'Dreamer' uses gridiron glory to go to college. But for how long?

Photo: Vongni Yang, Visalia Times-Delta

'Dreamer' uses gridiron glory to go to college. But for how long?

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'Dreamer' uses gridiron glory to go to college. But for how long?

Gonzalo Rodriguez has been a dreamer all his life.

As a youth, he dreamed of being a star player for the Golden West High varsity football team.

When he arrived as a freshman on the Trailblazers’ campus in northeast Visalia, California, he dreamed of winning a Valley championship.

In his four years at Golden West, those dreams became reality.

Not only did Rodriguez emerge as a star player, he was the catalyst in helping the Trailblazers win their first Central Section championship in program history during the  2017 season and also became the first team from the city of Visalia to host a state championship game.

With high school now behind him, Rodriguez will turn to the next chapter in his life: He has been accepted and will attend the University of La Verne, a small private college in Southern California.

But those dreams come with complications other student-athletes heading off to college don’t have to face.

Rodriguez is an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child. He is one of the approximately 800,000 immigrants enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

Under DACA, undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children are given protection from deportation and a work permit.

But President Trump announced last year he was phasing out DACA in March.

“It [DACA] gives other people like me a chance to do something. It gives us a chance,”  Rodriguez said. “I think it’s a blessing that I still have an opportunity to go [to college].”

Currently, Congress is debating a legislative fix in the program that doesn’t involve deporting young people like Rodriguez.

With both dreams of college and the potential nightmare of being deported from a country he now calls home, Rodriguez will don a Trailblazers’ helmet for the final time on Saturday in the 51st annual Tulare-Kings All-Star Football Game at Groppetti Automotive Visalia Community Stadium. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.

The memory of Rodriguez’s father being taken away from the family’s Rancho Cucamonga apartment and deported back to Mexico is still vivid.

He was 6, maybe 7 years old when it happened.

The recent Golden West High grad hasn’t seen his father since. His dad now lives in Mexico.

“It was early in the morning, 3 or 4 in the morning,” Rodriguez said. “They broke down the door and took my dad. That was the last time I’ve seen him.”

Rodriguez’s family moved to Visalia shortly after that incident.

With no father figure, his mother, Ana, shouldered the responsibility of both mom and dad, while raising Rodriguez and his two sisters.

It wasn’t until the fifth grade that Rodriguez understood he was undocumented.

“I knew I couldn’t do certain things that other kids could,” Rodriguez said. “I knew that, at that young age, that I knew I don’t have it like everyone else. Like everything, life’s hard. Life’s tough, but that’s what makes my life different from everyone else’s. I knew that it’s all about what I can do. I’m going to make myself. I’m going to sculpt myself to what I want to be. The figure I want to be. That’s what it’s come down to.”

When he isn’t playing football, he helps his mom clean homes.

He has also worked in the fields in the past, picking walnuts in the fall and oranges in the winter, and does manual labor when he can find work.

Rodriguez, 18, credits his work ethic to his mom.

His two sisters also drive him to provide a better life for his family.

“I give her all the credit in the world,” Rodriguez said of his mother. “The perfect example would be that, I am my mom. I’m a perfect figure of my mom because she’s been the only person that has been there my whole life. She’s made me become the person that I am today. We are so much alike that it’s unbelievable. We connect the same. We think the same. I love my mom to the death of me. She’s helped me so much, it’s unbelievable. All I want to do is graduate college and give everything back to her.”

Rodriguez doesn’t forget about his dad, though.

The two still keep in touch and talk on the phone when they can.

Rodriguez was named after his father.

Although they haven’t seen each other for more than a decade, Rodriguez hopes that one day, the two can be reunited.

“I’ve envisioned that moment,” Rodriguez said. “I hope I get to meet all of my family, too. I hope that nothing’s bad, nothing’s sad and that everything is amazing.”

When Rodriguez was playing youth football, a coach told the running back if he committed himself to the sport, football could potentially provide him with opportunities.

Initially, he pursued football because he loved playing the game with his teammates.

But as he got older, the realization came to him: He could use football as an avenue to help him pay for college and get a four-year degree.

It hasn’t been an easy process, though.

Despite closing his career with 5,304 yards rushing, a Visalia city high school record, and graduating with a 3.1-grade point average, Rodriguez wasn’t bombarded with scholarship offers.

Even after running for 2,233 yards and 31 touchdowns as a senior, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound bruiser still wasn’t heavily recruited.

For the few coaches who did show interest, some stopped recruiting Rodriguez once they found out he had no papers.

