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Loss of Leg Doesn’t Slow San Pedro Linebacker

Ever since Robert Rodriguez had his left leg amputated below the knee 14 years ago, he’s had to learn to tackle obstacles one at a time.

Lately Rodriguez has been tackling running backs. And flankers. And tight ends. Rodriguez has learned to take on whatever strays into his defensive turf, and he’s doing it with a vengeance.

Rodriguez is a starting outside linebacker for San Pedro High School’s “B” football team. And, like most prep juniors, he likes to skateboard and play football and pickup basketball.

But he’s doing it all while wearing the same type of prosthesis he was fitted with when he was 2 years old. Rodriguez was born without a fibula, the small bone of the calf, and when his doctors realized the leg wouldn’t grow, they amputated below the knee.

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But Rodriguez is so capable with his prosthesis that Dr. John D. King, an orthopedic surgeon at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, gave him a medical release last September to play sports.

So Rodriguez, 16, now in his second year on San Pedro’s team, has suddenly emerged as one of Coach Derek Alkonis’ top tacklers.

“When the players came out for football this summer, everybody was fighting for a starting job,” Alkonis said. “And once we started hitting, that’s when Robert really started to shine. When we put on the pads, Robert wasn’t afraid to hit anyone. He’s one of our most feared tacklers.”

Rodriguez plays with an artificial limb that fits by suction directly below his left knee. He laces his football cleat over the flexible rubber foot at the base of the prosthesis.

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“It sure doesn’t make things any easier,” Rodriguez said. “At least if I get hit (on the prosthesis), it doesn’t hurt as much.”

Rodriguez plays with intelligence and a tight-lipped, no-nonsense attitude. He patrols the strong side of the Pirates’ defense, alongside middle linebacker John Colello and weak-side linebacker Glen Merrick. On offense, he starts at guard.

“Robert picks things up in an instant,” Alkonis said. “He compensates for a lack of speed by using his brain. I don’t know if he really anticipates plays, but he definitely knows what’s going on out there.”

Rodriguez played a key role on both sides of the ball in the Pirates’ 21-7 victory over Leuzinger last week. He also had a handful of solo tackles in the team’s opening loss to Venice. The Pirates play tonight at Cleveland of Reseda at 5:15.

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“On a couple plays, I might cheat a little bit more one way or the other,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes I try to make a certain angle work to my advantage.”

Rodriguez is especially scrappy in stopping the sweep to the strong side. He’s been burned a couple of times on reverse plays, but he wouldn’t be the first linebacker crossed up by a couple of sneaky handoffs. And like any other prep linebacker, he doesn’t want special treatment.

“We make him run in practice just like everybody else,” Alkonis said, “even though a lot of times his leg will be hurting. I’m not a Hitler, but Robert just wants to be a regular guy on the team.”

At 5-6, 140 pounds, Rodriguez has a powerful upper body. He lifts weights regularly at the San Pedro Peninsula YMCA, in hope of gaining enough bulk to earn a varsity spot next year.

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In the meantime, he’s studying hard. He’s aiming for UCLA medical school, where he’d like to learn to be a pediatrician like King. And he passes along tips to the younger handicapped kids that he meets at the orthopedic clinic.

“The doctors are amazed that I can move so good on the leg,” Rodriguez said. “But it just takes a while to get used to it. I’ve just never let anything get in the way of being the best I can be.”

As a youngster, Rodriguez didn’t have any role models--like Jim Abbott, the University of Michigan pitcher who was born without a right hand, or Douglas Bader, the English flying ace in World War II who had two artificial legs--to help him overcome his handicap.

But he had a lot of determination.

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“I used to go outside and watch the other kids playing,” Rodriguez said. “And then I’d wonder why I couldn’t play just like them. So instead of sitting around, I just went out and did it.”


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