Sunday, December 17, 2017

Season's ordeals put unwelcome strain on Largo's Rodriguez


It wasn't an overly taxing day, practice went smoothly that July morning, and Largo High School football coach Rick Rodriguez hadn't even worked out yet.

But when he got home that morning, his heart was fluttering and his vision was blurry.

His blood pressure was normal, but the machine measuring his pulse read 150.

"I thought it was broken," he said.

So he held out his wrist and pressed his forefinger and middle finger against it.

"I could feel it — da da da da da da da da da da da," he said.

Something was wrong.

• • •

Rodriguez, whose Packers (8-2) host Jefferson (9-1) on Friday in a playoff game, said he has no intentions of this being his final game, this year or otherwise.

But could you blame him if it were, after what has probably been the toughest season of his coaching career?

Rodriguez, who will go down as arguably the most successful coach in Pinellas County history, all but kicked off the 2013 season in the hospital, in late July just as regular practices were about to begin.

An electrocardiogram confirmed his heart was indeed still beating at 150 beats per minute. Doctors said he had an irregular heartbeat, which untreated could lead to strokes, clots and heart attacks. Doctors thought they had fixed the problem by shocking the right and left sides of his heart in an attempt to synchronize the beats.

But about a month later, his heartbeat was back up to 137, and he needed another procedure — an electrical cardioversion.

"They put me to sleep and slapped those paddles on me," said Rodriguez, then laughing added: "You know, the ones they use when people are dead."

His doctor, cardiologist John Norris, told him he would be good to go by the time district games started.

"I've been fine ever since," Rodriguez said.

Which is pretty fortunate, considering the mounting pile of problems Rodriguez, 60, has had to deal with.

He coached from a golf cart early in the season, and watched the preseason win over Dunedin and the season opener over Northeast from the press box.

No headset.

No play-calling.

And the Packers delivered two routs, so no excitement.

When he walked down to the field after the Dunedin game, he remembers crying. He wasn't the coach at that moment, and that thought and everything the job meant washed over him.

He returned to full duties two weeks later, right as his top two players were being suspended for an in-school incident.

Welcome back, Coach.

"We got our (expletive) beat by East Lake; I should have stayed in the press box," he said, then smiling at his staff in the office next to his, added: "They probably wanted to kick me back up there."

• • •

In 37 years as a coach, Rodriguez said he has never endured a season quite like this one.

Sure, there have always been bumps. He suspended his best player for missing a practice before a playoff game Largo lost one year. He lost his starting quarterback midway through another promising season, then lost his star running back for most of one season, too.

"The last five years, always been something," he said. "Not like this, though."

But there is nothing soft about Largo, and nothing soft about its coach, and the tough times always seem to bring out the best in the Packers.

After surviving his heart scare and the loss of his best players for one week and a number of other nagging issues, a miracle finish at Venice on a Hail Mary pass gave Rodriguez his 42nd consecutive district victory dating to 2005.

The euphoria was short-lived.

Last week, detectives interviewed 1,000-yard rusher Jarvis Stewart for an hour at the team's walk-through before arresting him on charges of lewd and lascivious battery. This week, Rodriguez found out he'd also be missing his middle linebacker, Frankie Hernandez.

"This is the most adversity we've ever gone through since I've been here," said senior cornerback Cordell Hudson.

Rodriguez, though, is unswayed. If retirement is calling, he said he is not picking up.

"What keeps you in this are the good kids," Rodriguez said. "You're not going to change a kid's habits in three hours. Some respond to you. When they don't, it hurts like it's my own damn kid."

• • •

Rodriguez said his heart is fine and, like his players, he is ready to fight Friday night.

The Packers will move new players to running back and middle linebacker, start a kid who played junior varsity this season, try to piece something together to slow a high-powered and healthy Jefferson team.

Rodriguez's cell phone, a bright red Nokia Lumia, sits on his desk and you could say it bears a resemblance to his football team.

It is cracked from being dropped. The once brilliant screen is a glass spider web, and it looks like pieces may start twinkling to the ground at any second. It barely resembles its former self.

It is no longer polished and pretty, and is held together by a thin coating of plastic.

But it has survived.

"Our kids are still battling their (expletive) off," said Rodriguez, steeling his jaw. "Our backs are still against the wall, but my kids, they'll put up a fight against Jefferson."

Rodriguez grabs the phone on the way out to practice, holding it up to look at the screen.

"Still works fine," he said, then led two dozen Packers out to the practice field to get ready for another week.

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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