NORMAL — Through both tears and laughter, Army Sgt. Josh Rodgers was remembered Saturday as a young man whose life was taken too soon but also as a leader, "an unlikely hero” and a friend who others wanted to be around.

Several hundred people attended the celebration of life service at Eastview Christian Church for the Army Ranger who was killed in action in Afghanistan on April 27, along with fellow Ranger Cameron Thomas of Ohio.

“Today we honor the heroic life of Sgt. Joshua P. Rodgers — Josh to us,” said the Rev. Mike Baker, pastor of Eastview Christian Church. “He's a person who made a difference. He voluntarily went, knowing it could take his life, to save other people, to take out evil.”

His father, Kevin Rodgers, described his son as “an unlikely hero” and “a quiet kid,” yet “somehow our boy became a leader.”

He played many sports, including football and track at Normal Community High School, from which he graduated in 2013.

“He was never a great player,” his father said, drawing laughter, but through sports, “he learned important lessons of determination, humility, teamwork and accountability.”

Thanking teachers, coaches, other parents and “maybe a policeman or two who kept him on the right path,” Kevin Rodgers said of his son, “This man was just as much a product of our community as he was our child.”

A close friend and high school teammate, Brandon Reeves, said Josh Rodgers led him on many adventures and “scared the hell out of me sometimes.”

Reeves recalled Rodgers “just loved to compete” but also knew how to help friends who were stressed.

“He taught me to never give up and always push on to your goals,” said Reeves. “He taught me to care about your friends and family before yourself.”

Col. Tom Goldner, deputy commander for the 75th Ranger Regiment, related stories from those who served with Rodgers.

Goldner said soldiers described him as “one of the most selfless men that you could ever meet … a guy you would always talk to and he would listen … but he would probably make fun of you.”

Rodgers was respected among his peers, he said.

“While we want war to end, we know evil continues to exist. And as long as evil exists, we will need courageous people like Joshua Patrick Rodgers,” said Goldner.

The Rev. Paul Thomasson of Gibson City Bible Church, where Josh Rodgers' grandfather is an elder, said, “Our hearts are broken. … Josh was so young, so vibrant, so strong. Death came too early for him.”

Kevin Rodgers spoke of his faith and his family's faith and how that has brought them comfort. He recalled how, before his son left, he told his grandmother, “If I don't come home, I'll be with Jesus.”

Before the service, more than 700 people signed a register as a steady stream of mourners filed through the church from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Later, at least 1,000 people lined the route to Evergreen Cemetery. About 200 were at Central Illinois Regional Airport when Rodgers' remains were returned Friday.

John Kibler of Kibler-Brady-Ruestman Memorial Home, which oversaw the services, said he saw a similar reaction when a local soldier died 50 years ago in Vietnam, “but not like the outpouring of patriotism that Sgt. Rodgers has brought to our community.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner met privately with the family before the public visitation began.

“The people of Illinois owe an incredible debt of gratitude,” Rauner said as he was leaving. “We need to come together to do everything we can to support our veterans and their families.”

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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Reporter

Reporter for The Pantagraph.