May 7, 2012
By Phil Taylor, Sports Illustrated
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Andrew Rodriguez is such an amateur. Doesn't he realize that, having completed a stellar career as a college linebacker, he's supposed to be preoccupied with his pro prospects? While other top collegians were decked out in their finery at the NFL draft last week, deciding whether to spend their future signing bonuses on something speedy or something sparkly, Rodriguez, one of the anchors of Army's defense last season, was in his fatigues at West Point, accepting an award from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski for "teaching character through sport." Apparently some guys would rather have character than a fully loaded Escalade. Go figure.
After 15 months of painstaking rehab from a career-threatening back injury he suffered while lifting weights, Rodriguez, 6'3" and 217 pounds, returned to lead the Army D by both example and performance. Two operations had forced him to miss the entire 2010 season and spring practice in 2011, but he remained a fixture on the sidelines, sharing his expertise with the rest of the defensive unit and contributing in other ways large and small.
Rodriguez's teammates were so inspired by his perseverance that they elected him co-captain last spring, before it was certain that he'd even be on the field. "I wanted to come back and play for the joy and the challenge of competing alongside my teammates," says Rodriguez, who had 59 tackles (fifth most for the Black Knights) and a team-high three takeaways. "Obviously not many of us go on to the NFL. We play because we love football." Spoken like a true amateur, but Rodriguez is more than that. He's the top amateur--the winner of the 2011 Sullivan Award, given by the AAU to the amateur athlete who best exhibits character, leadership and sportsmanship.
Previous award winners include Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Peyton Manning, Michelle Kwan and Tim Tebow, so Rodriguez is in distinguished company. But let's be honest: He's completely out of step with his times. Nobody thinks like an amateur anymore, right? Instead of serving his country as a military officer, Rodriguez ought to be griping about not being paid to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, as Heat star Dwyane Wade did recently. He later backed off that stance, but Mavericks owner Mark Cuban then took it up, saying that allowing top players to participate in the Games for free is "the biggest mistake the NBA makes." Rodriguez should send a letter of sympathy to the poor, exploited millionaires who will enjoy an all-expenses-paid trip to the London Games at about the same time that he's completing infantry officer training and bunking in the barracks at Fort Benning, Ga.
That's where Rodriguez is headed after graduation. That's right, graduation. Apparently he didn't get the memo that college is supposed to be just a speed bump on the way to a rookie contract--as it was for the record 19 nonseniors who were first-round NFL picks--or he didn't notice that Kentucky coach John Calipari's top freshmen headed for the NBA faster than you can say one-and-done. Not only will Rodriguez complete all four years at West Point, but his 4.12 GPA also ranks third in his class of 1,052 cadets, which earned him the William V. Campbell Trophy, presented by the National Football Foundation to the nation's top football scholar-athlete.
"Right now I'm taking a military history course, an engineering course called Dynamic Modeling and Controls, another one called Energy Conversion Systems, a military leadership course, one called Mechanical Power Plants, and a couple more," says Rodriguez, whose father, David, is a four-star general and sister Amy is a captain who recently returned from a tour in Iraq. "It's a normal load." No, a normal load for a college athlete would be Choosing an Agent 101, Advanced Principles of Evading NCAA Investigations, and Introduction to Investing Under-the-Table Payments.
Maybe Rodriguez doesn't grasp that amateur athletes are passé because he's been treated like an amateur. Hawaii football coach Norm Chow and Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan are busy blocking players from transferring, as if they were property, not athletes. At Florida International, junior forward Dominique Ferguson wanted to transfer to a smaller school closer to home, but the university wouldn't release him from his scholarship, so Ferguson ended up entering the NBA draft. Army coaches, however, didn't treat Rodriguez like chattel: They were extremely protective of his health, working him back into full-contact drills slowly after his recovery from surgery. "If anything," Rodriguez says, "they were more careful than I would have been."
If Rodriguez isn't careful, he's going to give people the idea that there's still a place for athletes whose main goal isn't a multiyear contract or a sneaker endorsement. "I had to decide whether I wanted to go to a school that was more on the NFL track or enjoy this different range of opportunities, including giving something back to my country," he says. "I feel I made the right choice." Give Rodriguez credit for making a wise decision. Just don't say he handled it like a pro.