Oct. 5, 2011
By Christian Anderson, Army Athletic Communications
WEST POINT, N.Y. - As he strides toward midfield with fellow team captains Steve Erzinger and Max Jenkins for the coin toss, Andrew Rodriguez must be thinking about just how fortunate he is to be a part of the 2011 Army football team. Due to a lingering back injury, Rodriguez did not participate during spring ball, and many close to the program did not envision the Alexandria, Va., native rejoining the squad this fall.
Most football players probably would not have returned from the type of back injury he sustained during the offseason between his sophomore and junior years. But Rodriguez is not most football players. Rodriguez, who is the son of a four-star general, is an Army football player.
Two years ago, as a sophomore, Rodriguez was a force to be reckoned with. He started all 12 games that season at the "whip" linebacker position and led the Black Knights with 85 tackles. He capped that 2009 campaign by posting a career-high 15 stops against Navy.
Rodriguez was on top of the world. After not appearing in a varsity contest as a freshman, he had burst onto the scene as a sophomore and seemed poised for even bigger things during his junior season of 2010. But then everything went disastrously wrong. During a routine weightlifting session during the offseason, Rodriguez hurt his back so severely that he missed the entire 2010 campaign.
Still feeling the effects of the injury this past winter, Rodriguez was forced to sit out spring practice and the prognosis for the 2011 season seemed bleak.
Rodriguez worked diligently through the rehabilitation process, which required tremendous patience and perseverance.
"Mostly, I just had to do a lot of physical therapy, and I had to rest a lot," remembers Rodriguez. "I had to take it extremely slow, which was a new and different concept because we're always going full bore all the time here. I just had to relax and give it time to heal and progress. It was mostly just hours in physical therapy and staying faithful to the healing process."
Returning from injury to play a sport like football requires a great deal of mental toughness and resolve, and receiving support and positive reinforcement from family and friends was critical to Rodriguez's recovery. His father, David, who graduated from West Point in 1976, is the former commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. His sister, Amy, is a 2006 graduate of the Academy and recently returned from a deployment to Iraq. Despite their support, Rodriguez found himself discouraged at times during the lengthy rehabilitation.
"I think you always have points where you're discouraged about not progressing as fast as you'd like to, but you have to try to stay positive," said Rodriguez. "A lot of my friends and family helped to support me and keep me positive during the duration of the injury and the recovery.
"My family just reminded me that being injured is a temporary thing, and kept telling me to remain focused on the big picture. They said prayers for me and were there when I needed them."
When the Black Knights reconvened in August for fall camp, Rodriguez was issued a blue "limited contact" jersey for the first several practices.
Even third-year Army head coach Rich Ellerson was skeptical about whether or not one of his best play-making linebackers from the 2009 season would be able to suit up this fall.
"I did not anticipate that he would be able to play for us this season," said Ellerson, whose first season at West Point coincided with Rodriguez' break-out sophomore campaign. "We took baby steps all the way through training camp just because there was no way we were going to take any chances with him. His doctor obviously knows more about it than I do, and he thought he'd be okay and be fine. We just took it real slow and, fortunately for him, he seems to be handling it just fine."
When the coaches finally removed that blue jersey, it was like unleashing a caged tiger. For the first time in nearly two years, Rodriguez was running around the football field at full tilt and making plays.
"I was really excited," said Rodriguez with a grin. "It had been so long that it almost felt like a foreign thing to be able to go in and hit and run and do all of the things we do at practice. It was great. I missed being out on the field with my teammates, and having the opportunity to do that again after such a long period of time was really fun."
Of course, it is one thing to go out and make plays on the practice field. It is quite another thing to strap on the helmet and go out on a Saturday in the game environment.
Rodriguez appeared in Army's season opener at Northern Illinois as a reserve, coming off the bench for the first time in his career. He posted three tackles and a fumble recovery against the Huskies, but Rodriguez' day was an unmitigated success simply because he stepped onto the field.
