SCOREBOARD North Bergen’s best grid player ever

Rodriguez puts aside troubled past and performs like a champion

There is no denying Evan Rodriguez’ talents as a football player. In fact, the North Bergen High School senior has enjoyed a season to remember, quite possibly showcasing himself as the best football player the school has ever produced.

That alone is saying a mouthful, because there have been plenty of football studs to come out of North Bergen, players like Mark D’Onofrio, Kenny Bello, Wayne Zitt, Eddie Duran, Czar Wiley, Chris Johnson, Jamar Wilkins and Gregg Ascolese, the son of legendary coach Vince Ascolese, just to name a few.

All of the aforementioned players became All-State performers for the Bruins. Rodriguez is simply pre-destined to join that list. He’s as much of an All-State lock as there is.

But Rodriguez’ performance this year has elevated him to the absolute pinnacle of North Bergen football greatness. He’s in a classification by himself.

Just look at what he did last Saturday against Dickinson as proof. Now playing quarterback again after a two-game experiment at running back to start the season, Rodriguez completed six of his eight passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns. He also carried the ball nine times for an additional 108 yards rushing and another touchdown.

On defense, Rodriguez, playing his more familiar safety position now after a two-game audition at linebacker, made seven tackles and recovered a fumble, all in the 51-0 win over Dickinson.

That’s not a one-game performance. It’s a career. But Rodriguez has been able to do that all this year, putting the cherry on the sundae that has been a spectacular four-year career.

“He’s happy wherever we put him,” coach Ascolese said. “Once [David] Portes [the projected starting quarterback] broke his hand, that ended and we had to put Evan back at quarterback. He had to have his hands on the ball. He’s that important. Plus, he’s throwing the ball real well and he’s doing a lot of it on his own. He was taught to read the defenses and he’s doing things now automatically. This kid can do anything.”

Added Ascolese, “On defense, we had kids who came along at linebacker, so we moved Evan back to safety. He’s more valuable in the middle of the field, where he has a chance to go to the ball regularly. The does a good job no matter where he is on the field.”

In some respects, it’s almost miraculous that Rodriguez is even on the field, that he’s able to play, considering certain incidents in the last two years.

Almost a year ago to the date, Rodriguez was stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass, narrowly missing his carotid artery – a wound that would have been fatal. The incident took place in an altercation outside a West New York fast food eatery. Rodriguez was back playing football just a week later, playing with several stitches in his neck. He was lucky.

But apparently, that scare wasn’t good enough for Rodriguez. He got himself involved in a series of incidents involving the law that we can’t elaborate on, because Rodriguez is still a juvenile.

Rodriguez got himself into so much trouble that he found himself incarcerated in the Hudson County youth detention facility for a time last summer.

Here’s a kid with the world on a string, with his future being mapped out at dozens of all the big-time colleges in the country, and he’s over his head in legal troubles, staring at throwing that promising future right down the toilet.

Evan Rodriguez was staring at becoming yet another casualty of the Hudson County streets. So very few from the area go on to become college standouts. Even fewer become professionals. Evan Rodriguez had all the tools to become a great college player and someone who had the potential to play for pay on Sundays.

That’s a line that has not been written in these parts about a Hudson County kid since the early 1990s, when we would pontificate about the professional abilities of kids like Rashard Casey of Hoboken and Billy O’Donnell and Pedro Cirino of St. Peter’s Prep. Back then, a life in pro football was predicted for all three kids and for some reason, it just didn’t happen. Casey went to Penn State, O’Donnell to Syracuse and Cirino to Boston College. All three had good college careers, but the pro life never beckoned.

The chances to succeed have been even fewer in North Bergen, where only D’Onofrio, the current defensive coordinator at Temple, was able to go from Penn State to the NFL and the Green Bay Packers.

Getting it straight

Rodriguez had it all; the size, the speed, the natural ability. He was the complete package except for one place – his head.

It was unfathomable that a kid could make so many mistakes in his life, that he was willing to throw away a spectacular future so easily. He was also getting a reputation around Hudson County as being a bad kid – which wasn’t true at all. Rodriguez was just a kid who got into trouble. He was never a troubled kid. There’s a big difference.

Because often, a troubled kid never has anyone try to help him. Maybe partially because of his immense talent, but also because he’s basically a likeable kid, Rodriguez has a solid support system, a group of adults – a mother, a surrogate father, a caring head coach – who look out for him.

However, things might have finally clicked in Rodriguez. Because when he came back to the Bruins’ camp in August after his time away, Rodriguez was a more focused individual. He wasn’t troubled, bothered. He came back like nothing had happened and was determined to make his senior year count.

“He’s behaving, and that’s all that matters,” Ascolese said. “I think when you have a chance to talk to people who have made mistakes, they then determine everything happens for a reason. In Evan’s case, it’s all been part of growing up. I hope he stays focused, but you never know what’s going on inside his head. But he’s been great with us. He’s having a good season.”

Ascolese said that instead of hanging out with friends and getting into trouble during his free time, Rodriguez has been donating his time to work with handicapped children.

“I told him if he was sincere about it, we would help him,” Ascolese said. “But I think he’s become more mature. It’s all been a process. I think he’s listening now. I can sense that he’s turned the corner.”

Ascolese said that he had a personal sign that Rodriguez had become more mature and focused just recently.

“Something happened at practice and he got mad at it,” Ascolese said. “Some kids were fooling around and Evan didn’t like it. He showed some emotion. He never got mad. I was shocked. I also was impressed by it.”

Ascolese said that he is pretty sure that Rodriguez has put his troubled times behind him.

“I talk to the kid every day,” Ascolese said. “I can see what he’s doing. I think he’s overcome it all and I really think that it was possibly good for him. I think he just needed a break, because he’s doing very well.”

And instead of worrying about a life of trouble, Rodriguez is concentrating on his next big decision – his college choice.

The schools that might have turned a blind eye away from Rodriguez are still calling. Rutgers is very interested. Temple, where former Bruin great D’Onofrio is coaching, would love to have his services. The University of Pittsburgh has been actively recruiting Evan since he was a sophomore.

All of that might have been gone if Rodriguez hadn’t turned the corner and realized that even though he was still a teenager, his life was at the crossroads. Here’s to hoping that he continues to travel down the right path towards the brilliant future that everyone has simply expected.


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