Big Texas Toy Run has new route but familiar feel for DFW bikers

FORT WORTH -- "Big John" Rogers hasn't missed riding in the Big Texas Toy Run since it began 25 years ago.

For 20 of those years alongside Santa Claus, the Alvarado resident even led the bikers on the route.

After a June motorcycle accident that put Rogers in a six-week coma and required months of rehabilitation, he assumed that Sunday would be his first miss.

Rogers was wrong.

Though not on a motorcycle, he led about 5,000 bikers Sunday from LaGrave Field to Billy Bob's Texas.

In previous years, riders left from Fort Worth and Dallas and headed to the Arlington Convention Center, where they would hand out gifts to needy children.

Because the Dallas Cowboys played Sunday at home, the route was changed. At the same time, about 5,000 riders left Grand Prairie and rode to Gilley's in Dallas.

Jeff Martin, director of stadium operations for the Fort Worth Cats, said he was pleased when organizers asked to begin the parade at the stadium's parking lot, which resembled a sea of black leather sparkling with chrome Sunday afternoon.

Rogers was asked to lead the Fort Worth parade in his pickup, which he began driving again only five days ago. He uses a wheelchair but hopes to walk, and then ride, again soon.

"This was a total surprise for me," Rogers said after the ride. "I wasn't expecting this; I was just going to meet up with everyone later."

Gene Long, the vice chairman who has also worked the event for 25 years, rode for the first time.

Normally he is busy working behind the scenes, meeting the children who will benefit and preparing to emcee the "after" party.

Because the venue sold alcohol, Long said children didn't attend this year.

Many riders said that they liked having the party at Billy Bob's but that they missed the best part of the after party -- watching the children's eyes light up when receiving their gifts.

Rogers said that because this ride benefits some special kids, it is the best Christmas present for him.

He said the only thing he could think of while healing from the accident was, "I've got to get well. ... I want to ride again."

NBC traffic reporter Tammy Dombeck, who usually rides with Rogers on his motorcycle during the event, rode with him in his truck.

Dombeck said Rogers got very emotional when he saw the crowds along Main Street cheering everyone on and waving.

"I'm just lucky to be alive," Rogers said. "It's a good day to be here. This is what I live for."

This year was Fort Worth resident Chris Ortiz's fifth year to ride in the event. He said he was surprised by how many people were out cheering on the bikers with the Cowboys game on at the same time.

"I'm a Cowboy fan, too," Ortiz said. "But this is something for the kids, and we have fun doing it."

Ortiz, like many other riders, had his eyes glued to one of the many big screens at Billy Bob's watching the game afterward.

Each rider was asked to bring $10 and one toy. The Dallas and Fort Worth events combined brought in two 18-wheelers full of toys and $95,000.

Proceeds from the toy run benefit Mental Health Mental Retardation of Tarrant County and Metrocare Services of Dallas County.

Today, the toys will be distributed to thousands of underprivileged and challenged children. Funds are divided between the two agencies, earmarked for recreational use and educational needs.

Organizers, already planning for next year, hope to reconnect the two groups in 2011.