It wasn’t until I enlisted in the Army and found myself surrounded by kids who had dropped out of school or been arrested or raised in poverty that I began to appreciate what a comfortable life I’d led while growing up. Sure, there were some challenging times, but for the most part I’d had it pretty good.
For a few years we lived in Prince William County, Virginia. My father worked as an athletic director for the US Marine Corps base at Quantico. He was a veteran himself, but by now a civilian. Ray Rodriguez was a proud man. He wanted nothing more out of life than to provide for his family. He’d grown up dirt-poor in Lordsburg, New Mexico, a one-stoplight town off Interstate 10, about three hours west of El Paso, Texas. Raised by a single mom, he was one of nine children and never knew his father, so he was committed to being a better model for his own kids. (I have a sister, Veronica, who’s eight years older than me.)
There’s nothing in that part of the country. It’s beautiful, if you like the desert, but opportunities are scarce. My father knew that, so he got the hell out of Dodge when he graduated from high school in 1974, then enlisted in the Army because he thought he was going to get drafted. He did eight years, mostly stationed in Germany, then came home, went to night school, and earned his college diploma while working at Quantico. The importance of getting a college degree was always impressed upon me while I was growing up. My dad used to say, “Daniel, education is the only thing nobody can take away from you. You need education to succeed in this world.”
I have vague memories of trailing after my dad when he went to work and running around the base. We lived in a high-rise apartment complex called Lyndon Park, not far from the projects. It wasn’t the greatest area — there were four of us living in a tiny two-bedroom apartment where roaches were not uncommon and police sirens provided a steady sound track — so my parents scrimped and saved so that my sister and I could attend a private Christian school. After only a couple years my father got a new job as superintendent of parks and recreation in Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest counties in the state. We moved to a very nice neighborhood (“Aquia Harbour,” it was called) fifteen miles down the road, in Stafford, Virginia. If people ask me where I’m from, I tell them Stafford. That’s where I was raised, and that’s where I went to school.
My parents would talk occasionally about hard work and ambition, but mainly they led by example. Dad was up every morning before the sun, then didn’t get home until six o’clock at night. My mother, Cecilia Rodriguez, worked as an assistant in an ophthalmologist’s office. They were high school sweethearts (middle school, actually!) who married young, started a family, and always worked long hours.
It was a busy, hardworking household, one that relied partially on the contributions of friends and neighbors and babysitters to keep it running smoothly. Reflecting back on it, I can see how much my parents sacrificed so that their kids could be raised with a degree of comfort and stability. But they never complained; whatever frustrations they might have felt were hidden from us. My father, in particular, was tireless. Despite the long hours, he always seemed to make room for a game of catch or pickup basketball; he’d take me fishing on the Potomac River or Aquia Creek. I have volumes of pictures from when I was a little kid, clearly showing the importance of sports in our lives. There I am playing T-ball in diapers, or dribbling a basketball when I can barely walk. I vaguely recall an exercise in which my dad would stick a fishing net into the ground and have me throw tennis balls into it because he wanted me to be a pitcher. But I never felt like he was drilling me. He always tried to make things fun, and I loved spending time with him. I can say with confidence that my father was not one of those psychotic sports dads. I know those guys — he wasn’t one of them. And I can also say that I became an athlete because I loved to play, not because I was forced to play.
As I grew up and got more interested in sports Dad became my coach. Didn’t matter the season or the game — my father was on the sideline. And I played everything: basketball, football, soccer, and baseball. I don’t know how he found the time.
Genetics trumps everything. My father was about five-foot-eight, and my mother a shade over five feet; obviously I was never going to be a big kid. It didn’t help that I was late to mature (in a lot of ways), but I tried hard not to let size be the defining factor in my life. Or fear. In the fall of my freshman year at Brooke Point High School, a crazy sniper terrorized Washington, DC. Midway through the season our school canceled football at all but the varsity level. I got called up to the varsity team, despite being only five-foot-one and 95 pounds. I didn’t play much, but I had a uniform and a spot on the roster. Got my ass kicked every day in practice, as a receiver on the scout team.
The following year, as a sophomore, I started out on the JV. A couple weeks into the season the backup varsity quarterback got hurt and the coach needed someone to run plays for the scout team. I was maybe five-foot-three by then, but pretty quick, so they asked me to give it a try. Rain that day had turned the practice fields to mud, so we worked out in the gym, wearing sneakers and pads. As I looked over the playbook some of the older guys teased me, and a few of the coaches appeared concerned for my safety.
“Hey, kid. You sure you’re fast enough for this?”
“You know how to run an option?”
I nodded again. Truth is, I had no clue how to run an option offense, didn’t even know what it looked like. But after an explanation from the coach and a few minutes of practice, it seemed pretty easy. The option is all about speed, and I discovered that day that I was fast. I mean, I didn’t exactly tear the defense apart, but I did manage to score a few times. These guys were all bigger and stronger than me, but they couldn’t touch me. I was a foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than some of them, but I belonged.
After practice, as I was walking into the locker room, the coach, Jeff Berry, called to me.
“Hey, Rodriguez! Come here.”
I jogged over.
“You don’t practice on JV anymore. You’re on varsity.”
The very next game I suited up as the world’s smallest varsity wide receiver. My primary job was to be a play runner — to act as a conduit between the coach and the quarterback. After a few possessions I got the impression that I was never going to see the ball, so here’s what I did. When the coach called a play that was designed to result in a pass to one of our wide receivers, I decided to tell a specific receiver that I was subbing in for him. This was an act of deception. I was supposed to sub for someone else, but I figured it would be the best way to get a shot at catching a pass. I can still see the look on the kid’s face — his name was Jamal, and he was the star athlete on the team and first option on probably 90 percent of our passing plays.
“Jamal . . . I’m in