Former Salisbury men’s lacrosse goalie Johnny Rodriguez vows to ‘fight like hell’ against ALS diagnosis

When he was a goalkeeper for the Mount Saint Joseph lacrosse team, Johnny Rodriguez stared down the likes of Steele Stanwick of Loyola Blakefield and Marcus Holman of Gilman. And when he anchored the same position and helped Salisbury capture the NCAA Division III championship in 2011, he had to face the shooters from Tufts and Stevenson.

Rodriguez, 35, is now facing a far greater battle.

Rodriguez was diagnosed in the fall with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disorder that is more commonly known as ALS — or Lou Gehrig’s disease — and characterized by muscle stiffness and twitching, weakness and wasting. The disease is usually terminal with an average life expectancy between two to four years after onset, but Rodriguez refused to surrender.

“It’s by far the greatest challenge I’ve ever been faced with, but I look at that as an opportunity,” he said. “Every single big game we played was an opportunity to test ourselves and validate ourselves. Everything I’ve done up to this point has prepared me for this.”

Rodriguez’s perseverance has generated support from the lacrosse communities surrounding the Sea Gulls and Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, where he was the coach until switching to an assistant role last summer. Head coach Knute Kraus, who was a star defenseman at Salisbury from 2012 to 2015 and was asked by Rodriguez to take over, said his former groomsman is not the type to give up.

“ALS came barking up the wrong tree with Johnny because he’s one of the most stubborn, hard-nosed fighters I know,” Kraus said. “He sets his sails one way, and he’s going that way.”

Despite not picking up lacrosse until the summer between his sixth and seventh grades, Rodriguez, a Gambrills resident, has built a career in the sport. After that 2011 season when he was named the Division III National Goalkeeper of the Year by the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association, he was drafted by the Chesapeake Bayhawks in 2012 and played for four other franchises in the Major League Lacrosse.

After turning down what he called an “incredible” offer to work in sales behind a desk, Rodriguez moved with his dog Mac to California and progressed through positions as an assistant coach, a private goalie trainer, founder of a club program and then coach at Mater Dei from 2015 to 2023.

Signs that something was wrong began in the summer of 2022. Rodriguez said the fingers on his right hand weren’t working properly, his muscles twitched, and his right hand atrophied. While trying to lift a weight he had comfortably hoisted before, his shoulder popped out of its socket.

Rodriguez said he went through a year-long process of getting MRIs once per month to find what he thought was a pinched nerve. After meeting a neurologist in August 2023 who speculated Rodriguez might have a motor neuron disease of which the most common form is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he visited an ALS-specialized clinic on Oct. 20, 2023, and learned he has ALS.

“Every thought went through my head,” he said. “‘Who’s going to be there to teach my kids life’s toughest lessons? Who’s going to tell my wife I love her before she goes to bed every night? Who’s going to be there to support my family when I’m not here?’ It was a really dark place.”

While running errands on a weeknight the following month, Rodriguez walked into a Catholic church and sat down in a pew.

“I just bawled my eyes out for like three hours,” he said. “At that point, I was like, ‘God gave me this. God knows, and He’s got a plan for me, and there’s a reason behind it. So I’m going to fight this thing, and I trust Him.’ So I was going to fight like hell.”

Rodriguez now runs through a weekly regimen of treatment that includes sitting in a type of hyperbaric chamber and undergoing shock therapy to regenerate his nerves. He also wears a device that delivers more voltage to his cells to strengthen their ability to fight ALS, has cut out dairy, gluten and alcohol from his diet, and practices Qigong, a series of exercises and meditation popular in China that has been suggested as a treatment for ALS.

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Although Rodriguez can no longer work out and still has some issues with the fingers of his right hand, he is moving on his own without help. He said he can zip a jacket, drink a water bottle with his right hand, and throw a ball, which he couldn’t do several months ago.

“In the big picture, if I’m living in the present and thinking about what this ALS diagnosis has done to me, it’s only enhanced my life because of everything it’s done,” he said. “I just continue to grind every day with the treatments and enjoy life to the fullest.”

When Rodriguez told the Mater Dei players, Kraus said they were devastated. But they have been encouraged by Rodriguez’s continued presence at practices and games.

“It’s been really awesome for these kids to see that in the face of adversity and in light of what Johnny is going through, he shows up every single day, the same person ready to work and ready to help them get better,” Kraus said.

On April 13, Rodriguez and his family were the guests of honor at Salisbury’s annual “War on the Shore” game against Washington College. Dedicated as a “Lax for ALS” game, the program raised more than $15,000 to be donated to a foundation Rodriguez launched called Athletes Versus ALS to raise awareness and money to fund research in the battle against ALS.

Sea Gulls coach Jim Berkman also gave Rodriguez the 2011 championship banner and a “healing stick” handcrafted by former midfielder Jimmy Barnes, who grew up on a Mohawk reservation in upstate New York. Berkman, who had received the stick from another player after a fire on Oct. 8 heavily damaged the former’s house, said he was touched by the community’s response to Rodriguez’s plight.

“If you talk to anybody who has ever played here, they always talk about bleeding maroon and gold and how they’re a Sea Gull for life,” Berkman said. “The Sea Gulls look out for each other.”

There is no known cure for ALS. But Rodriguez cited research by Richard Bedlack, a neurologist and the director of Duke Medical School’s ALS Clinic who has documented 48 cases of ALS reversals as of 2020.

“Do I want to be [No.] 49? Yeah, of course I do,” Rodriguez said. “But I can’t focus on an outcome. Just like in lacrosse, you don’t focus on the outcome. You focus on what you can do between the first whistle and the last whistle, and that’s what I’m doing right now.”