'Ro' knows challenges: Terps' Diaz defies the odds

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Wed. February 15, 2012 | Joey Knight | Email

'Ro' knows challenges: Terps' Diaz defies the odds

TAMPA — The leap of faith Rodrigo Diaz took last summer, in pursuit of brighter scholarship chances, was closer to a catapult.

Leave your only parent and sibling for a town in another country 1,100 miles away. Move in with an aunt and uncle, their 4-year-old twin boys and 2-year-old girl. Show up cold to an elite club soccer team with a full roster and try convincing these strangers you can hang with them.

Even as they stare at your right upper arm, which has no forearm or hand attached to it.

The kid everyone calls "Ro," whose very existence has been a maze of challenges, responded to this one as he has to all the others. In the spirit of a soccer lifer, he counterattacked, with resilience and improvisation.

Friday night, he'll try to help Tampa Prep win a state soccer championship.

"He's been a big part of the success this year," Terrapins coach Doug Smith said.

And that club team? Ro has been equally instrumental for those guys.

"He inspires me," Tampa Bay United under-18 coach Gregg Emmerman said.

Rodrigo Baltazar Jose Diaz was born in Venezuela, but moved with his parents and sister to Canada — in the greater Toronto area —  when he was 10. A year later, his dad died of cancer.

The physical defect that accompanied his birth was an obstacle he quickly learned to navigate through a plethora of otherwise quotidian tasks.

By age 8, he was fielding ground balls with his gloved left hand, quickly tucking the glove between his upper right arm (which is fully functional) and torso, pulling out the ball from the glove and throwing it in time to get the runner at first.  

Cutting a steak, tying his shoes, typing — Ro mastered them all. His driver's license photo was barely developed when he began driving his mom's silver Nissan Sentra — manual transmission — around the neighborhood.

"I got really close to the steering wheel so I could get close to the stick shift because I can't reach from far," he said. "I had to lean over a little."

Ironically, it was the one endeavor that required no hands — soccer — in which Ro found himself at a disadvantage. His technique, speed and instinctivness weren't the issue. Exposure was.

"Basically, I wanted an opportunity to play college soccer," he said. "In Canada we don't have that many opportunities to go far in soccer; it's more about academics. But here you can work on your academics and a sport at the same time."

After attending a camp at USF last summer and exiting with a player of the week award, Ro's aunt and uncle — Nate and Marianto Upshaw — invited him to join their bustling South Tampa household for his senior year of high school. After brief contemplation, he accepted.

A day or two before the start of his senior year, he enrolled at Tampa Prep.

"A gift on our doorstep waiting for us when school started," Smith said.

To help acclimate Ro to local elite soccer, and keep him in shape during the autumn, Smith steered him toward Tampa Bay United. Initially, Emmerman balked because he was happy with his modest-sized roster.

"But when I heard about this kid I realized how strong this kid must be mentally to pass all the obstacles he's passed in his life," Emmerman said. "As soon as I saw him play, I mean, the kid's awesome. I knew in the first five minutes he'd be able to add something to our team."

Playing alongside the likes of future Terrapins teammate Jordan Hayes and prolific Jesuit forward Brett Durrance, Ro shined at left midfielder, helping the team win the prestigious College Cup Showcase in Alabama.

This winter, he has tallied 10 goals and four assists for the Terrapins (17-6-2) despite playing only 12 games while battling assorted nagging injuries. Friday against Fort Myers Evangelical, he'll start at center-mid.
 
"He's got that low-to-the-ground, South American style of play, and he's very quick," Smith said. "He's one of the fastest guys on the team. He's been huge for us."

Equally huge has been the payoff of that Toronto-to-Tampa gamble. Ro has received a scholarship offer from Division III Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C. Emmerman said he has been in contact with some in-state programs as well.

"He's an awesome soccer player," Emmerman said. "I've been talking to colleges and he's going to get to play college soccer. ... I have no doubt he'll be able to accomplish that."

 

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