Story by Sarah Sabatke
It’s 4:30 a.m. on a Thursday. While most people are still sleeping, Eric Rodriguez is making the 15-minute drive from his home in Ashland, Missouri, to MizzouRec. He gets to the courts early, practices shooting, then practices with the Mizzou Wheelchair Basketball team at 5:30 a.m.
Rodriguez discovered the sport in late 2012 while he was recovering from disabling injuries he sustained during a deployment overseas. He served with the U.S. Marine Corps from 2000 to 2013, completing eight tours, including several in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rodriguez says he originally thought wheelchair basketball was “just handicapped people in chairs kind of pushing hospital chairs, nothing competitive.”
After seeing collegiate players at a league camp, his view of the sport changed. He decided to begin competing and, several years later, was recruited by MU Head Coach Ron Lykins. He joined MU’s team in 2017.
The leadership and mental strength he learned in the military carried over to the game. When the team was doing pre-season conditioning, Rodriguez made an effort to lead by example by making it appear like he wasn’t tired.
“I guess just showing them that it’s possible to be mentally strong and be able to push your body above the limits that you think it has,” he says. “I learned that in the Marine Corps, and definitely I’m amazed [by] the ways you can push your body.”
After practice, Rodriguez heads off to meet with his chemistry lab partner. He is in the second year of studying for his mechanical engineering major and says the classes are starting to get more difficult. The pair exchange information from their labs the previous days, and his partner helps break down the information. Unlike on the courts, Rodriguez says he is a “novice when it comes to chemistry.”
When he is finally able to go home, around 5 or 6 p.m. on a good day, he spends hours doing homework — in addition helping his two kids complete their own.
“I just know that, for the amount of work and dedication I’m putting in, the outcome is gonna be great,” he says.
His goals are relatively clear-cut. In basketball, Rodriguez aims to “win as many championships as possible.” In school, his ultimate goal is to receive his degree, no matter what it takes. “I’m willing to lose sleep to be successful.”
Despite lack of sleep and a demanding schedule, Rodriguez is confident it will all pay off. In addition to being successful for himself, he wants to show his children and other veterans how important it is to “never lower the standards.” He hopes that his children will see how he was always “going, going, going,” and says “that’s how it should be.”
“I’ve got to set a good foundation for them to do that, especially being first-generation American,” says Rodriguez. “I feel that the things I do are going to set that foundation for my family tree.”
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