"Every season's a mystery and you never know how it's going to turn out, so I was excited to see how the first game was going to go," stated Rodriguez. "We were facing a great opponent, obviously, and I thought it was a great challenge for our defense and our team. Obviously, the game didn't go as well as we had hoped, but I thought it was good that we kept fighting and fighting."
Rodriguez returned to the starting lineup the next week for Army's home opener versus San Diego State. It was the first time Rodriguez had stepped onto the turf at Michie Stadium in a regular season game since Army's 22-17 victory over VMI on November 14, 2009. Nearly two years had passed, but Rodriguez did not feel any nerves.
"I love playing at Michie," said Rodriguez. "I think it's one of the best places to play in the nation. We had a huge crowd, and it was a great day to play football. We had a great team coming in here so we had a huge opportunity. I was real excited, but not too nervous at all. I was just ready to go. That was a good day, even though we lost. I think we made a lot of strides in that game."
Army finally broke through the following week, defeating Northwestern, 21-14. Rodriguez made six tackles, including one stop behind the line of scrimmage, to key the Black Knights' defensive effort.
Rodriguez's continued progress and production has not gone unnoticed by his teammates. Erzinger has been impressed with the way his fellow team captain has performed on the field since returning from the injury.
"It has been nice to see him come back so strong," said Erzinger. "There were a lot of question marks coming into the season, but as of right now he is looking really good. The fact he was able to come back the way he has earned him a lot of respect in a lot of people's eyes. Even though he did not play last year, he still fought back from a very serious injury."
Rodriguez and Erzinger are two of the senior leaders on a defense that is teeming with underclassmen. Erzinger, the team's leading tackler and one of the Black Knights' most respected players, was not surprised that Rodriguez was chosen to serve alongside him as a captain this season.
"I think it was just because of his charisma as a person," said Erzinger. "As an individual, Andrew is obviously really smart in the classroom; I think he has above a 4.0. He made a huge impact when he was a sophomore as far as his playing ability and hustle and enthusiasm on the field."
Ellerson believes that Rodriguez possesses that unique ability to capture the attention of the entire team whenever he speaks up in the locker room or on the field.
"He's not a jump up and down guy, but he is so universally respected," said Ellerson. "He's not a grab you by your throat kind of guy, but he has a presence about him. When he talks, you listen. When he talks, he's got something to say and you have to listen. They guys instinctively know that. He's a good guy, but when we're working, he's dead serious. When he speaks up, everybody is listening."
A Mechanical Engineering major, who registered A-plus grades in all five of his academic courses last spring, Rodriguez takes his role of team captain seriously.
"I feel like it's a pretty big responsibility," said Rodriguez. "I think the biggest thing I need to do as a captain is making sure that I'm setting the example of how to practice, prepare and get ready for each game. Leading a young group on defense does bring more responsibility, but it's also a lot more fun. This group brings a lot of youthful enthusiasm, and they're always flying around. It's pretty cool to sit back and see how quickly they're developing. Some of the guys are playing real great football after such a short period. You see them getting better with each practice and that's exciting to be a part of."
After all he's been through over the past two years, Rodriguez is simply thankful to be a part of this 2011 Army football team.
"I feel really fortunate to be able to be a part of this football team," said Rodriguez. "I'm just real grateful that I've been blessed with this opportunity. I had some great doctors, great therapists and great athletic trainers that have gotten me back to this point where I'm able to step on the field with my teammates again."
Rodriguez is looking forward to Army's annual games versus Air Force and Navy later this season, and the prospect of bringing the Commander-in-Chief's trophy back to West Point is near the top of his list of goals.
By returning to the Black Knights' program this fall, he's already accomplished an even larger goal. He did something that a lot of people doubted would ever happen. He overcame tremendous adversity, battled through countless hours of rehabilitation and has returned to the Army lineup as one of the center pieces of the Black Knights defense.