Prechae Rodriguez never suited up for a regular season varsity football game while at Jefferson High.
But nearly a decade after graduating from the Dragons program, Rodriguez will finally get to show off his football prowess in his hometown — this time with the Tampa Bay Storm.
"It's been a long road," he said. "But eventually, this is where I always wanted to be."
Rodriguez's football odyssey has taken him to the wheat fields of Kansas, through the ol' Dixie, up to the Big Apple and on to nearly every major city in Canada.
"I couldn't be happier to be home," he said.
Rodriguez was academically ineligible for football his junior and senior seasons (2002-03) at Jefferson, but was eligible for spring drills. That's when he caught the eyes of college scouts.
"They all were like 'who is this guy,' because they hadn't seen me play on the field before," Rodriguez said. "And we had such incredibly talented athletes there like (NFL wide receiver) Andre Caldwell. (Scouts) would come out to our practices in droves."
With his academic issues a concern, Rodriguez signed with junior college powerhouse Coffeyville in Kansas. But a curious opportunity arose the summer before he left for Kansas when Rodriguez took part in the And 1 Mixtape Tour basketball open run at USF.
"There was like six or seven thousand people out there that day," he said. "It was amazing."
Rodriguez, who played basketball at Jefferson while eligible during the spring semester, impressed the organizers. He went on to win a dunk contest and was offered a contract to join the And 1 Tour, even earning the nickname "Special Delivery" from tour members in attendance. But Rodriguez turned down the potentially lucrative opportunity due to concern it would interfere with his football eligibility.
"It would have been fun because And 1 was so big back then," he said. "Basketball was always my first love, but I wanted to go to school."
After two years at Coffeyville, Rodriguez finished up at Auburn before joining the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent. Rodriguez was cut from the Jets, but joined the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League in 2008, earning the East Division Rookie of the Year award after catching 70 balls for 1,099 yards and seven touchdowns.
"It took a little bit to get adjusted to the different rules (in Canada)," he said. "But when I did, I ran with it."
Rodriguez battled knee injuries his second season in Hamilton and bounced around the CFL the next three seasons, making stops in Saskatchewan, Montreal, Edmonton and Toronto.
"I kind of got caught up in the numbers game," Rodriguez said, referring to the CFL's 19 non-quarterback import player maximum per team. "My son was here in Tampa, and I wanted to be closer to him. He's the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Rodriguez, who originally thought about playing for Storm upon former Tampa Bay quarterback B.J. Hall's recommendation, reached out to coach Dave Ewart.
"He's a big kid with real good hands," Ewart said. "We lost some guys at wideout but I think he's going to make big contributions."
With Tampa Bay losing two of its top three wideouts from last year — Huey Whittaker and Hank Edwards — the 6-foot-4 Rodriguez figures to pair with 2011 leading receiver Amarri Jackson to form a potent outside threat.
"He can go up and get the ball," Ewart said. "That's something we lost with losing Edwards and Whittaker)."
And if area fans aren't familiar with Rodriguez's name yet or don't own one of his Storm jerseys, perhaps one day they'll be wearing one of his designs. He started a clothing line call Alpha Stahr Apparel that will be featured in the upcoming Gasparilla Fashion Week.
"My mother was a model and always dressed nice, so being in style is something that I grew up with," Rodriguez said. "I've got a lot going on right now but football is No. 1. I can't wait to get (the season) started."
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]