By Mike Savicki
Upon meeting and chatting with Joel Rodriguez, it doesn’t take long to realize he is something special. Sure, Joel’s energy and zest for making the most out of every day set him apart from most. So, too, does his smile and overflowing joy when you see him together with his three year old son. And the relationship he and his wife share, one built on mutual respect, shared caregiving, plus just a bit of competitive support, is clearly evident, too.
But what I think truly sets him as an Army veteran, a quadriplegic, and as a human, is the fact that he is always up for a challenge.
Case and point? While it takes most newly spinal cord injured individuals years to get their footing and build confidence, let alone enter the world of adaptive sports, Joel, 30, who has been injured for only 5 years, recently finished his fifth season of wheelchair rugby (the sport more commonly known as MURDERBALL, where Joel, a C5,6, plays as a 1.0). And the fact that he has already competed in multiple National Veterans Wheelchair Games, plus the Warrior and Invictus Games (held in Florida and Australia respectively), speaks volumes for the road he has chosen. With his medals being just one measure of competitive success, Joel has already racked up an overflowing armful, including two bronze and a silver (rugby, 100m race, discus) against the world’s Invictus best.
Speaking of roads, choices, and results, hearing Joel talk about his path back to driving is wholly motivating and inspirational. Those of us who use wheelchairs as a result of a traumatic injury have experienced (or at least heard stories of) that one less-than-optimistic doctor or therapist who does his/her best to keep our expectations for life, living, and independence as low as possible so as not to give false hope. Joel’s path back behind the wheel was fueled by one such individual.
“I remember the day very well,” Joel shares, “when someone who was supposed to be helping me get back on the road said after I explained I wanted a truck, ‘I don’t think you’ll ever be able to make that transfer on your own’. My wife said, ‘you don’t know my husband’ and that’s all it took.”
Rather than accept the recommendation and move ahead with a “less than desirable for a twenty-five year old” vehicle alternative, Joel challenged himself to continue his rehab, get stronger, and learn transferring techniques from other veterans and adaptive sport friends. One year later his efforts paid dividends as he took delivery of a blacked out 2014 Ford Raptor truck with an Adapt Solutions Link Seat. And two years later, to help transport his family, friends, inlaws, sports gear, etc., “from Florida to Denver to Chicago, to pretty much everywhere and back” he added a 2016 GMC VMI conversion van with a Ricon lift to his driveway. Both vehicles utilize push – rock hand controls.
Reflecting on his New York upbringing, his years as a firefighter, then his 7.5 years in the Army as an air traffic controller, along with what keeps him motivated, moving and challenged, Joel shares, “To this day I still have a great relationship with so many who have been in my life, especially the Army. I love interacting with the military types and I love encouraging everyone, no matter who you are, how old you are, or what function you have, to get out there and live the life you should. “Our warrior spirit,” he concludes, “is what keeps us going.”
Growing as a Brand Ambassador
Auto Express South’s GM, Tom O’Neil, describes his relationship with Joel Rodriguez
As told to Mike Savicki
I learned of Joel from the Warrior Games in Tampa. I took a vacation with my wife and we attended to volunteer with VMI driving Veterans. This was one of my first experiences in the community being a new VMI Signature dealer in early 2019. Right away after this event I knew I wanted to be engaged in the Veteran community.
When I returned from the Games I started my search and came across a news article about Joel and his family. The second I saw the video of his son crashing into him with a Little Tykes or, as Joel later referred to it as “try to put him over,” I knew I wanted to meet him. At the time my wife was pregnant with our daughter and everything about Joel’s family was just perfect. His son, Elijah, was adorable and had been on over 100 flights. He was part of the traveling team. His wife, Liannie, worked on the chairs between (rugby) matches and has a no BS attitude. When Joel slammed his head on my dad’s sports car dash during a “spirited drive,” he asked her for help getting out of the car. She just laughed at him and said “do it yourself.” It was something I’ll never forget because she loved him so much but she wouldn’t come right to his aid. She wanted him to be as independent as possible and knew everyday she was going to make him fight for that. They’re just a great team.
The second I met Joel I realized he wasn’t the Brand Ambassador, it was him and his family. You’d look at Joel and think his injury must have really stopped him in his tracks, it’s not the case at all. He didn’t miss a beat, he just changed the path in his life. His undeterred conviction is why I thought Joel would be a perfect match for us. I asked him what changed everything for him and made the difference and he told me it was the ability to leave his house and go anywhere. Just knowing you can leave is a game changer. This aligned exactly with what our team had for long term goals. I consider Joel just as much a friend as our brand advocate.
Mike Savicki’s “Mobility My Way” is column which appears in NMEDA’s Circuit Breaker magazine.