TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As he sat bedside, watching his older brother fight for his life in an Orlando-area hospital, Isaac Rodriguez prayed for a miracle.
Four years his brother’s junior, Isaac, now an academic coordinator in the Florida State athletics department, wasn’t around to see the early part of Jesus Rodriguez’s life. But he had heard all the stories.
About how Jesus was born premature and weighed just one pound upon his arrival on Earth. And how he’d endured more than a dozen surgeries before his first birthday.
Years later, Isaac watched in awe while Jesus overcame a host of other ailments, complications and medical procedures – including regular dialysis treatments – to reach adulthood and start a family.
Keeping close watch, despite heavy restrictions at the hospital due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Isaac knew the odds weren’t good. Jesus had suffered a heart attack a few weeks prior, had suffered brain damage and was unresponsive.
Still, Isaac believed. If anyone could bounce back from this, it was his big brother.
“My brother,” Isaac said, “was a fighter.”
Finally, on April 13, Jesus Rodriguez’s beleaguered body couldn’t fight any longer.
He died at age 30, leaving behind his parents, two young daughters and one heartbroken little brother.
“Watching him take his last breath was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life,” said Isaac, 26. “We were very close. It was just me and him. At times, it’s still tough to talk about.”
But Isaac is determined to talk about his brother’s death, as well as two other tragedies that have made his last month feel something like hell on Earth.
A few weeks before his brother’s passing, Isaac’s great aunt died due to complications from COVID-19.
Not long after that, an uncle was diagnosed with the disease and is continuing to fight it off.
And, in mid-March, right around the time when COVID-19 took off in the United States and effectively stopped the world from turning, Isaac himself woke up one day feeling sick.
He had a fever, a headache and chills, as well as instructions from his doctor to go get tested for the virus.
A few hours later, after visits to an X-ray lab and to the hospital, he had the frustration that came with being told he didn’t meet the criteria for testing.
Isaac eventually felt better, but, seeing regular reports of how widespread COVID-19 truly may be, he can’t help but feel like he might have had it.
“That was a tough week,” he said.
The weeks ahead would be even tougher. And although Isaac is still very much grieving the loss of his brother, he’s also determined to share his story with the student-athletes he works with every day at Florida State.
A former intern who joined FSU’s full-time staff in December, Isaac works primarily with FSU’s football, volleyball and beach volleyball teams.
In a normal day, he might go over course requirements, map out a semester schedule or offer homework guidance.
Now, though, he wants to impart a lesson that extends far beyond the classroom:
“Life is too short,” he said, “and it can be taken from you in a second. Your last breath, your last laugh, you don’t know when that’s going to happen. Make the most of every day you have.”
For Florida State’s student-athletes, that means taking full advantage of every opportunity afforded them during their time in Tallahassee, and then using that experience to have a positive influence for someone else.
“The time you have as a student-athlete is short,” Isaac said. “Make the most of your opportunities here and grow as a person so you can make an impact on other peoples’ lives down the road.”
The same type of impact that Jesus Rodriguez had on Isaac.
The two were inseparable throughout their lives, bonding over a love of college football and video games.
Jesus was there when Isaac was a budding star running back at Freedom High in Orlando, when he signed with FCS football power South Dakota State in 2012 and, later, when he began his career in academics as a student-assistant at Minnesota State.
Most importantly, Jesus was by Isaac’s side in February, when he and wife Emily were married.
“That’s one thing that helps with my grief,” Isaac said. “Knowing he was there on my special day.”
Isaac can’t help but sometimes feel like he’s still here.
He talks to him often and knows him so well that he can easily imagine what Jesus would say back.
“I know this sounds crazy,” Isaac said, “but, just talking to him, it’s kind of like having a conversation with him. That helps.”
Isaac has also taken some solace in the fast friendships formed among the academics and athletics staff at Florida State.
He said that Dr. Kacy King, FSU’s associate athletics director for Student-Athlete Academic Services, fosters a family environment in their department, and that he has received near-constant messages of support from colleagues, coaches and student-athletes over the last few weeks.
There was even a bouquet of flowers waiting at Jesus’ viewing.
“It brought tears to my eyes, seeing that people actually do care about you,” Isaac said. “It’s not just about work.”
FSU defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson reinforced that sentiment when asked about Isaac’s impact.
“His job is just as important as mine, and he does a phenomenal job,” Woodson said. “One thing about Isaac, he has genuine care for each individual player, not only academically but in life.”
Added tight ends coach Chris Thomsen: “The things that he’s had to juggle with his family, that’s really, really hard to do all that and still be able to do your job effectively. So I’m just very grateful for him.”
Even still, Isaac has been through a lifetime’s worth of hard days over the last month, and there are likely more ahead.
Leaning on his faith, his friends and his family help him get by.
“I’ve been reading a daily devotional for grieving,” he said. “It’s kind of put it in perspective for me, that God actually has a plan. There’s more to life here than people make it seem. God gives eternal life to people. That’s one thing that’s helped me through it. My brother is not suffering anymore.”
He’s also found a new purpose in the form of his two nieces, ages 5 and 1.
He holds weekly video chats with the older of the two and plans to keep them both close for the rest of his life.
“That’s probably my biggest priority now,” Isaac said. “Just being around their lives and letting them know that they do have a dad and he loved them very, very much. He was a great father.”
It’s one of the ways he’s living out the lessons he hopes to share from his experience.
“Take advantage of the time you have with your family and just call your loved ones,” he said. “Every day.”