Overcoming adversity is a Rodriguez trait

With every tick of the clock, Edwin Rodriguez Jr. was inching closer to death. He was born in the wee hours of Sept. 29, 2006, the son of undefeated boxer Edwin Rodriguez Sr., one of the game's most promising super middleweight prospects, and his then-fiancee, Stephanie Rapa.

Edwin Jr. and his fraternal twin sister, Serena, were born 16 weeks prematurely. They were tiny at birth, only 12 inches long and weighing but a pound and three ounces each. They were so small, they fit in the palm of their father's hand.

Both had severe respiratory problems, but Edwin Jr.'s issues were worse. He couldn't breathe without the assistance of a respirator. Four weeks after his birth, doctors believed they'd reached the end of the line.

Edwin was supported by an oscillator longer than any child had ever been at the hospital. He wasn't improving and was literally clinging to life. Doctors had put the oscillator at maximum settings. Yet tiny Edwin never improved.

The doctors had a frank talk with the Worcester, Mass. parents: The chance of his survival was close to zero. If he did survive, it would be nothing less than a miracle. Then, one of the doctors spoke the words that would haunt Edwin and Stephanie: You need to make a decision.

That decision would mean taking Edwin Jr. off of life support and, essentially, allowing him to die.

Rapa had graduated from Holy Cross with a degree in political science and had earned a scholarship to law school. She understood what the doctors were telling her and was tortured by the impact her efforts to keep her son alive might be having on him. He'd been intubated for 122 days and she recognized what that was doing to him.

"It was an extremely painful thing," she said. "He was in intensive care, on respirators, with all these procedures being done to him. I was really struggling with whether or not I was being selfish, wanting my children so badly that I was willing to put them through anything. But Edwin [Sr.] was the one who kept saying, 'Everything is going to be OK. They'll be fine.' "

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That answer wasn't good enough for her, because it wasn't based on logic or science. It was nothing more than the feelings of a desperate father, and Rapa felt they'd reached to a stage in this child's life where they needed to make a rational decision not based on emotion.

Nerves were frayed. These young parents were being forced to make a decision no one is ever prepared to make, asked to take the toughest step they would face in their lifetimes.

Unplugging the machines would ease their son's pain, and they wanted that more than anything. The impact, though, would be heartbreaking.

A fateful decision

Finally, Rapa could not take Edwin's sunny optimism in the light of such dire medical evidence any longer. She lashed out in frustration.

"You keep saying that everything is going to be OK,'" she told him. "These people are medical professionals. They are telling us it's not going to be OK. They're telling us he has close to a zero percent chance of survival. They're telling us he's going to be a vegetable. Why are we doing this?"

Edwin looked at her and replied, "You have to believe me. Everything is going to be OK. I just know that everything is going to be OK."

She pointed out to Rodriguez that if their son managed to survive, it would be with the likelihood of significant limitations. He would never have any semblance of a normal life, she told him. It was almost certain he'd never be able to walk.

Edwin Rodriguez, at that time an Olympic hopeful and a potential professional champion, looked at the woman he would marry and slowly, but assertively, shook his head.

No, he told her. I don't care. That's my son. I love him no matter what.

It was at that precise moment both parents came to an identical decision: They were going forward with treatment and would do whatever it took to save their child.

Edwin's optimism won the fight against medical science and logic. Five years later, both children have survived. Edwin Jr. has cerebral palsy and autism. Serena has a mild case of cerebral palsy and has paralyzed vocal chords. Both, though, are happy children.

They walked at their parents' 2009 wedding, bringing many of their friends and family to tears.

"It was an extraordinarily inspirational wedding," promoter Lou DiBella said. "Everyone there knew what those kids had been through and what lengths they had gone to save them. To see them walking with their parents, it was incredible."

And now the fight belongs to Edwin, who dreams of hitting it big in boxing in order to give the family the life he could never have imagined growing up in the Dominican Republic.

Rodriguez, who is 19-0 with 14 knockouts, will meet unbeaten Will Rosinsky Friday at the Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Conn. in the main event of a Shobox card on Showtime.

A win would move him a step closer to a bout with one of the elite fighters, of which there are many, at super middleweight.

"He's the next guy in that weight class," DiBella said. "In my mind, he's the top young 168-pounder in the world."

Rodriguez lives the American Dream

Being the top guy in the weight class is meaningful to him because of what it might allow him to do for his family. For much of his life, he's known nothing but poverty. He was born in 1985 in Moca, D.R., the fourth of six sons of Octavio and Minvera Rodriguez.

When he was a boy on the island he dreamed not of boxing but of playing major league baseball.

By 1998, his father had finally earned enough money to summon his family and they left the Dominican Republic to join him in Worcester. The United States that Rodriguez had dreamed of coming to as a baseball star was, it turned out, just that: A dream.

The family moved into a poor section of Worcester, where bone-chilling cold and snowy winters made baseball a very seasonal sport.

"We didn't really know that much about the United States," Edwin Rodriguez said. "We just thought that everything was so perfect there, that there was so much opportunity and that money basically grew on trees."

