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Nearly 17 months after emotionally stepping away from the game he loves, former All-Big Sky Conference guard Eric Rodriguez will be looking to restart his football career at Northern Arizona’s Pro Day.

Training with his younger brother Andy Rodriguez, who recently graduated from Northern Arizona himself after finishing his senior season as a long snapper, Eric believes he’s rid himself of the chronic back pain he suffered through during his time with the Lumberjacks.

“It’s been a journey, honestly,” Eric said. “Going from being in a hole to now I am in a position to do drills and football stuff in front of scouts, it took heart.”

The past year and a half has been a test for Eric, graduating from Northern Arizona and moving back home to Palmdale, California, while contemplating what to do next. A conversation with Northern Arizona defensive coordinator Andy Thompson, one that happened soon after the decision to retire was made, stuck with Eric.

“Coach Thompson comes up and says, ‘I know what you are going through right now. Football was your purpose. You'd get through everything to get to football and now you have to go find your new purpose,’” Eric said.

After taking time to think what his next move would be, Eric landed at an obvious conclusion. He felt football was his purpose and what he loved to do.

“I am willing to go to any length to give this a try,” Eric said. “Whatever is asked of me I'll try to exceed that expectation.

“I went to a back specialist, he did an X-ray and went off some other stuff, and he said that structurally everything looks fine,” Eric added. “It is all core muscles, and the surrounding areas and tissues that were affecting my spine.”

Granted a confidence boost, Eric started off slowly at home while working out with his older brother. Easing back into a new workout routine, he’d wake up in the early morning hours and arrive at the gym before his brother went to work.

Lifting lightly, just 65 pounds of deadlifting to start off, Eric said he spent three months testing himself after he last played a game in October of 2016 against Eastern Washington. Along with the back specialist recommending pilates in order to help his back, Eric said he kept a routine that included foam rolling, static stretching and jogging.

“I’d rather go out on my 10 toes than behind closed doors,” Eric said, stuck with the unhappy memories he once believed to be ending his career. “When we pulled the plug, I went straight to my locker and cried. The first person that embraced me was Jake Thomas. I remember that like it was yesterday.”

Now the end game is Tuesday’s pro day and an opportunity to show he has recovered and grown stronger and healthier while away from the game for a year. Wanting to return to Flagstaff, where his brother Andy was entering his senior season, Eric moved back to town and planned out his next steps with his new trainer.

BROTHERS IN BUSINESS

Working at Copper State Bolt and Nut for 40 to 45 hours a week, Eric continued to train on his own while watching his brother play from the stands on the weekends. With his brother still busy in season, Eric said he would work out on his own while getting used to the daily grind of a warehouse job requiring heavy lifting and being on his feet for an entire day. Once Northern Arizona’s season came to an end, Andy graduated with his health sciences, fitness and wellness degree and used his experience as an intern under Northern Arizona’s former strength and condition coach Cody Hodgeson to help his brother.

Andy’s belief, thus far proven correct as Eric has continued through workouts pain free, was a lack of balance through his brother’s muscle structure was in part to blame. Looking to build up areas left largely ignored by the typical workouts for football, Andy sought to help Eric better balance himself out.

“I looked at other pieces in the puzzle. Really looking toward other muscles and focusing on the imbalances he had,” Andy said. “The reality is it's not really just his back, it’s more than that causing his back to hurt.”

With Eric formerly left in such significant pain that he was forced to drop in person classes and attend Northern Arizona exclusively online, Andy sees his brother as recovered with more to give the sport.

“I believed that he could do it, I believe he has a lot in the tank. More than he knows and more than a lot of people believe,” Andy said. “First, I just wanted to figure out if his back could hold up, because that's the main thing everyone is thinking. That's the first thing anybody asks him is how is his back.”

For the past few months, the two have been a constant together. Eric’s routine has include 4 a.m. starts with 5 a.m. arrivals to the Walkup Skydome for spring workouts. After an eight-hour shift at work and break to eat, Eric said he’d return again to lift, stretch and run through plyometrics with Andy.

“That kid is a mad scientist, I call him that all the time,” Eric said of Andy’s training plans. “I have been with him for however long it was and the strides we have made are ridiculous.”

The experience has brought the two even closer together, as Andy begins his dream of training athletes while helping his brother try to fulfill his of extending his playing career.

“We played football together all throughout high school. Youth football, high school, college, this is what I love to do,” Andy said. “I love to watch him grow and get better while getting the experience. What I want to do is train athletes, train people and make people better. What better of opportunity than helping my own brother out to reach his dreams?”

Tuesday’s pro day results, with what numbers Eric is able to put up on the bench press in front of NFL scouts, will go a long way in continuing those dreams that just a year and a half ago seemed dead.

“Watching my senior year on the sidelines, I’d get condolences like someone died,” Eric said. “I essentially watched my own athletic career die and I was at my own funeral.”

Northern Arizona’s pro day will be held in the weight room of the Walkup Skydome and move outdoors onto the fields for individual workouts. Workouts are set to begin at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

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Sports Reporter

Cody Bashore serves as the beat writer for Northern Arizona University basketball and football in addition to covering high school sports around Flagstaff for the Arizona Daily Sun.

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