As a third-grader, Glenn Rodriguez had more to worry about than what was going to happen on his favorite cartoon.
For him, a day could be spent on the streets. A day could involve selling marijuana.
Like his mother, Rodriguez was introduced to the dark side of life at a young age. There was a strong chance he would become another statistic, another child who dropped out of school.
“It was crazy growing up. I really had to survive,” he said. “I was selling weed one time. I was really in the streets, finding the next meal and the clothes on my back.
“I didn’t think I would get out of middle school.”
He did, eventually becoming a major contributor on Lucy C. Laney High School’s state champion basketball team and the school’s football team, which won a home playoff game last season.
Beating the odds, Rodriguez, 19, will graduate Monday. Come August, he’ll head to Chattahoochee Technical College in Marietta, Ga., to play football.
“He’s one of the true success stories here in Laney,” Wildcats football coach Lemuel Lackey said.
Rodriguez says he was a nightmare in school.
“I was the kid that came in the class and the teacher would be like, ‘Oh Lord, help me through this day.’ I was really that bad,” he said.
There was the time he slapped a teacher and another when he fought the school’s safety officer. His behavior was so poor that he was placed in behavioral classes.
“Growing up, a lot of people doubted me,” he said. “I took people through hell.”
Some people told him he wouldn’t make it.
He was great in sports, though. He played with the older boys, getting physical and talking smack. There was always a ball in his hands.
The hard part was staying in school, but his grandmother Alice Carter was one of the rocks making sure he wouldn’t drop out. She said her grandson persevered through disappointment and rejection to be where he is now.
Rodriguez received help along the way from people who would provide money, a place to stay or encouragement.
Tonethia Beasley has known Rodriguez since he was in the third grade.
Beasley, W.S. Hornsby K-8 School’s principal, considers him a “diamond in the rough,” a student talented athletically and one who starred in school programs and was spiritual. He was the one who told her he laughed to keep from crying, the one who referred to her as “Mom.”
“I saw someone special,” Beasley said. “I saw a fighter. All he needed was some extra nurturing and somebody that believed in him.”
She and many others made sure Rodriguez stayed in school.
With their help, Rodriguez can prepare for graduation and make his mother, Veronica, smile. She is frail and bedridden because of AIDS, but her son’s strength is a source of light.
“It’s a blessing,” she said about her son’s graduating. “He’s been through a whole lot. I told him plenty of times, ‘Don’t give up.’ I told him, ‘Keep going, keep going.’ And here he is.”
Be a kid
When Rodriguez stepped onto a team bus, he could be a typical teenager.
He could be Romey Rome. The team bus is kind of a dream world, where he can take the role of the Martin TV show character, yelling and joking with his teammates. So long as he’s on the bus, or on the field or court, Rodriguez can have fun, imitating coaches and others.
After the bus’s return trip, however, the fantasy is over.
“When we get back, ‘Well, coach, you know, I got to get back to reality,’ ” Laney basketball coach Jerry Hunter said.
Reality for Rodriguez is being in the hospital or at home, caring for his mother because his brother and father aren’t often around. His mother, who he learned his sophomore year has AIDS, always came first, even if it meant sacrificing days at school or not going out to eat to celebrate a birthday.
There were nights when he got an hour of sleep and maybe some bread for dinner, if he was lucky. Rodriguez had to be there if his mother called to him.
“I got to be strong for her,” he said. “I got to keep going for her because if I break down or do something crazy … I can’t give up.”
There were times Lackey feared he would lose Rodriguez to the streets. There were people pulling Rodriguez away from Laney, away from football and away from school, the coach believed, but he always kept the door open.
“He needs a village,” Lackey said. “He’s got so much talent. And it’s not athletic ability; he has a great personality, an absolute great personality. Very few people will say they don’t like Glenn because he’s just got that way about him. He’s one of those kids you can get mad at today, but you can’t stay mad at him.”
Lackey considers Rodriguez the best athlete at the school, and he said the student’s commitment to the athletic program grew each year.
In football, he became a leader as a senior, willing to accept whatever role he was given after losing his shot at starting quarterback because missed practice time doomed his chances of learning the plays. He played wherever he was needed: punter, punt returner, wide receiver, backup quarterback, defensive end and safety.
When Rodriguez gives his word and his commitment, his coaches believe him. He showed his commitment before the basketball team’s second-round state playoff game against Thomasville.
Hunter asked Rodriguez – and only Rodriguez – to shave his head as a sign of sacrifice. The coach wanted him to show the importance of sacrificing one’s image for the team.
The next day, the coach brought clippers. The hesitant, but willing, Rodriguez sat in a chair, waiting.
Hunter pretended the clippers didn’t work.
“After school, I told him, ‘You don’t ever have to worry about me questioning your courage again. Ever. Ever. You were willing to sacrifice your image for the team,’ ” Hunter said. “It wasn’t about the bald head. It was if you were willing to get a bald head.”
A place to go
Rodriguez could always regress and fall away.
His mother sometimes returned to drugs, but once Rodriguez was determined, he wasn’t going to leave.
For children in similar situations, school and after-school activities can be a savior.
“Glenn needed that structure,” Hunter said. “A kid like that has to be a part of something. Basketball was his outlet; it was truly his outlet. ‘This is your break. You’re not out in the streets. This is your last opportunity to be a child in high school, to play.’ ”
After the Wildcats took the state title – Rodriguez silenced Manchester’s Zay Echols in the final, keeping him stuck at seven 3-pointers after he volunteered to defend the sharpshooter – Hunter feared the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Rodriguez might leave school.
Rodriguez had his championship. He could get a GED.
Hunter presented that as an option, to test him.
Rodriguez said no. He stayed home studying for tests he needed to graduate.
Laney Principal Tonia Mason said Rodriguez’s attitude marked a sign of growth.
“ ‘After all your hard work, after dealing with your mother’s illness, look at you now,’ ” Mason said. “He’s walking around here, telling kids he doesn’t have time to play.”
Rodriguez thinks about where he would be if he stayed on the streets, and he thinks about a day when he gets the call that his mom’s fight is over.
He worries about what will happen to his mother after he goes to college in August. They finally seem settled, and he has to leave.
He does have someone in his corner, though – Laney junior Kim Warthen, whom he calls his “other half.” She sometimes gets calls from the hospital before he does. She buys fruit and Ensure for his mother and is there when needed.
They have their fights, but they will always be connected, Rodriguez said.
Warthen’s mother recently died, and Rodriguez held Warthen in his arms that day.
“I can’t picture marrying anybody else but her,” Rodriguez said.
Others will help, of course – they always have.
Though Rodriguez’s life away from Augusta is full of unknowns, those close to him say he’s ready for his next step.
“Right now,” Lackey said, “he feels like he can fly.”