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One Buc and his wife keep faith in dire decision

Evan Rodriguez, a fullback with the Bucs, and his wife Olivia Rodriguez, sat for a portrait on Thursday at their home in Tampa. 

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MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Evan Rodriguez, a fullback with the Bucs, and his wife Olivia Rodriguez, sat for a portrait on Thursday at their home in Tampa. [ MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Aug. 1, 2015

TAMPA

Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Evan Rodriguez and his newlywed wife, Olivia, eagerly anticipated the July trip to the doctor's office to find out the gender of their unborn child.

If it was a girl, they would name her Layla Sky because "I'm always looking at the sky," said Rodriguez, 26, who joined the Bucs last season.

But the sonogram tech had a dire message: "I don't want to make you guys nervous or anything, but her head doesn't look all there," Evan remembered hearing.

Doctors confirmed it was a rare birth defect known as anencephaly, in which a baby develops without parts of its brain and skull.

"They're telling us this, and it's eye-opening," Evan said. "I've never heard of this, ever. I'm like 'There's nothing you guys can do? There's no cure?' "

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only one in 4,859 babies is born with anencephaly, which happens early in development when the neural tube does not close completely. As a result, key parts of the brain are not formed, and other parts of the brain are not covered by bone or skin.

Nearly all babies with anencephaly die shortly after birth. The Rodriguezes, who married in May, had a fateful decision to make.

"They give you two options," Evan said. "Terminate the baby or you can continue with the process."

They chose to go forward with the next five months of the pregnancy and treasure whatever amount of time they get with their firstborn.

"Just like if your child has cancer, you're going to fight for whatever time you're given with that child," Evan said.

Faith is important to the Rodriguezes, who met in Miami in 2012.

"We were both going through our rebel stages," said Olivia, whose due date is Dec. 29. "Slowly, we just grew up. Faith kicked in. A combination of faith and growing up and maturing, that's how it all happened."

That faith helps guide them through the pregnancy. They stay in touch with David Demola, their pastor at Faith Fellowship Ministries, a large interdenominational church with about 10,000 members in Sayreville, N.J., where the couple lives in the offseason.

"Who are we to determine the child's life? We decided to leave it in God's hands," said Evan, who wears a bracelet on his right wrist with his daughter's initials. "We hope for the best, even if it's 10 minutes, three days, a year. It will mean more than anything."

"God often uses our deepest pain as the launching pad of our greatest calling," Olivia posted on Instagram last week.

The Rodriguezes have been open about the situation on social media, posting to Twitter and Instagram a plea for women to get educated about anencephaly with #TheFightForLaylaSky.

Evan and Olivia were overwhelmed by an outpouring of support, not only from friends and family but total strangers who have gone through something similar. In mere days, it went from something they didn't know existed to something that had entire support groups online.

"At first, I felt kind of lonely and hopeless," said Olivia, 27, who can feel her daughter kick, strong enough to wake her. "I think the outlet for me was promoting awareness. I'm still learning and getting all the facts, but I want people to know more about this."

Friends that the Rodriguezes hadn't realized had suffered miscarriages shared their stories, and those potential few minutes with Layla meant more when they talked to mothers whose babies were unexpectedly stillborn. In trying to help others, they ended up helping themselves.

"People were coming out of leftfield to help us," Evan said. "They've been so supportive. They've prepared us for what's going on."

The Rodriguezes have made it their goal to increase awareness in the simple things a mother can do to lessen the chances of a baby born with anencephaly.

The most important factor is taking a daily supplement of folic acid. Because anencephaly occurs late in the first month of pregnancy, many mothers aren't yet even aware they have conceived, so it's important that women start taking folic acid before trying to get pregnant.

For reasons unknown, the condition is more common among Hispanic women, they learned.

Researchers at Duke University reached out, so Layla can be part of a case study into anencephaly. Evan and Olivia are talking to specialists at the University of South Florida and have looked into newborn organ donation, so that even if Layla doesn't survive, her body can help other babies have a chance to live longer.

Along with 89 other teammates, Evan Rodriguez returned Friday morning to One Buc Place for the start of training camp. Returning to the normalcy of football, the familiar routine of practices and meetings and the comfort of teammates will help Evan, who has found a new motivation in using the platform of being an NFL player to increase awareness about anencephaly.

"A lot of the frustration and emotion, he's definitely let that out working out and being on the field," said Olivia, who has a psychology degree, is taking her state real estate exam, does some house-flipping and is helping open their new restaurant in August on the Jersey Shore. "When he's feeling overwhelmed, whatever emotion he's feeling, he can put it out there on the field. That's when you see the best of him. With all the pain and emotions we go through every day, I know that football is definitely helping him right now."

Rodriguez, who came into the NFL under Bucs coach Lovie Smith with the Bears in 2012, joined the Bucs in November, spending three weeks on the team's practice squad, then earning a promotion to the active roster. He played 11 snaps in the team's final game, and is now one of three fullbacks competing for what is likely one spot on the final roster.

"I'm just trying to have a great season," Rodriguez said. "Football has always been my passion, and I can always clear my mind on that field."

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.