- - Thursday, December 8, 2011

Life at the U.S. Military Academy couldn’t have been much better for linebacker Andrew Rodriguez as a sophomore in 2009.

He was a starter in all 12 games and led Army with 85 tackles. He excelled in the classroom, en route to a 4.14 grade-point average. His father and a sister, both West Point graduates, stayed safe through deployments and the possibility of deployments.

The Black Knights struggled on the field that year, coach Rich Ellerson’s first, going 5-7 and more importantly losing their eighth consecutive game against Navy. But Rodriguez, an Arlington native and Bishop Ireton High School graduate, was one of the team’s bright spots. Heading into his junior year, his prospects and the team outlook were promising.

Then a routine weightlifting session led to a back injury, wiping out his 2010 season and jeopardizing his 2011 season.

Worse than perhaps never playing again, graduating from West Point came into serious doubt.

“At that point, he and his family and everyone just wanted to make sure he was going to be healthy at some point in time,” Ellerson said last week at a news conference for Saturday’s game against service academy archrival Navy at FedEx Field. “Whether or not that meant playing football again, frankly, I didn’t think so.”

More football was out of the question if you asked Gloria Rodriguez. She was concerned solely with the rest of her son’s life.

“He could still be a good student and do other things,” she said in a phone interview. “I talked to him a few times about it and said think about other options. I wanted him to have a Plan B if Plan A didn’t go through.”

That wasn’t necessary.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Rodriguez returned to the football field this year after missing all of last season.

He has been a starter in every game except the first one. He ranks third on the team with 55 tackles. He hit the books well enough to win the William V. Campbell Trophy, awarded annually by the National Football Foundation to the nation’s top football scholar-athlete.

Rodriguez is the first Army player to win the honor and the first service academy player to win it since Air Force’s Chris Howard won the inaugural trophy in 1990.

Not bad for a 21-year-old who nearly lost two loves of his life - football and the military academy.

“I was pretty down about missing my junior season,” Rodriguez said. “And the chance of never doing it again made me pretty upset. I felt like I’d do the best I can, and if I couldn’t play again, then it wasn’t meant to be.

“I thought a lot about it - especially the risk of hurting my chance of joining the military and doing my job out there. It was a big decision. But I’m pretty much at peace with what I decided.”

Gen. David M. Rodriguez was at peace, too, at least to the extent possible in Afghanistan, where he served as commander of International Security Assistance Force Joint Command when word of Andrew’s injury arrived.

Gen. Rodriguez played defensive end before graduating from West Point in 1976. He didn’t steer Andrew or his sister Amy to the academy, leaving the decision up to them. “I only answered questions,” he said. But there were few answers to the myriad questions about Andrew after a diagnosis of two herniated discs and a case of congenital spinal stenosis.

“I got notes and emails from doctors, my wife and Andrew,” Gen. Rodriguez said. “We talked. I was about as informed as I could be from a deployed situation.” He and his wife shared the same concerns, though not the same best-case scenario.

Hers didn’t include football, while his did.

“I wanted him to be able to do everything, like any parent would,” Gen. Rodriguez said. “I wanted him to get well enough to be commissioned first, which was his goal. I was hoping and praying he kept working and worked through it, because the body is a pretty amazing piece of equipment with the mind, and it does some crazy things.”

Rodriguez was injured in May 2010, but he didn’t know it was serious, certainly not grave enough to threaten the upcoming season. But after various treatments failed, he underwent a surgical procedure that September and returned to West Point.

He maintained a constant presence around the football team even though he couldn’t suit up. He went to practices and shared his knowledge with fellow linebackers. He helped bridge the inevitable communication gaps that surface between players and coaches.

“He was always trying to find a way to contribute,” Ellerson said. “He was with us more than in spirit. He was there. He was an asset during that time, but it was also an opportunity for him to step away and realize how much it meant to him.”

Rodriguez slowly was coming to grips with missing the season, though he didn’t anticipate problems handling the physical demands of life as a cadet. However, the first surgery didn’t alleviate the problem, so he underwent another procedure in December. That time he had to go home to convalesce, taking a medical leave of absence from the academy.

“He was basically lying on the floor every day,” Mrs. Rodriguez said. “He did schoolwork and took tests online. He did physical therapy. There were times when he was discouraged and times when I was discouraged. I was more concerned that he was going to be disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to go back to school.”

Rodriguez returned to West Point and joined the team in the summer with training camp in progress. He was cleared to resume limited activities, but his ability to play remained uncertain for weeks.

“We really took baby steps,” said Ellerson, who issued Andrew a blue, “no-contact” jersey for practices. “We did not jump in with both feet. We’d do a little bit, back off and assess. Do a little more, then assess where we were. I’m thrilled that he’s been able to contribute.”

Army senior linebacker Steve Erzinger said the team was happy that Rodriguez was back, but wanted to make sure he was OK and not putting his future at risk.

“It’s one thing to come back and play your senior season,” Erzinger said. “It’s another to be able to pick your kids up and play with them when you’re 40. That was the big thing I stressed to him.”

Rodriguez was cleared for full contact in August, not long before the season-opening game at Northern Illinois. The hardest adjustment was getting back into football shape, recovering his speed and his ability to see the field and apply his technique. It took a few games before he felt all the way back.

“It’s been a long process,” he said. “When you’re out so long, you lose a lot of skills that you just can’t practice with an injury like that.”

One thing he didn’t lose was the respect of his teammates. He was voted a team captain during training camp, despite not having played since his sophomore year.
“That surprised me a little bit because I wasn’t a captain before,” he said. “I took it as an honor that my teammates bestowed on me and tried to do the best I could. I think they saw just how much playing football for Army meant to me.”

Army senior quarterback Max Jenkins said he is not sure whether anyone else could have endured the same ordeal and come out as well as Rodriguez. His strength and commitment, not to mention his persistence and perseverance, have inspired the entire team. Electing him captain was only natural.

“It might have been surprising to him, but not to us,” Jenkins said. “It’s a testament to his character that he missed the entire season and teammates still felt like he was a leader. We all knew coming into it that he was going to be voted one of the captains.”

That might have been the lone certainty surrounding his return to West Point and the Army football team.

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