“They wouldn’t touch him,” Golden West head coach Paul Preheim said.

Rodriguez also believes his status as an undocumented immigrant limited his opportunities.

“It could definitely be a hassle for somebody,” Rodriguez said of potential college coaches recruiting undocumented athletes. “I could see why. I [understand].”

Rodriguez never stopped dreaming.

After helping Golden West win a section title last December, Rodriguez took a recruiting visit to La Verne.

He toured the campus and the facilities and fell in love with everything the school had to offer.

“It was amazing,” Rodriguez said. “The town was beautiful. The coaches were so nice. The players. Everything was perfect.”

Rodriguez received his La Verne acceptance letter in the spring.

He came home from school and saw a big envelope.

“My mom was just so flabbergasted,” Rodriguez said. “She was just so excited that I really got accepted. My heart kind of dropped because I couldn’t believe it. My heart was on the edge because there was another school I applied for and I didn’t get accepted.”

La Verne was the only four-year school to accept Rodriguez.

“It makes me proud,” Preheim said. “Just the way he shows up, the way he carries himself, he’s so humble. He cares about everyone. He wants to know how everyone is doing. He wants to see everybody succeed.”

Because La Verne’s sports programs compete at the NCAA Division III level, the university does not offer athletic scholarships.

Financial aid and a private scholarship will help pay for a percentage of Rodriguez’s La Verne tuition, he said, but he still has to come up with about $20,000 to cover other annual fees, including living expenses, room, and board.

Under the California Dream Act Application, undocumented students who meet the qualifications of state law AB 540 can apply and may receive state-administered financial aid, private scholarships, and grants.

He also plans to take out a private student loan and with his work permit is authorized to find employment while attending school.

Rodriguez credits his support system for helping mold him into a man.

If it wasn’t for the Golden West and Visalia community, Rodriguez is unsure if he would have an opportunity to attend a four-year university, he said.

Rodriguez burst onto the high school football scene as a sophomore in 2015.

Under the play calling of offensive coordinator Stan Kanawyer, he rushed for 1,216 yards and scored 16 total TDs operating out of a run-heavy, Wing-T offense.

The following season, his junior year, Rodriguez excelled, once again, as Golden West’s featured back.

He amassed 1,742 yards rushing and scored 22 TDs.

That season, the Trailblazers captured a share of the West Yosemite League crown and advanced to the Central Section Division IV finals.

Although the Trailblazers lost 42-12 to McClymonds-Oakland in the state title game in 2017, they set a school record with 12 victories in a single season.

In three full varsity seasons, Rodriguez missed only two games due to injury and the Trailblazers compiled an overall 26-11 record.

“He’s one of those kids when he gets the ball, good things happen,” Kanawyer said. “In three years, he only had three fumbles. His yards speak for itself. He’s a kid you like being around, a young man you like talking to. A young man you can see doing great things in the future. But more than anything, his desire to play football was unbelievable. He practiced the way he played. He enjoyed practice. If there was anything I can tell other young football players, ‘If they want to be like him, you have to learn to love practice.’ Because he really did.”

In his final year in a Trailblazers’ uniform, Rodriguez was also named by league coaches as the WYL Offensive Player of the Year.

“When your back’s against the wall, you can use your circumstances as an excuse or as a reason to do great things,” Kanawyer said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to let this stop me.’ He just has a lot of self-motivation and Hispanic pride. I see something special in his Hispanic pride, being a man and being tough and doing what he’s supposed to do. He has it. He’s one of a kind.”

On Tuesday, accompanied by Golden West athletic director John DeLong, Rodriguez toured the La Verne campus, participating in the Student for Advising and Registration program to get acclimated to life as a college student.

He also took a math placement test, registered for five classes and saw his dorm room.

Later this summer, Rodriguez is set to take part in a showcase for incoming freshmen and transfers to find his place on the La Verne football team.

“I just have to stay focused,” Rodriguez said. “That was my priority here at Golden West and that’s going to be my priority at La Verne. If I can maintain good grades, maintain and be in shape, I think that’s going to be key.”

Rodriguez has endured and overcame his fair share of challenges but he’s never allowed that to dictate who he is.

His advice to others facing challenges?

“For any kid out there, just keep following your dreams,” Rodriguez said. “There’s nothing in this world that can stop a human being. There’s nothing in this world that can stop no one. If you want to do something and you can envision it and stay focus, I guarantee you, there’s nothing that can stop you. That’s how I think of it. When I’m so focused on something, there’s no one that is going to get in my way.”

For more, visit the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta

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'Dreamer' uses gridiron glory to go to college. But for how long?
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