- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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The last conversation Alex Rodriguez had with his youngest brother began with an apology.
He was going to have to miss Francisco's prize fight Friday in Philadelphia, his brother's first pro title fight for the vacant USBA super bantamweight championship, and that was a rarity.
"I've only missed 12 of his fights ever, and when I dropped him off at the airport, I told him I was sorry," said Rodriguez, who was his brother's manager. "I said, 'Take care of yourself, but do whatever you have to do and bring back a title. Don't worry about Mom and your wife and daughter. I'm here for them. I'll take care of everything.'"
Rodriguez hung his head. "In the end, I feel I lied," he said, "because there is nothing I can do to relieve the agony of my mom and sister-in-law."
A makeshift shrine is set up on a small table in the corner of the room. There are his Illinois state championship belt, photos and mementos from his five Chicago Golden Gloves championships and one national title. And there are candles burning in memory of Francisco Rodriguez, who died Sunday after suffering serious injury while continuing a family tradition, doing what he loved and working to support his young family.
"Paco," as his loved ones called him, died as a result of a brain injury believed to have been sustained early in the 10-round bout Friday.
Two days after the family had the 25-year-old taken off life support in a Philadelphia hospital, they stood in the Logan Square two-flat that Francisco had shared with his parents, Evaristo Sr. and Maria, wife Sonia and 5-month-old daughter Ginette, a long way from making sense of it all.
"This is the hardest thing everyone has ever gone through," said Evaristo Jr., the middle of the three Rodriguez boys. "I can't even explain how hurt my family is."
Evaristo Jr., whom the family calls "Tito," and his father were in Francisco's corner Friday night for his fight with Teon Kennedy when he was staggered in the final seconds of the opening round with a left hook to the chin and an overhand right to the head.
He appeared to be OK in the rounds that followed.
"He was responsive the whole fight," Evaristo Jr said. "Every round. He was answering every question quickly and correctly. I kept telling him to keep his hands up."
The fight went back and forth after that, with Kennedy holding a slight edge on the judges' cards until the 10th round, when Kennedy took command with a flurry of big punches that forced referee Benjy Esteves to stop the fight 1:52 in.
"When they stopped the fight, [Francisco] came to the corner and I said, 'You all right?'" Evaristo Jr. said. "He said, 'Yeah.' He looked disappointed, and I said, 'It's OK, man, we're going to go home.'
"He sat down, and the doctor was asking him to 'Move this leg. Move the other leg.'
"I said, 'What's wrong, man?' and he touched the left side of his head and said, 'It's a little swollen.' I told him I was going to get ice, and by the time I got back, he said he was a little dizzy and real tired. I started talking to him again, but my brother wasn't answering my questions anymore."
The doctor and EMS personnel administered oxygen and rushed Francisco to Hahnemann University Hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery to relieve pressure from bleeding in his brain, but he never awoke.
In tragedy, there is irony. Like the fact that this was to be his breakthrough fight.
"It was the best preparation of his life," Alex said. "There was no pressure even to make weight. He was perfect, healthy, calm. I can't even tell you how calm he was."
All three Rodriguez boys boxed, and that, too, was ironic, because Evaristo Sr., although a pro in Mexico and the U.S., did not necessarily want his sons to fight.
"It's not what he wanted, for us to box," Tito said. "He just wanted us to play a sport. But we didn't have the height for basketball."
Ultimately, Evaristo Sr. felt boxing kept his sons out of trouble. "You want to go out?" he'd say. "Let's go to the gym and train instead."
"And my dad felt boxing was safer than other sports," Alex said softly, "because you had headgear, bigger gloves."
Tito, two years younger than Alex and six years older than Francisco, was a brilliant and graceful fighter, a national and Chicago Golden Gloves champ. Alex boxed as a youngster but had a chronic problem, unrelated to fighting, with nosebleeds. And after surgeries for a ruptured appendix at age 10 and another intestinal ailment at age 12, his mother convinced his father not to let him train any longer, he said.
"My mom was protecting me from getting hurt," Alex said. "And in the end, the baby was the one who got hurt."
"The baby" was first brought to the gym in diapers. But it was not long after that it became clear who was the most talented fighter of the three boys.
"It was around 6 years old, when [Francisco] lost his first fight," Evaristo Sr. said through Tito, who interpreted. "I saw his attitude change. He trained harder. He didn't want to lose."
Tito noticed the dedication as well.