He was 13, and spoke only Spanish. But he was committed to learning English and immersing himself in his new country's culture. By the time he was 15, he'd found boxing. By the time he was 19, he dreamed of representing the U.S. in the 2008 Olympics.

Those dreams were sidetracked when he needed to tend to his family. On the week his children were born, he was scheduled to fly to California to compete in an Olympic pre-qualifying tournament.

"This is a kid who was without question good enough to fight on that team," DiBella said.

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But when Rapa went to see her doctor for a routine examination that week, she was given stunning news. Her cervix was dilating and there were significant signs of pre-term labor. She'd have to have a Caesarean section and deliver the babies right then.

There would be more Olympic attempts, so Rodriguez skipped the trip to California and stayed at Rapa's side.

It devastated Rapa, who knew how important making the Olympics was to Rodriguez and how much it could mean to their life together. To Rodriguez, though, there was never any question.

"If I was going to be a husband and a father, I was going to do it not only when it was easy and times were good, but I was going to do it when things weren't so good and they needed me," he said.

He had one last shot the next year, but lost in the final qualifier for the Olympic box-offs and wouldn't be going to the Games in Beijing, China.

"I think everything that happened with me and the babies affected him more than he let me know," she said. "He was just emotionally drained. He had so many responsibilities. He was always going to a doctor's appointment or running to the hospital and he couldn't train the way he needed to train. The other guys he was competing against were able to do that, and he wasn't."

Up-and-coming pro

When he turned pro, he signed a managerial contract with a Worcester lawyer, Larry Army. Army looked at Rodriguez's power, saw his crowd-pleasing style and assumed that he'd be a natural.

Rodriguez proved him right. Crowds loved him, and he was knocking guys out left and right. But he wasn't advancing the way Army had hoped.

"I was naive to how the world of boxing worked," Army said. "I think I underestimated how hard the business side of the game is. I was thinking, if you have the best product, you'll get the fights and you'll make the money. But I realized after being in it for a while, that's not how it works."

Rodriguez was struggling to survive and support his family. Army gave him a job, but he kept paying Rodriguez even when the company went into bankruptcy and he was two months late on his own mortgage.

By that stage, Rodriguez had become Army's best friend. Army was a 40-year-old college-educated businessman with a law degree and Rodriguez was a 21-year-old high school-educated kid who had lived in the U.S. for less than 10 years.

Army saw an ethical young man who never looked for a handout or an easy way out. He wanted to work for what he earned. He was fervently committed to his family. He wanted to succeed in the worst way, as much for them as for himself.

"This kid is one of the most ethical human beings I've met in my life," Army said. "He does have values, strong, deeply held values. Let's be real, but in the United States of America in this day and age, and I know this isn't a popular thing to say, but we reward people for doing nothing. We give handouts like it's candy in a penny candy store. Edwin is the exception to that rule. He is what America was founded on.

"He came to this country knowing not a word of English, but in a few years, he learned to speak better English than people who have lived here their whole lives. He's integrated himself into the country. He's done that by working hard. He is the American dream. He is the embodiment of what people years ago would say they came to America for."

He was a great offensive boxer when he started, but he got hit so often, highlights of his fights looked like action from a movie scene. It didn't seem it could possibly be real.

But Rodriguez work assiduously on his defense. He hired renowned trainer Ronnie Shields for the express purpose of making himself a more complete fighter.

"His defense isn't terrible any more, but it still needs work," DiBella said. "But he's an offensive machine. His offense right now is there with [International Boxing Federation super middleweight champion [Lucian] Bute, with [World Boxing Council champion] Carl Froch and the top guys in the division. He punches as hard as anyone. His body work is astounding and he's hurt numerous champions to the body in sparring. He's the real deal."

No regrets

Rodriguez, who has donated tickets for Friday's fight to children at the Boys & Girls Club in Worcester where he met his wife, is desperate to fulfill his potential and become a world champion.

He's willing to do anything it takes in order to accomplish that goal.

Anything, it should be said, with the exception of one thing.

"Not only am I a better fighter, but I'm a better person after living through this experience with our children," he said. "They struggle to do things we take for granted. I want to be there for them and to help them, and help [my wife] and do my part in this.

"Winning a championship is important to me, of course. But the most important thing in my life is not a boxing championship. It's my family. And no matter what, I'll never be away from my family's side."

Edwin Jr. is now walking. Serena is vastly improved. Stephanie is, as Army says, "like a mother lion. She's a fierce, fierce advocate for those children and their needs."

Life is good. Big fights loom. Huge paydays await. But for unbeaten boxer Edwin Rodriguez, he gets the real payoff every day.

"Walking in that door and seeing those kids, that means more than anything to me," he said.

Rodriguez beams when he sees that Edwin has learned to spell his first name. The child who nearly didn't live to be two months old is five and, despite his cerebral palsy, walks up and down the steps on his own.

Little joys make the horror of those first few weeks of life worth it.

"Every day, you can see a little more progress," Rodriguez said. "I'm lucky, because I married the most incredible woman. …

"I can't explain it to you, except to say that those are my kids and every day one of them smiles or does something new, it reminds us that we made the right move."

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