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Town, rivals united in grief

Boron player's death shakes desert region, as Rodriguez's shining example is honored.

September 19, 2008|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

BORON, Calif. -- Inside the school cafeteria Thursday night, Boron High receiver Joshua Glass moved with a sense of purpose as he delivered plates of spaghetti, salad and garlic bread to members of the Mojave Mustangs.

Less than a week ago, the senior had considered anyone who played for the neighboring school a fierce rival.

Not anymore.

"There is no enemy this year," Glass said somberly.

Minutes later, Boron Athletic Director Jim Boghosian tearfully greeted players from another desert competitor, Rosamond High, shaking each of their hands and thanking them as they entered.

The line stretched out the door well into the evening as hundreds from this outpost of about 2,000 attended a dinner to benefit the family of Vinnie Rodriguez, a sophomore safety and running back who died Tuesday night after he was taken off life support. He had suffered head injuries four days earlier while making what appeared to be a routine tackle during a game.

If there was one young man capable of pulling rivals together, Rodriguez's teammates said, it was Vinnie, a speck of a 16-year-old who delivered a weekly pregame speech and openly spoke his mind to coaches.

After a season-opening victory over Rosamond -- a game in which the 5-foot-5, 135-pound dynamo scored two touchdowns -- Glass said Rodriguez approached Coach Todd Fink and plainly told him his practices were "weak." He didn't feel the Bobcats were in good enough condition.

"Then we started running a lot more," Glass said.

Rodriguez, who despite his lack of size and varsity experience was quickly becoming a team leader, provided a shining example even in death, school officials and family members pointed out.

His organs had been donated; one of his kidneys had gone to a second cousin, Deborah Levario, who had been waiting some five years for a transplant.

"Some people are going to be living because of him," Levario's father, Pete, said.

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The death of a young person resonates in a small town, and it has shaken this one to its core.

Drivers along Highway 58, as they pass this map dot about halfway between Mojave and Barstow, are used to seeing a massive formation of painted-white rocks forming a "B," a local landmark near the top of a hill.

But what's there now is a large "V" -- for Vinnie -- and a smaller "2," Rodriguez's football jersey number. The adjustment was painstakingly made by Bobcats players last Saturday evening, less than 24 hours after the player was stricken.

Indeed, long before the gravity of Rodriguez's condition was entirely known, there were plenty of signs of a community galvanized.

Scores of students made the 1 1/2 -hour drive to visit their classmate as he lie comatose in the hospital, and hundreds gathered at the school for a candlelight vigil.

This week, along the town's mile-long main artery, Twenty Mule Team Road, fliers advertising the benefit dinner were posted on the windows of several businesses. A van parked outside the Boron Food Market had the message "Vinnie we all love you. God is with you" scrawled on its dusty windows.

A few doors down, at the K&L Corral Family Restaurant, longtime resident Jim Kirby explained the local credo this way between bites of an open-faced chicken and fried egg sandwich: "It's like a big family. And everybody loves our football team."

The town has a proud tradition of pulling together since it was founded in 1927, when Pacific Coast Borax (now Rio Tinto Minerals) discovered a rich deposit of borate minerals here and relocated its mining operations from Death Valley.

Citizens pitched in several years ago to fund and construct an aerospace museum exhibiting artifacts from nearby Edwards Air Force Base, and every year they hold a community cleanup day.

Bill Deaver, editor and publisher of the Mojave Desert News, said there is a term for the locals' willingness to tackle projects head on:

"The Boron Way."

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Around here, small doesn't mean less. Just as it was with Rodriguez.

Boron High -- enrollment 160 -- is the smallest traditional public school in the California Interscholastic Federation's Southern Section to play 11-man football. And while it was back in 1998 when the Bobcats won the most recent of their four section titles, you would think a championship was on the line every Friday night during the fall.

A home game seems to shut down the rest of the town, and when Boron travels, its contingent often outnumbers that of the host school.

"It's the lifeline of this town," Boron alum Ed Sparks said of the football team.

That team is now down to 20 players, yet opponents can expect to be met with a stubborn resolve.

Given the option of canceling tonight's game at Kern Valley in the wake of Rodriguez's death, Bobcats players, to the surprise of no one, voted unanimously to play. They will do so with a "V2" decal on each of their helmets and memories of a friend and teammate in their hearts. No doubt he would have wanted them to keep plowing ahead.

"I would choose to have Vinnie any day and forfeit this season over this," Glass said. "But the fact that we can't have him shows how precious life is, and we're going to live it to the fullest."

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ben.bolch@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

TO MAKE A DONATION

Vinnie Rodriguez was being raised by his grandmother, who is also guardian to two of his three younger brothers. To donate to the Vinnie Rodriguez Relief Fund, contact AltaOne Credit Union at (760) 762-5492.

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