NEW YORK — As he reflected on the career of senior Steven Rodrigues in the storied tunnels of the World’s Most Famous Arena, University of Illinois wrestling coach Jim Heffernan’s face swelled with pride.
He didn’t know exactly how things would turn out for the grappler from Fox Lane, a high school Heffernan had likely never heard of before he met Rodrigues. There were physical limitations that shied many Division I college coaches away, but Heffernan saw something in the former New York State champion that others may have missed.
“He’s not a fantastic athlete in terms of flexibility and speed and power,” said a reflective Heffernan. “He’s really strong, he’s got great heart, great lungs and he trains hard, so he can wrestle forever. Part of it is, for us, if these matches were an hour long, I’d take Steven on my team any time.
“More importantly, I’d say that he got the most out of himself.”
Rodrigues, a wrestling lifer who is known in the Section 1 community for his unyielding work ethic, capped his memorable career by taking fifth at 165 pounds at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships on Saturday.
For the rest of his life, he will be known as an All-American.
“I’ve always said that this was going to be my moment — my time where I was going to raise my hands and be happy with what I’ve done,” Rodrigues said after winning his final collegiate bout with an 8-5 decision over Virginia Tech’s David McFadden. “Since I got All-American, I was just so relaxed. I’m not about taking fifth place — I want to win — but once I got that monkey off my back, that was probably the most fun that I’ve had in my wrestling career.”
That hint of dissatisfaction wasn’t for show. Rodrigues has been wrestling since he was 5-years-old, and he’s always been a perfectionist.
That’s what drove him to this point, and that’s why he’ll go down as one of the best to ever come out of the Lower Hudson Valley.
“He’s always had that,” said Steven’s father Anthony Rodrigues, the head coach at Fox Lane. “And it has nothing to do with me. People probably thought that I was the crazy father driving him, but he’s got tunnel vision. And when he puts his mind to something, he’s going to do it.”
For his first three years at Illinois, Rodrigues may have driven himself a bit too far. He was determined to wrestle at 141 pounds and stubbornly stayed at that weight, even as his body rejected it.
He had a moment of clarity in the offseason with Heffernan, and made the decision to bump up to 165 for his senior campaign. It freed Rodrigues up to concentrate on wrestling, rather than weight maintenance.
His will and determination took care of the rest.
“He’s a tough guy,” Heffernan said. “That’s the one thing we always knew about him. You’re going to get everything that he’s got. Every day in practice, you’re going to get everything that he’s got. Every time that he competes, you’re going to get everything that he’s got. A couple of those matches, even in overtime, it didn’t really concern me so much because I knew if it came down to toughness, he was going to win.”
Now that it’s over, it should come as no surprise that Rodrigues plans to stay involved with the sport that has given him so much. “I’ve always wanted to give back,” he said, noting that he majored in sports management and would love to help young wrestlers.
Those future grapplers will be humbled to work with an All-American who fought for everything that he’s got. And what better way to go out than at Madison Square Garden, less than 40 miles from where he grew up.
“From my club (Iowa Style Wrestling in Somers), there’s probably about 500 people here from my area, coming to watch me wrestle,” Rodrigues said. “It’s a great feeling to get my last win here, and I’ll move on now.”