It was about six years ago or so when Evan Rodriguez first faced the crossroads of his young life.
At the time, Rodriguez was a standout two-sport athlete at North Bergen High School, a sensational football player and a fine basketball player, a young man with an immense amount of talent and a future brighter than the marquees in Schubert Alley on Broadway.
In fact, Rodriguez would eventually go on to receive the 2006-07 Hudson Reporter Male Athlete of the Year award for his diverse and incredible talents.
But during the same time, Rodriguez was already falling victim to the troubles that have swallowed so many other top high school athletes in the past. He was running with the wrong crowd, getting in trouble, doing incredibly stupid things. He was on the verge of throwing his life away, all because he was hanging out with some unscrupulous people who didn’t care about Rodriguez’s athletic prowess. They all wanted to see him fail – and fail badly.
Rodriguez ran afoul of the law a few times. He was destined to fall in between the cracks of what has been dubbed many times as the sidewalk jungle, a place in the inner-city that has destroyed thousands of promising young athletes before they get a chance to get out and away from the strife of the city.
However, Rodriguez was able to get away. He received a scholarship to play football at the University of West Virginia. He was going to be a fine safety for the Mountaineers.
As things have it, Rodriguez didn’t have a long stay in West Virginia. Things didn’t turn out as planned. Again, there was an incident involving the law at a school dormitory. People at West Virginia recommended that the best thing would be for Rodriguez to leave Morgantown and never come back.
Again, Rodriguez faced the crossroads. He didn’t know where to turn.
Luckily, there was a fellow North Bergen native who wasn’t about to turn his back on Rodriguez.
At the time, Mark D’Onofrio, who went from North Bergen to Penn State to the Green Bay Packers, was the defensive coordinator and associate head coach at Temple University. One phone call from the guy who coached both D’Onofrio and Rodriguez, the legendary Vince Ascolese, was all it took to get Rodriguez steered in the right direction.
Ascolese made the call to his former player D’Onofrio for his former player Rodriguez. The wheels were in motion. Rodriguez was all set to transfer to Temple. D’Onofrio, a product of Linebacker U at Penn State and a former linebacker himself, was going to teach Rodriguez to become a linebacker from safety.
“Coach D’Onofrio wanted me to be a linebacker like he was,” Rodriguez said in a recent telephone interview. “That was the plan.”
It didn’t last long.
“I think it was the sixth week of the season, when Coach [Al] Golden [the former Temple head coach] sat the team down and told us that they were moving people around,” Rodriguez said. “They put me in the slot for one play and I ran a corner [passing] route. The next day, Coach Golden told me that he wanted me to be a tight end. He thought that if I became a tight end, I had a chance to go to the next level.”
So Rodriguez, who was a quarterback and safety in high school, a defensive back at West Virginia, then first a linebacker at Temple, was going to have to learn a new position.
“At first, it was difficult,” Rodriguez said. “I had to learn to block. I never had to block before. I had to get a little bigger and I had to work on that. I was worried about getting bigger and keeping my speed up. I really didn’t want to lose any of my speed. It was a total 360-degree turn at first, but if it was what the coaches wanted, then I was all for it.”
It didn’t take long for Rodriguez to become comfortable at tight end.
“I got a good feel for the coverage packages,” Rodriguez said. “I guess it helped that I was once a quarterback. I think once I became a tight end, I progressed at the position.”
Rodriguez developed immensely as a tight end. He had 21 receptions in 2010, leading all Mid-Atlantic Conference tight ends in receptions. Last season, Rodriguez had 33 catches for 427 yards and two touchdowns. In a win over Maryland, Rodriguez had five receptions for 96 yards and was named the National Tight End of the Week by the National Football Performance Awards. He earned All-MAC honors for a second straight year and was a finalist for the Mackey Award as the nation’s top collegiate tight end.
His seasonal performance enabled Rodriguez to earn a berth in the recent East-West Shrine Game in Tampa.
“That was a great experience,” Rodriguez said. “The Shrine Game people treated us like first-class citizens and it was all for a good cause. It was more than a football game, helping the sick kids and hanging out with them. It helps you realize how lucky you are to have your health, seeing those kids fighting hard for their lives. What I have is a blessing.”
Since January, Rodriguez has spent his time at the Athletic Edge Sports Training Facility in Bradenton, Fla., where many of the potential NFL Draft picks have gone to get ready for the draft. It’s a facility where current NFL stars like Joseph Addai of the Colts, former Rutgers standout tackle Anthony Davis of the 49ers and Giants Super Bowl hero Victor Cruz have gone in the past to get ready.
“It’s a small group right now and I’m able to draw some individual attention,” Rodriguez said. “I took a week off to participate in the Shrine Game and came right back afterwards.”
Rodriguez then will head to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-26 with the hopes of improving his pending draft status. Many of the scouting services have touted Rodriguez as being selected in the third-to-fifth round in the upcoming draft.
“My agent thinks I’m going to get drafted as a mid-rounder,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll just have to see how it goes. I guess I made the right move going to offense. The transition from safety to linebacker was tough, but this was totally on the other side of the ball.”
If Rodriguez does get selected in the NFL Draft April 26-28, he would become the first North Bergen product taken in the draft since a linebacker from Penn State was taken by the Packers in the second round of the 1992 NFL Draft. That player was none other than Mark D’Onofrio. It’s been 20 years, but another Bruin looks headed to the NFL.
“That would be great,” Rodriguez said. “Coach D’Onofrio is a great guy and I appreciate the help he gave to me in getting me to Temple. We still stay in contact.”
D’Onofrio has since moved on to the University of Miami, where his friend and colleague Golden is the head coach.
“Basically, if I take care of business at the combine, I’ll can be a lot like Aaron Hernandez [the New England Patriots’ tight end],” Rodriguez said. “We kind of play the same schemes. I can line up at tight end, slot, wide receiver and fullback. I can play all over the field.”
But as the NFL Draft approaches and the NFL Scouting Combine is closer, Evan Rodriguez is close to fulfilling what every kid simply fantasizes about. He’s about to become an NFL football player.
“It’s really a dream come true,” Rodriguez said. “I’m just living the dream. I’m right there. It’s that close. The combine is the last stepping stone. And once I get to the NFL, then the intent is to stay there.”
And it’s a far better cry than what he was headed towards six years ago. It’s very fortunate that Evan Rodriguez chose to see the light and travel down the right path towards athletic success. That path is about to pay huge dividends.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.