NYC volleyball pioneer back coaching Aviation after stroke, heart surgery

Freddie Rodriguez was teaching his last class of the day at Aviation HS back in November and he could hardly wait to get out of the Long Island City, Queens school. Afterward, he was heading to Chelsea Pier for a meet and greet with players from the Mets and Jets 1969 championship teams.

What happened next changed his life forever – in a positive way.

While he was helping a student with a project, Rodriguez blacked out. When he came to, seconds later, he had no feeling in his right arm or leg and he couldn’t speak.

“I felt like a shadow came right over my eyes,” Rodriguez, the longtime Aviation boys volleyball coach and PSAL girls volleyball commissioner, said. “It was like someone put a hand over my face. … I knew I was having a stroke.”

In a few minutes, he could move his arms and legs again and his speech returned. It was a minor stroke, one that could have actually saved his life.

At the hospital, in one of the final tests performed, doctors found Rodriguez had a hole in his heart, which directly resulted in his stroke, but could have done much worse. He could have gone into cardiac arrest at any moment, doctors told him.

“I think it was a blessing in disguise,” Rodriguez said of the stroke. “I could have had a massive heart attack and there was nothing anyone could have done.”

The stroke occurred Nov. 15 and he had surgery to close the hole Jan. 12. Remarkably, on Jan. 18, Rodriguez returned to Aviation to teach and he is back for a 23rd season coaching the Flyers boys volleyball team.

“I really wanted to get back to the volleyball,” he said by phone this week from his Ronkonkoma, L.I., home. “I felt like I needed to do something. I couldn’t just sit around. I felt like I was just wasting away.”

Rodriguez, 52, has been a significant part of PSAL volleyball for two decades. This past fall was his 19th season as girls volleyball commissioner, but he says it will be his last. The time and stress, Rodriguez said, became too much given his current health.

Coaches around the city say he always went above and beyond the call of duty to help grow the sport. In October, he spent almost an entire Sunday at the Seward Park tournament despite his father being in the hospital. Cardozo coach Danny Scarola recalls him staying until the end at one of his girls tournaments on his wedding anniversary.

“He’s always given more than 100 percent for the volleyball community,” John F. Kennedy coach Iris Bromfield said. “For as long as he was commissioner, I don’t think I’ve been to a tournament that I didn’t see Freddie. It was kind of odd during girls season not to see him.”

Added Scarola: “I honestly think Fred is probably the best commissioner that the PSAL had.”

Rodriguez went to an Exceptional Seniors Game tryout in December – before the surgery – but the effort, he says, caused him about five more weeks of recovery.

“I thought I was OK, but I wasn’t,” Rodriguez said.

He has learned his lesson now. Rodriguez, a Navy veteran who teaches aircraft mechanics, says he’s not pushing his Aviation players as much as he should this season – he just doesn’t have the energy. His lifestyle, he said, has to change. Rodriguez, a Brooklyn native, is giving up his job with the Big Apple Games this summer and has improved his diet.

Though he won’t be commissioner, Rodriguez can’t stay away from the volleyball court. He’s currently taking classes to be an official and says he is open to coaching a PSAL girls team in the fall. If not, don’t be surprised to see him refereeing matches. Rodriguez will be evaluated next month at the Kennedy tournament – and coaching his Aviation team in a separate pool.

The heart condition, called patent foramen ovale, was one doctors say he had since birth – the same kind of thing that rock star and TV personality Bret Michaels was diagnosed with recently. A flap is open while a baby is in the womb and it closes once it is born. But Rodriguez’s never closed. The abnormal blood flow caused blood clots in his brain, which resulted in the stroke.

During his 71 days out of work, Rodriguez became an expert on the affliction, soaking up everything he possibly could about it on the internet. It’s that same kind of thirst for knowledge that made him an expert on volleyball and a pioneer in the sport in New York City. Now he’ll just have to take a small step back after two decades.

“Talk about a wakeup call,” Rodriguez said. “Talk about having a new perspective on life.”

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