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MYERSTOWN >> Tony Rodriguez is a polite, soft-spoken kid, low-key in his demeanor almost to the point of being downright shy.

If you didn't know his story, you might be prone to making a snap judgement and labeling him as someone lacking in toughness or resolve.

You'd be wrong. So wrong.

You see, Rodriguez, a senior defensive lineman on the Elco High School football team, is tougher than most of us could ever hope to be. Because he's seen, and been forced to confront, things most of us couldn't possibly imagine and still remain a happy, productive student/athlete and member of society.

Over the years, he's watched his father, Carmelo Rodriguez, abuse alcohol, hit his mother, verbally abuse him and recently be sent to state prison for 6 to 20 years for beating another man with a brick last year.

He's faced the anxiety of knowing his father was wanted by the law and not knowing when or if he'd ever see him again or if he even wanted to. He's endured the pain that comes with seeing those he loves in pain from his father's actions.

It's not exactly a Hallmark card life he and his mother, Angela Rodriguez, and sisters Brandi, 20, and Jayln, 16, have lived.

But Tony's not about to complain or wallow in the unfairness of it all. He's got a family that needs him badly and a football team that he needs just as much.

Plus, "I hate excuses," he says. "Making excuses is weak."

If he wanted to use an excuse, he's got plenty of reason to. But that's not who Tony Rodriguez is.

Instead, he's a kid that Elco coach Bob Miller says is beloved by his teachers, loved and respected by his coaches and teammates, and just about the bravest kid any of them know.

"He's an unbelievably polite, respectful, hardworking type of kid," Miller said after Elco's practice on Wednesday. "All the teachers that have him in school love him. He looks you right in the eye when he asks you a question. He's real focused and has fun with his friends. He's just an all-around great kid."

Rodriguez became increasingly beloved and admired for what he did in the locker room last month shortly after his father was sentenced to a lengthy prison term.

As reluctant a public speaker or interview subject as you could find, he stood up in front of his teammates and, with Miller's encouragement, told them his family's story. It was a story most of them didn't know beforehand. He spared none of the wrenching details, and he shed no tears. He just spoke from the heart, as daunting a challenge as it was.

He did it for himself and he did it for the team. To say he captivated his audience is an understatement.

"It was scary," Rodriguez said. "I was really hesitant at first. I don't like talking in front of people. I didn't even want to do this (interview), to be honest. It was a little hard because I don't like to talk about my past."

But it was worth it.

"A lot of guys hugged me," he said. "It felt like a thousand pounds lifted off of me."

"For me, it was hard to ask him," said Miller, who encouraged Tony to share his story as a way of also helping others, not just himself. "But as soon as I told him it was for the team, he jumped right in."

Rodriguez has also jumped right in to his role as the man of the Rodriguez household. It's a role that was forced upon him far too young, but one he'll never shy away from.

"I've had that role since I was real little," he said. "I've always protected them and I always will."

That doesn't mean he doesn't wish his dad was there fulfilling that role. He has little contact with his father now that he is in prison, but is told by his mother that during her phone calls with Carmelo that he listens to Elco games on the radio and dearly wishes he could be there in person to see his son play.

"It's easy and hard, because he's been to prison so many times since I was little," Tony said. "The hard part was watching him get arrested, I hated that. And I hate watching my mom cry.

"It makes us sad, but that's what he gets for his actions."

Ironically, Tony credits his father with teaching him right from wrong. Unfortunately, his father wasn't able to practice what he preached.

"He told me never disrespect a lady, never hit them or swear at them. But he did that," Tony said. "He would tell me never drink, but he abused alcohol."

His father may have let him down, but football never does.

"Oh, it's very important," Rodriguez said when asked what football means to him. "It's a stress reliever for me. (Without it), I'd probably have gone down the same path as my dad at this age."

Instead, he's on his own path, one that he hopes will next take him to college and/or a career in law enforcement.

"He doesn't let it define him," Miller said of Rodriguez's desire to rise above his circumstances.

"I want to achieve goals," Tony says. "I've got goals in life. He didn't."

If he follows through on his career plans – he'd like to become a state cop – Rodriguez could well encounter kids in similar situations to his now.

They'd be advised to not wallow in their problems or use them as an excuse for underachieving in life.

"Man up. Suck it up," he said, his eyes flashing, of what his advice as Officer Rodriguez would be.

"Life is gonna throw you curve balls. Dodge 'em."

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