HERMISTON — Costa Rodriguez lined up across from a Hood River Valley wide receiver. With the Hermiston defense in a Cover 2 formation, the defenders separated the secondary into halves. The safeties held strong at the top and Rodriguez and the other cornerbacks played down low.
He backpedalled with the snap of the ball, but his receiver turned, looking for a screen pass. Rodriguez flared the boosters, flashing his track sprinter speed, and intercepted the pass. The other 21 players on the field watched as Rodriguez made for the goal line, a supportive back plate just visible out the bottom of his No. 7 Bulldogs jersey.
“I saw the ball pop up and I snagged it and took off,” he said, remembering the brief moments it took him to scamper 29 yards for a touchdown — his second interception return for a score in as many weeks.
But that play very nearly never happened. His whole season — all the interceptions, tipped passes and tackles — almost never happened.
They got bad news.
The pain originated from early onset spondylosis, arthritis in the joints between the vertebrae in his lower back. On top of that, Rodriguez was walking around with a fractured vertebra. Contact sports and maybe athletics as a whole were off the table, doctors said.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” the 15-year-old said. “I just wanted to do sports. I love sports.”
The diagnosis was heartbreaking for his mother, Maria Rodriguez. All three of her sons played sports, football specifically.
“He was so depressed,” she said. “He wanted to do things so badly. He wanted to be in football.”
They went to find a second opinion.
Several doctors later, the news remained the same but there was hope. He was a gifted athlete, and, with rest and the right amount of caution, a pair of specialists had said, Rodriguez might play. He loved the games too much to give up, but moving forward would involve risk.
After a summer of rest — mostly lying on the couch with some form of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory as his companion — Rodriguez returned to action. He’d missed a few games of the non-conference schedule and much more from a lost offseason without any football preparation. He thought he’d be looking at some time on the varsity bench with mostly playing time on the junior varsity squad.
“I wasn’t expecting much because I didn’t get to do any summer work,” Rodriguez said. “But I came out and coach started me my first game that I could.”
And the results have proved beneficial to both sides. With each game Rodriguez feels more at home in the team’s scheme and continues to help head coach Mark Hodges’ defense. After starting the season 2-2 against tough out-of-conference opponents, Rodriguez has settled in for a team that has won three in a row and is one win away from a Columbia River Conference title.
“I just think he’s a hungry guy,” Hodges said. “He’s aggressive, he’s got some good talent and he’s a pretty confident kid. He’s got some swagger and he’s getting more confident each week out there.”
The worst may not have passed for Rodriguez, a multi-sport star at Hermiston. The degenerative condition will likely last the rest of his life and may require surgery down the road. He’s considering quitting wrestling in an attempt to prolong his track and football careers. Things will be difficult, he said, but he wants to play more than anything.
Faced with having it all taken away, he appreciates the games, he said, and every time he gets to feel the grass of Kennison Field under his cleats.
“It’s so, so overwhelming I can’t even explain it,” Rodriguez said. “But now I’m playing and loving every second of it.”
See related article on Pendleton's Lathan Alger here.