Huskers open doors for Latino atheletes

Husker recruit Rodriguez opens doors
By Gabrielle Paese, ESPN.com, October 15, 2009


At P.S. 198, where Nebraska commit Andrew Rodriguez went to elementary school, being Puerto Rican was not unusual. In fact, the school, just south of New York City's Spanish Harlem, is 51 percent Hispanic.

And while Rodriguez's 98th Street neighborhood no longer has the Puerto Rican flavor it once did -- the corner bodegas are now mostly run by Dominicans, and you are as likely to hear bachata from an open car window as you are reggaeton -- Spanish is still spoken on the streets and a Latin presence persists.

This was Rodriguez's world for the first 12 years of his life. The fifth of six children born in New York to Myrna Castellar, the boy lived with his mom and his younger brother, Adrian. His grandmother, aunt and half-brother, Eric Collazo, lived just blocks away and he was surrounded by his family.

But when Collazo, who is 15 years older than Rodriguez, married and moved to Nebraska in the winter of 2003, he convinced their mother to let the youngster join his new family out west.

"Andrew's dad was in and out of jail and writing threatening letters," Collazo said. "I looked at him like my little brother and I wanted to help my mom out. I told my mom, 'Don't worry about it.' He [Andrew's dad] was just out of the picture, so I filed for temporary custody."

And that's how Rodriguez found himself in Aurora, Neb., population 4,225. He admits he was worried at first about how he would fit in. Aurora's population is overwhelmingly white, with less than a 2 percent Hispanic presence, according to U.S. Census numbers.

"In New York there were a lot of different people, different personalities, a lot of crazy people, just a lot of people in my neighborhood," he said. "I was shocked at first [in Aurora]. But all the kids welcomed you with respect."

And if the school, the kids and all the wide-open space weren't change enough for Rodriguez, Nebraska opened up a world he had never seen in New York: team sports.

"I played on a traveling basketball team for like a week in New York, but that was the only time I played sports," he recalled.

So Aurora was a whole new ballgame.

"My brother made me go out for sports," said Rodriguez of his first year in his new hometown. "He made me go out for everything: wrestling, basketball, track. That's how I got close to the other kids."

Aurora High School coach Randy Huebert first saw Rodriguez at a kids' camp during the summer of 2004. The youngster was suited up for the first time in his life, and admits he was kind of fuzzy on the rules.

"We saw a big kid; he was big already at that age," Huebert said. "He was a guy who didn't have a lot of experience, but as we were going through drills we could see that he had good feet. He did well going over the bags and on the agility drills."

Rodriguez joined the varsity football team while still in junior high, starting at offensive tackle. Huebert and Kyle Peterson, the team's assistant coach as well as the track coach, saw Rodriguez's explosive power and developed it in the weight room. As of last week, Rodriguez was bench-pressing 415 pounds and squatting with 490 on the bar. In a span of six months his time for the 40 came down from 5.60 to 5.29.

And he's starting to taste success. The Aurora High football team, which plays in Nebraska's Class B, is aiming at defending the state title it won last year. The 6-foot-3, 313-pound guard is also vying for the state's shot-put and discus titles this spring. He finished among the top 10 in both events last year. This winter, he'll play on the school's basketball team.

Recruiters have said it's hard to gauge Rodriguez's skills because he plays in a league of smaller schools and has yet to be tested against other Division I level prospects. But Coach Huebert said those critics haven't met Rodriguez.

"I don't know for sure where his positive attitude comes from," he said. "Part of it could be the environment, but I think it was just in him. Any time you like what you're doing, you work harder."

Rodriguez believes hard work beats the odds. "I choose my own destiny," he said.

On the college football field, he will join a select minority. By the NCAA's own count, Hispanics make up just 2.4 percent of Division I football players, a number that has remained unchanged over the past decade.

And as a Puerto Rican, he'll be a trailblazer of sorts. While Puerto Rican players have made their presence felt in organized baseball and basketball, only a handful have reached such levels in college and pro football. The NFL's two most notable players of Puerto Rican descent have been Chicago's Ron Rivera and Marco Rivera (no relation).

In fact, fewer than one percent of NFL players have a Latino background, according to Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

And most of the Hispanics who made it to the NFL got their start playing in college. Marco Rivera played at Penn State, while Mark Sanchez was at USC, Roberto Garza at Texas A&M, and Anthony Gonzalez at Ohio State.

"I tell Andrew: 'You have a lot to live up to,'" said Nichole Collazo, Eric's wife. "'Not only are you not from here but you are going to set precedents for how they feel here about Hispanics. You've got a lot to represent.' That's no pressure for an 18-year-old, right?"

His coach believes he can handle it.

Gabrielle Paese is a recruiting editor for ESPN.com and the former sports editor at The San Juan Star in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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