It wasn’t that long ago, maybe 10 years ago or so, when Evan Rodriguez was just like the Lincoln School students he stood before last Tuesday.
“I grew up just like you guys,” Rodriguez told the students of Lincoln School.
Rodriguez, a North Bergen native who just finished his college football playing days at Temple University, was invited back to talk to the students about his experiences, as he prepares to be selected in the National Football League player draft next month.
It was part of Lincoln School’s Career Day festivities – and Rodriguez, the 2006-2007 Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Year when he was a standout football and basketball player at North Bergen High School, was asked to talk about his burgeoning professional football career.
While it was always a dream for Rodriguez to eventually play pro football, sometimes dreams don’t come true, especially in Hudson County, where dreams seem to die faster than they become reality.
Rodriguez would be the first to admit that he could have become a casualty like many others before him and countless others after him.
“I was lazy,” Rodriguez told the packed auditorium at the grade school he once attended. “I didn’t want to do the schoolwork. I did a lot of wrong things and if I kept going down that path, I never would have gotten the chances that I’ve had. It all depended on whether or not I wanted to be successful. If I kept hanging out and didn’t do what was right, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve accomplished. I had to overcome adversity. There are always people who are going to tell you that you can’t do anything. You have to overcome that.”
Rodriguez realized that the crowd he was running with in high school was going to keep him away from reaching that lifelong dream.
“I couldn’t afford to be around negative people,” Rodriguez said. “I had to be positive. I had to surround myself with smarter people and that really helped.”
Rodriguez also knew that he had to get past the negative comments that were being said about him. He was being labeled as a bad kid, a troubled soul.
“Some of those things stay with you,” Rodriguez said. “I knew that you couldn’t judge the book by the cover. People say positive things, but they also say negative things. I had to learn to deal with it.”
Rodriguez truthfully told the students that he wasn’t exactly the best student through high school and into college, but he quickly learned.
“I was really worried whether I would be able to fit in,” Rodriguez said. “I wondered whether I would have enough time to do the schoolwork. It was such a big issue. I had no time management skills. Before I went to college, I just went with the flow. But in college, I had to put time aside for my studies, for workouts, for lifting and for my social life. It was very important.”
And now, as Rodriguez heads to the next step of his life, namely professional football, he’s just four classes shy of a degree in criminal justice.
“It’s always good to have two goals in life,” Rodriguez said. “Football doesn’t last forever.”
North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco was in attendance.
“Evan is the same as he always was as a kid in Lincoln School,” Sacco said. “Evan also had to overcome everything that happens in an urban area. It’s too easy to get into trouble. He was able to stay focused and now, someday, we’ll be watching him play football on Sunday.”
Rodriguez’s coach at North Bergen, the now-retired Vince Ascolese, also spoke about Rodriguez’s road to glory.
“When I first saw him, I saw a special player with so many talents,” said Ascolese, who retired last December after 39 years as North Bergen head coach and retired with the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state championship. “When he was in eighth grade, the whole world wanted Evan, but he stayed here and had a great career in North Bergen and became one of the greatest athletes ever to come out of Hudson County.
Added Ascolese, “It’s never been about himself. So many times, you see athletes come along who don’t do the right thing. I told him you have friends who want to see you succeed and others who want to see you fail and stay here with them. I told him he had to decide. He had to overcome those obstacles and take the next step. He’s a North Bergen kid, through and through. No one is going to get in his way. No one is going to stop him now.”
Rodriguez’s mentor, Tom Schoenwald, who became involved with Rodriguez through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program 15 years ago, interviewed Rodriguez as a way to make him open up more to the students.
But Rodriguez was comfortable and collected, especially when the students asked him a series of questions, ranging from what was his favorite color, did he have a girlfriend (which he does), and did he like the Giants or the Jets better.
The students were able to find out that Rodriguez’s favorite team was the Dallas Cowboys, but he wouldn’t mind going to any team that selects him next month. He said his favorite players were Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice.
Someone asked if he planned on becoming Eli Manning’s best friend now.
“If I get drafted by the Giants and I want the ball, I better,” Rodriguez laughed.
But there was a serious moment when an inquisitive student asked him what was it like to be pursued by the NFL teams. Right now, Rodriguez will enter the NFL Draft as the No. 1-rated “H-back,” or pass catching fullback. He’s also listed among the top tight ends in the draft as well.
“I’d have to say it’s a dream come true,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve really been blessed. I’m excited about the draft and I can’t wait. It’s in God’s hands right now.”
Rodriguez stands to be the first North Bergen product taken in the draft since Mark D’Onofrio was taken by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 1992 NFL Draft. It was D’Onofrio who rescued Rodriguez from West Virginia University and brought him to Temple, where D’Onofrio, now at the University of Miami, was an assistant coach.
It’s that close – and the students at Lincoln School got to see the future NFL star close up and personal last Tuesday.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com and via Twitter @OGSMAR. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.