"Ever since he was little, he always paid attention to everything you told him," he said of his brother. "Sometimes he'd goof off a little, but he always paid attention."
Well, almost always.
"My dad tried telling him to leave the sport," Tito recalled. "He said, 'You've got your daughter now.' But Paco said, 'I've worked so hard; why quit now?'"
And so Paco worked as a driver for a doctor he knew. He trained. And he waited for his opportunity.
"We decided we'd take whatever they'd give us now, and if we win the belt, the bigger checks would start coming," Tito said.
"My brother," Alex said of Paco, "was very smart. He wanted to start learning to be a chef. It was one thing we argued about. Id' say, 'You have to do something in case boxing doesn't happen.' But at this fight especially, we felt the doors were about to open up big, that he'd be ranked in the IBF.
"The amount of money he made was not too much. He did it for the love of the sport. But like every fighter, he wanted to make it to the big time."
One of the first things Francisco did on his first trip to Philadelphia was a given. He went to visit the art museum to get a picture with the famous Rocky statue.
But Francisco was no Rocky, never a punching bag. He was a skilled boxer, but he also wasn't afraid to fight "like a Mexican," a compliment of the highest honor for someone not afraid to mix it up. He was a warrior, nicknamed "El Niño Azteca," a showman who walked into the ring for every fight accompanied by a band and handing out free T-shirts.
The promoter for Rodriguez-Kennedy, J Russell Peltz, expected a tremendous fight between the tough Philly kid and the Mexican warrior, and he got it, with the final judges' cards showing Kennedy ahead by margins of 87-83, 86-83 and 86-84.
"Every time my brother fought," Alex said, "I was bobbing and weaving myself, trying to avoid getting hit. My wife was like, 'Calm down.' But I was never worried about him, especially not this time."
They never talked about the dangers of dying in the ring simply because it was unthinkable.
"You hear about people getting hurt and recently about a fighter who died," Alex said. "It was just something we never thought would happen to us."
They never talked about organ donation for the same reason.
"We never talked about that with Francisco, because he was 25 years old," Alex said. "I'm 33, and I would never believe I'd have that conversation with my family."
When a representative from the Gift of Life came to talk to the family this past weekend in Philadelphia, Alex was in the room with Francisco's wife, Sonia.
"I told my sister-in-law, 'Don't say anything; just listen to me first,'" Alex recalled. "I told her, 'It would be such a waste for Francisco's heart and lungs not to help someone else.'
"One heartbeat for him was like three for someone else. And his lungs? The kid ran every day, and he was never out of breath."
Alex's 9-month-old daughter had been born with just one kidney, and Evaristo Sr. suggested giving one of Francisco's kidneys to her. But the baby, on medication to prevent infection, is doing fine and not a candidate for a transplant.
Maria then reminded the family of an uncle who on dialysis, and everyone agreed that if he and Francisco were a match, a kidney would go to him. Indeed, they were compatible.
And so in tragedy, there is also victory.
"The phrase I've been using is that I believed he was the people's champ," Alex said. "Now he's the people's hero. Eight other people will walk the face of the earth because of him. Eight families will be grateful because of him. And maybe because of his story, the chain will continue and other people will have that talk with their families and consider donation."
They do not blame the sport, but neither can they bear it right now.
"As of now, I want nothing to do with it," Tito said. "I don't know if he would want us to feel that way or not. But I know I can't go back to work [as a boxing coach at Chicago's Seward Park]. Everything just hits too close to home right now."
Home is where they gather in their grief, where Evaristo Sr. shuttles zombie-like and glassy-eyed between his two sons, and Maria and Sonia are unable to face anyone at all. But it also is where little Ginette will be comforted in years to come with stories of her father from those who loved him most.
"He was in love with that little girl, you know," said Tito, whose wife is also Sonia's sister. "She was his life. It was why he was boxing, for her to have everything he didn't have, that we all didn't have."
Alex recalled teasing his little brother for the amount of diaper changing and bottle washing he did.
"But it would never bother him," he said. "I was the older brother by eight and a half years, and I looked up to him. I admired everything about him. I never told him that.
"But I will never stop talking to that little girl about her father and what a wonderful person he was. He will never be forgotten. That little girl will grow up and know him as a wonderful human being. As long as God gives me life, she will know her dad as a hero."
An account has been established to help ease the family's medical expenses. Donations can be made at any Chase Bank location in America. You may deposit directly to the Francisco Rodriguez Estate fund account #707331062.
Melissa Isaaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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