”

Jack ended up learning how to grade the meat quality of dairy cows. He even took part in some experiences he didn’t expect to learn from, like when he was told to reach his arm inside of one.

“Like, not through its anus,” Jack said. “Through a hole in its side.”

The students were then instructed to scrape the shredded grass that lined the inside of the cow’s stomach.

“It was really gross,” Jack said. “It smelled terrible.”

Veterinary school is something he has kept on the back burner as he continues his undergraduate studies. Jack pursues a biochemistry major because of the variety it has to offer.

“That's why I picked it, because it's really broad,” he said. “I still haven't made up my mind, but I thought vet school might be kind of cool.”

Recently, Jack, the ultra competitive athlete, has taken on a new activity: bird watching.

“It's really kind of funny, this old lady hobby,” Ann said. “He’s really into it.”

It began a couple of months ago, when Jack noticed different species of birds from his back porch. He sent pictures to his mother with the proper identification of species, prompting her to buy him a bird feeder.

“The bird thing is interesting,” Ann said, whose son isn’t the first family member to take an interest in birds.

Ann’s parents introduced her to bird watching. She cited Jack’s grandmother as a major influence in this newfound hobby, and can remember the first time Jack showed an interest in birds. After Jack’s grandmother passed away, he and his siblings took small trinkets from her house to remember her by. One item stuck out to her: Jack’s chosen object, a miniature cardinal.

The hobby is still new to Jack and began only a couple of months ago at the start of the fall semester.

“(I sit) on my back patio with some coffee and look at cardinals and grey catbirds,” Jack said. ”I have a little pair of binoculars and a little bird book.”

Though his bird watching is still in it's early stages, Jack has thought about taking his “old lady hobby” across state lines.

“I could see it developing into driving down to Sweetwater and looking at some birds over there,” he said. “I go to places like California, North Carolina a couple of times, but that was before I was into bird watching. But now I’ll probably be bringing my bird book and binoculars.”

On Friday, it’s Jack’s turn to fly. Heading into his first NCAA South Regional Championship, the runner who has always identified with animals is taking his coach’s fitting advice:

“Coach (Chris) Solinsky likes to say,” Jack said, “be predators.”

You can follow Alana Gomez on Twitter @alanaa_gomez, and contact her at agomez@alligator.org.

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