Thunder Rodriguez (third from left) hangs with some friends recently after a game of soccer. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon).
ONTARIO – Thunder Rodriguez exudes equal parts defiance and desire when he’s playing soccer.
“He’s an outgoing kind of guy with high spirits,” said Daniel Dominguez, the junior varsity boys soccer coach at Ontario High School. “He motivates his team.”
On the field, the 16-year-old today looks nothing like the troubled teenager who appeared before the Malheur County Juvenile Court judge three years ago.
In 2015, Ontario police showed up at Rodriguez’s house to arrest him. The night before, the 13-year-old and a group of friends went on a mischief spree. They siphoned off gas from cars, slashed tires, broke into a car wash and stole a cash register.
Rodriguez was born in Ontario. His father had moved to the United States from Nayarit, Mexico, to work in the onion industry, while his mother came to Ontario from Nebraska.
He has seven brothers and sisters.
Rodriguez rarely went to school, spending his days either playing soccer or video games instead. He says that drugs, violent crime, and poverty surrounded him throughout his childhood.
Rodriguez’s parents separated when he was younger due to his mother’s drug addiction. He says his mother left their home but is still in Ontario, homeless. Sometimes, he sees her on the streets or in the stores.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez’s father raised all eight children, living in a double-wide on the outskirts of town. The family has mostly subsisted on their father’s salary from an onion packaging facility in Payette, Idaho.
Rodriguez says money is always tight. Sometimes, his two older brothers try to pitch in by working in construction.
When Rodriguez started school, it seemed that every day he’d end up in the principal’s office.
“Growing up, I was wild,” said Rodriguez. “I was a pretty bad kid. I always had to be doing something.”
There were trips to the principal’s office, school suspensions, and expulsions. Arrested in 2015, he was sent to McLaren Youth Correctional Facility for one month and sentenced to two weeks of house arrest.
“After juvenile, I had to wear an ankle bracelet and stay home all the time,” Rodriguez said.
He said that was one of his lowest moments, as friends from school avoided him after his detention.
“I felt like a monster. Everyone seemed to be afraid of me,” Rodriguez said. He said isolation led to depression and more trouble. A month after he returned from juvenile detention, Rodriguez was expelled from seventh grade at Ontario Middle School.
His father enrolled him at Payette to finish off the year.
Rodriguez remembers being told he would never turn out to be anything. But he changed all that starting in eighth grade. He stopped getting into trouble.
Last summer, his father enrolled him in weeklong education camp for high school students from migrant family backgrounds. Counselors at the Oregon Migrant Leadership Institute point to Rodriguez as one of the most memorable participants they’ve had and the rowdiest among the 73 Ontario students that participated in a session held at Treasure Valley Community College.
At the camp, Rodriguez began to open up to his counselors and his peers.
“I just heard other mentors talk about their lives and stories, and I thought some of them understood what I experienced,” said Rodriguez. He said it was the first time he ever genuinely reflected on his past behavior and that it was the first time he had people listen.
Rodriguez also began to make new friends, many of whom shared his love for soccer and his goal to become a professional soccer player.
“Playing soccer makes them forget everything,” said Andrea Cisneros, who was one of the counselors who worked with Rodriguez. “Sometimes they’re worried about school or home, but they’re just having fun and being kids when they play soccer.”
Cisneros says four to five Institute participants continue to play soccer on a weekly basis, including Rodriguez. She also joins the students and often offers them transportation to and from practice.
Rodriguez is still the firecracker on and off the field.
“Soccer is my passion,”
“Soccer is my passion,” he says. “I play soccer when I can.”
Rodriguez says the Institute transformed him into a better student and athlete overall. He began training harder for soccer with morning workouts and practicing twice a day.
“Overall, he’s a positive player,” said Dominguez. “He communicates really well. He likes to talk and he’s always having to run the field because he talks so much. Once he gets comfortable, you really get to know who he is.”
Thunder, a junior varsity starter, plays right wing forward. He hopes to make the varsity team next year. His long-term goal is to get a soccer scholarship to college and study to become a mechanical engineer.
His coach believes he can find success.
“If he puts good effort into it, and he’s committed to it, he can strive to make it to varsity,” said Dominguez. “He has the potential to get there. But it depends on the attitude, effort and grades.”
Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or (510) 225-8231.