Tuesday, September 26, 2006
The other A-Rod
TORRANCE, Calif. -- It's early August and Southern California is wilting from a relentless heat wave. But inside an air-conditioned hotel, Amy Rodriguez has just announced that it feels like Christmas.
That's not the sun exposure from too many afternoon soccer practices talking. The 19-year-old is only expressing her excitement about a shipment that arrived today from a particularly generous sponsor. "We got tons of stuff: shirts and shorts, shoes, even little iPod cases," she says eagerly. This kind of swag doesn't come around the U.S. U-20 women's team often, and the University of Southern California sophomore is lapping up the moment. One mistake: The tenacious forward was handed a pair of blue cleats. Freebies are great, but sporting Bruins colors? No can do. Rodriguez hails from the other side of town, where it's cardinal and gold, or -- well, no self-respecting Trojan would even think about an "or." There was a time, though, when USC was just a brochure lost in the dozens that flocked to the Rodriguez home in Lake Forest, Calif. Each one of the pamphlets boasted glossy photos of blissful students on charming campuses, along with letters that promised full rides and an exciting collegiate experience. It was Rodriguez's offensive abilities they were after. While at Santa Margarita High School, the bubbly blond was known for her ability to finish strong after slashing through a defense. Her senior year she scored 17 goals in just 15 games and was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year as well as National Player of the Year by Parade magazine. "It was kind of a lot to deal with -- very overwhelming," Rodriguez says about deciding on a college. "But the whole process was toned down by my parents. My dad and mom were really supportive and helped me [sift] through all of it. It ended up working out for the best." Obviously. As a freshman, Rodriguez ("A-Rod" to her teammates) led USC in scoring and helped it to an NCAA playoff berth. And that was on the heels of one of USC's worst seasons yet. She was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and made the NSCAA All-America third team. She made it look easy, but Rodriguez admits that she started the year a little intimidated. "It was kind of like shock that people are looking to me to do so many things," she says. "I wasn't really prepared to take this team on my shoulders, I mean, I'm just a freshman coming in. That's a lot of pressure to deal with. If I had a bad game, it was like, 'Oh my God, Amy,' but it just took getting used to and toward the middle of the year I started feeling comfortable. That's when my game started kind of sprouting and becoming more of my kind of play." Her mother, Lori, says this kind of turnaround is standard fare when it comes to her eldest. "She's a pretty even-keeled kid," she said. "She was not one of those girls that get really emotional up or down. She just doesn't allow it. It's kind of funny, she creates her own path but if something's not going her way, she'll just turn it into something else. She finds a way to make it better." Rodriguez is even credited with bettering the makeup of the USC team. A handful of talented freshmen signed on with the school only after learning she was headed there. Head coach Jim Millinder (who actually attended high school with Lori) has even called it the best class in the history of the program. This knack for making an impact began when Rodriguez was 5 years old and bested a field of boys in her first American Youth Soccer Organization game. Gregarious and genial, she never had a problem standing out in a crowd, whether it was giving speeches in class or being elected student president in sixth grade. And it was hard to ever get her to slow down. "Everything [about her] is fast," Lori says. "Eats fast, drives fast, moves fast." Speed is part of the reason Rodriguez is the only player from USC to ever get called up to the full national team. That first happened for the 2005 Algarve Cup, during which she was the youngest player on the roster. It's an accomplishment she attributes to her cutthroat attitude on the field. "I'm really competitive," she says. "That's probably why my coaches always put me at forward because I'm the one that's always persistent, always the one that's going out there and play after play trying to make something happen. I'm part Hispanic -- my dad's Cuban -- so that fiery Latina attitude definitely [comes out] in my game." Her fair skin and hazel eyes, however, mean that her racial background is often questioned. There have been times when those looking for a Rodriguez on the roster have completely bypassed her. "I definitely catch people by surprise here and there," she says. Her father, John, was actually born in California, so Rodriguez says she's pretty Americanized and only speaks a little Spanish. But there are plenty of family reunions where Grandma cooks traditional dishes like congri, a mixture of rice and beans. But just getting back home to visit her brother Adam, 18, and sister Lauren, 11, became more difficult once Rodriguez entered college. Late-night papers, 6:30 a.m. runs and additional practices with the national team often wore her out. "It's a hard balance, especially living by myself," she says. "I've grown a lot from it, I've matured and I think I've developed good multitasking skills." She finished the year with a 3.7 GPA and plans to apply to USC's communications school and maybe minor in business. Sometimes she'll think about the thousands of students around her and the lives they must be leading, where a sport doesn't dominate their free time. And she can't imagine being in their shoes. "I think of myself as 'Amy who plays soccer at USC' or 'Amy the soccer player.' It's weird -- playing this sport you have this definition attached to you," she says. "I can't think of myself as being just by myself." If you push her to visualize it though, she'll say that without that white ball in her life, she'd have missed out. "I've been able to get a college education because of it, I've been able to travel places all around the world," she says. "My mom was telling me the other day that I've gotten to visit and do 10 times the things she's been able to do because I kept my heart in [soccer] and I had passion for it. It's given me so many more opportunities." And one other thing. Rodriguez is pretty sure soccer is responsible for keeping her personality balanced and adding depth to her character. "Otherwise I'd probably be a really big nerd," says the girl known for doing Jim Carrey impressions. "Soccer definitely kept me cool."
Corina Knoll is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.