Evan Rodriguez knows that he’s definitely at the crossroads of the rest of his professional football career.
At the tender age of 25 years old, the former North Bergen High School two-sport standout and former Hudson Reporter Male Athlete of the Year in 2007 headed off to Orchard Park, N.Y. last week to start training with the Buffalo Bills, his third NFL team in as many years, in anticipation for what could very well be his final pro football training camp.
After a tumultuous time in his life where he was arrested once for DUI in Illinois and had another public intoxication charge in Miami eventually get dismissed, Rodriguez insists that he’s found religion, reading the works of Joel Osteen for motivation, has remained sober for almost two years and has a new life with a loving and strong fiancée, Olivia.
And a repentant Rodriguez knows that his short life in the NFL has been filled with miscues and mishaps.
“I guess I just got caught up in the fast lane,” Rodriguez said in an exclusive and heartfelt interview. “I didn’t appreciate what I had. I realize now what I had what as a great opportunity and privilege. I took it all for granted. Being young, I made some mistakes and I learned from them.”
Rodriguez was first drafted in 2012 by the Chicago Bears in the fourth round out of Temple University, where the former defensive back was converted into a tight end and eventually an H-back with unlimited and untapped potential at the new position.
The Bears took a huge gamble taking Rodriguez in the fourth round, but the Bears organization liked Rodriguez’ athleticism and signed him to a four-year contract worth a reported $1.2 million.
“They made a big investment in me,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez saw action in 12 games with the Bears in 2012, starting five. He caught four passes and seemed to be headed for a long and prosperous career with the Bears.
But Rodriguez got into trouble in the offseason following the 2012 season. While training in Miami in March, 2013, Rodriguez was arrested for disorderly intoxication and resisting a police officer. Two months later, Rodriguez was arrested again, this time for DUI and speeding on Interstate 90 in the Chicago suburbs.
Soon after the second arrest, the Bears released Rodriguez. There was no guarantee with the contract he initially signed. He was without a job.
“When Chicago cut me, I didn’t think I was done,” Rodriguez said. “I knew someone would give me a shot. But I definitely knew I messed up. I saw the dreams flash before my eyes. I didn’t know how to handle it. I thanked the Bears for the opportunity that they gave me. I definitely felt like I let them down.”
“It changed my life around,” Rodriguez said. “I learned my lesson from those mistakes. I really wasn’t worried about going to jail.”
Rodriguez was eventually given probation and had to do extended community service, which he was able to do with a New Jersey-based organization called B-Men, a program in Middlesex County that helps at-risk youngsters get their lives straightened out.
“They heard about my story and felt like I could be a success in helping the kids out,” Rodriguez said. “I can relate to them. I didn’t want them to make the same mistakes I made.”
Rodriguez was fined $50,000 by the NFL for his arrests and suspended one game. It’s hard to pay a lofty fine without a job.
The Miami Dolphins, who showed interest in Rodriguez before the 2012 NFL Draft, claimed Rodriguez off waivers the day after the Bears released him. He received a new lease on life and went into the 2013 season thinking he had a future with the Dolphins.
“I made the team out of training camp,” Rodriguez said. “But they cut me the next day.”
Rodriguez didn’t believe his career was over.
“At first, no,” Rodriguez said. “I thought somebody would pick me up. But one day went by, then a week, nothing, then a month went by with nothing.”
Rodriguez returned to New Jersey and began to work out regularly at a training facility called ETS Athletic Development in Teterboro, in order to maintain his weight training and speed training. His agent said that there was some interest during the course of the regular season from the San Francisco 49ers, the Green Bay Packers, even Rodriguez’s favorite team as a child, the Dallas Cowboys. But there were no solid contract offers.
“I knew I wasn’t out of it yet,” Rodriguez said. “Every team told me it was a numbers game. I still had a feeling it was going to work out.”
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coached by former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, needed a tight end, so they called Rodriguez’s agent to set up a tryout.
“But Buffalo jumped the gun and had me go there first,” Rodriguez said. “I worked out well in a few drills and they decided to bring me on board.”
Rodriguez spent the final six games of the 2013 season with the Bills, playing H-back, tight end and special teams.
“I had to take some of the cobwebs off by making tackles,” said Rodriguez, who was first recruited by West Virginia University out of North Bergen as a defensive back.
Rodriguez knew that this was it. The Bills represented his final opportunity to make it permanently in the NFL.
“I looked at it as my last chance,” Rodriguez said. “I needed to find a home in this league. I have to stay on the straight and narrow. I don’t go out anymore. I had to stop what I was doing.”
Rodriguez was frankly asked if he had an alcohol problem.
“I did have a problem,” Rodriguez admitted. “I’m not an alcoholic. But I had to stop and I had to get help.”
Rodriguez said that he did speak with a few alcohol treatment counselors in order to stay sober.
“At first, it was difficult,” Rodriguez said. “But the more I went, the more I knew I had to stick with it. I felt relieved and free. Since I started the sessions, I haven’t been drinking. I’ve had no incidents.”
So as Rodriguez shuffled off to Buffalo to begin training camp this week with the Bills, he’s prepared for the fight of his life.
“I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life, both mentally and physically,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t be more blessed and grateful to be in the position I am right now.”
Rodriguez is basically an H-back these days, a fullback who concentrates on blocking for such talented runners as Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
“The Bills’ running back coach is [former New York Giants standout running back] Tyrone Wheatley and he’s a players’ coach. The running backs feel like it’s like [Las] Vegas, whatever goes on in that room stays in the room. The guys make me feel at home. Without a doubt, I feel like this could be a home for me.”
And Rodriguez knows that there’s no room for error.
“I don’t even look at what happened,” Rodriguez said. “It’s behind me. I’m moving forward. I’m just blessed and thankful to have this opportunity and I’m not letting this one go.”
Rodriguez’s cloudy past has been discussed by the Bills’ general manager Doug Whaley.
“Doug and I talked about it and he was straight up and blunt with me,” Rodriguez said. “He said one mistake and you’re out of here. I gave him my word.”
Rodriguez knows that it could all be over for him in a heartbeat. Rodriguez played against Will Hill in high school, when Rodriguez was in North Bergen and Hill at St. Peter’s Prep. Hill’s problems with marijuana has cost him his job with the Giants after having such a brilliant year as the Giants’ free safety last season.
“We were on the same field [at MetLife Stadium] last preseason, me with the Dolphins and him with the Giants,” Rodriguez said. “He got himself in trouble and now he’s gone. There’s a lesson there. You work so hard to make it in the league and one mistake and it’s over. I know. It was definitely an eye-opener for me. There’s no way, no how it ever happens again. Olivia has me into the spiritual thing now. I was never into the spiritual thing before, but it has definitely helped me. It keeps me with a positive mindset and keeps the negative thoughts out of my head.”
As he heads to training camp, Rodriguez has no guarantees. He’s not assured of a spot on the Bills’ 53-man roster. He’s not assured of anything.
“It’s definitely going to be a battle to make the team, but I’m real confident about my chances,” Rodriguez said. “I just have to get back into the flow of things. I have so much to offer. I made the All-Rookie team my first year with the Bears and then fell off and was cut. I was definitely humbled by it. The way I look at it, this is my year. I’m not going to let anyone down this time.”
Rodriguez has no other choice, because there will be no other second chances. This is it. The rest of his life starts this week.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.