The National Football League draft was getting ready to begin last Thursday night and Evan Rodriguez wanted to be prepared.
After all, Rodriguez had literally waited for this moment from the minute he first put on football pads and cleats as a youngster growing up in North Bergen.
He prevailed and starred as a youth football player, the object of every high school’s desire. He persevered and flourished as a two-sport superstar at North Bergen High School, a four-year gridiron standout, an All-State football honoree and eventually, the 2006-2007 Hudson Reporter Male Athlete of the Year.
Rodriguez then earned a scholarship at West Virginia University, where things didn’t work out according to plan, but they did at his second stop, Temple University. At Temple, Rodriguez had to re-invent himself as a football player, going first from a defensive back to linebacker to eventually tight end.
Rodriguez thrived at his new position, so much so that he played himself into an NFL prospect. He attended the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis and watched his stock skyrocket. He knew that his dream of becoming an NFL player was about to become a reality.
So Rodriguez sat down and watched the first round of the draft on Thursday with his family, even though he knew he basically had no chance of going in the first round.
“Even though I knew I wasn’t going to get picked that early, you never know,” Rodriguez said. “I really didn’t know.”
The second two rounds of the draft were held on Friday. Rodriguez watched again, but there was no phone call, no chance to hear his name.
“I was basically prepared for the worst,” said Rodriguez, meaning that he wouldn’t get picked at all. “I had the attitude of whatever happened, happened. Still, it was tough.”
The remaining four rounds of the draft, rounds 4 through 7, were slated for Saturday afternoon.
“I got up Saturday morning and hung out with my family, watching it again,” Rodriguez said. “I really didn’t know what was going to happen.”
It didn’t take long Saturday for Rodriguez to get the call – but it came from an unexpected source.
A little after the fourth round began Saturday afternoon, Rodriguez received a phone call from Lovie Smith, the head coach of the Chicago Bears. “E-Rod” was taken by the Bears in the fourth round, the No. 111 pick overall.
With that selection, Rodriguez became the first North Bergen native to get selected in the NFL Draft since his former coach at Temple, Mark D’Onofrio, was taken by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 1992 NFL Draft.
Rodriguez was stunned that it was the Bears who made the call.
“I didn’t even know I was on their radar,” Rodriguez said. “I had a visit with the team, with Coach Smith and the general manager [Phil Emery] and I answered their questions, but I didn’t know they’d draft me. I thought they had medium interest.”
Rodriguez thought that he had a better chance of getting selected by either the New York Giants or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Both teams told Rodriguez that they would take Rodriguez if they had the chance.
But when the phone rang and it was Lovie Smith on the other end, all negative thoughts went away.
“I looked at the phone and the caller ID said ‘Lovie Smith,’” Rodriguez said. “It was a dream come true. It was a big relief, but I was still shocked when it happened. I finally made it. I was watching the draft from the beginning and I finally heard my name called.”
Rodriguez was selected as a tight end, but that might not be etched in stone.
“The tight ends coach and the running backs coach said that they were going to be fighting over me,” Rodriguez said. “I’m probably going to spend time with both groups. But this was definitely a huge surprise. I’m at a loss for words.”
Rodriguez is excited to be a part of the Bears’ organization. He will leave for Chicago in a week or so to get accustomed to his new home.
“I’m real excited to go out there,” Rodriguez said. “I’ll have no distractions and I’ll start working on learning the playbook. I’m going to fight for a spot.”
Rodriguez had to be reminded that fourth-round draft picks don’t usually get cut in training camp. They’re usually welcomed members. Teams don’t waste draft picks like that unless it’s a sure thing.
“I’m taking nothing for granted,” Rodriguez said. “I have to go out there and earn it. Anything is possible. I have to work hard.”
Smith was quoted as saying that Rodriguez “is a very intriguing player.”
“As we continue to grow in an offense, we would like to move in some more guys who can do mixed things,” Smith said. “We haven’t had a player like Evan on our roster. He will be able to do different things for us, as a fullback, as a tight end. He has glorious hands. I’m really intrigued to see what he can do for us.”
Rodriguez knows he’s headed to a very talented team.
“I couldn’t ask for anything better, being on a team with Pro Bowlers like Brian Erhlacher, Devin Hester and Matt Forte,” Rodriguez said. “We have a team that can compete to go to the Super Bowl. I think they’re going to keep me at tight end, but they could move me all over the place. It’s definitely going to be exciting. I just have to go out there and work hard and try to fit in.”
Rodriguez loves the fact that he can now be a positive role model for other local youngsters.
“A lot of people were telling me that I wasn’t going to make it,” Rodriguez said. “But as long as you believe, anything can happen. I am hopeful that I can be a role model to others. Right now, this is all a blur.”
A blur that took 15 years or so to come to a reality. There were a lot of people who predicted stardom from “E-Rod” when he was just a toddler. Now, he gets a chance to live up to those lofty expectations in the NFL.
“As they say, it’s time for me to ‘Bear down, Chicago Bear,’” Rodriguez said.
See, he already knows the team’s fight song.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.