For as long as he can remember, wrestling has been the central focus in Steven Rodrigues’ life.
The son of a wrestling coach who has been rolling around on mats since childhood, Rodrigues was groomed to grapple. And with a personality that borders on obsessive, he was unwilling to accept any shortcuts.
“He’s never satisfied,” said father Anthony Rodrigues, who is the head coach at Steven’s alma mater, Fox Lane. “When he was in high school, we’d be coming back from (Iowa Style Wrestling) club one night — and this is after getting up at 6 in the morning to run — and he and Brian (Realbuto) would stay late to kill each other. He looked at me and said, ‘Dad, I don’t think I’m doing enough.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy? I think you’re doing too much.’ ”
All those years of dedication helped Rodrigues develop into one of the best wrestlers in the country, but every top athlete has to hang ’em up at one juncture or another.
For Rodrigues, now a senior at the University of Illinois, his final chapter will likely be written this week at the NCAA Division I wrestling championships. He’ll have the unique opportunity to conclude his collegiate career close to home, as the tournament will be held at Madison Square Garden for the first time on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“It’s been a little bit surreal,” Rodrigues said. “There’s no better way to go out than at home, but for me, I can’t get too caught up in who’s going to be there. I feel relaxed, but I’m super intense and ready to go.”
Despite many years of hard work, Rodrigues’ path to becoming a national contender tested his will.
He endured second- and third-place finishes at the New York state high school championships before finally capturing a title as a senior, and then his college career got off to a shaky start. Rodrigues originally committed to Rutgers University, but quickly realized it wasn’t the right fit. He transferred to Illinois following the 2011-12 season, but wrestling in the Big 10 conference would prove to be his biggest challenge.
“College and college wrestling just brings such a whirlwind of emotions,” he said. “It was a rough start for me, but I think I’ve grown so much being away from home and independent. It’s taught me to become a man.”
Rodrigues figured that his best chance to crack the lineup at Illinois would be at 141 pounds, which is the weight at which he would wrestle for his first three seasons. But over the years, that weight became more difficult to maintain.
As a junior, he qualified for the NCAA championships for the first time, but a long season of cutting weight had taken its toll. Rodrigues felt burnt out and did not place, so shortly after the tournament, he approached Illinois coach Jim Heffernan.
“He sat down in my office and just said, ‘I’m thinking about next year already. I want to go up to 165 (pounds),’ ” Heffernan recalled. “He asked me what I thought, and I told him I thought it was a great idea. … It didn’t take long (to adjust). He came off the mat after his first match and said, ‘I can’t believe how strong I feel.’ ”
Any skeptics who thought that jumping three weight classes was a risky move were quickly proven wrong. In his final season, Rodrigues has put together his most consistent season. He’ll enter the NCAA championships as the No. 6 seed at 165 pounds with a season record of 25-3.
The top three seeds at 165 feature a two-time national champ in Oklahoma State’s Alex Dieringer, as well as two wrestlers who are responsible for Rodrigues’ three losses — Wisconsin’s Isaac Jordan and Ohio State’s Bo Jordan. It would require an upset or two to capture a title, but Rodrigues is embracing the underdog role.
Without a doubt, he’s got a great shot of placing in the top eight to earn All-America status in front of the home crowd — a proper send-off for one of the best wrestlers to ever come out of the Lower Hudson Valley.
“Towards the end of last year, I just didn’t have the juice to compete with the best guys in the country. Now I’m really ready to make a run, and I have the energy to do it,” Rodrigues said. “I’ve really never gotten what I wanted except my senior year in high school. Now it’s time to go get what I rightfully deserve, and that’s being high on that podium.”