Why Malcolm Rodriguez is honoring his grandmother: Stories behind Detroit Lions’ cleats

Detroit Free Press

Malcolm Rodriguez’s eyes welled up with tears as soon as he opened the box.

Rodriguez, the Detroit Lions rookie linebacker, sent a pair of cleats off to be painted as part of the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” program for Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, a tribute to his grandmother, Yolanda Martinez, who died this spring after a long battle with cancer.

Rodriguez spent countless hours at his grandmother’s house as a youth.

She watched him and his brother and their cousin while their parents worked. They built forts in her front room and filled their bellies with her cooking, tostados and Mexican rice, homemade beans and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And she made sure they ate everything they put on their plate.

Martinez was diagnosed with sarcoma not long after Rodriguez left for Oklahoma State, but she remained his biggest fan while fighting for her life.

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They talked by phone or texted after every game she couldn’t make, and he got his call from the Lions on draft day while he was at her funeral. It was as if some higher power wanted to make sure she was a part of his NFL journey, and now, given the chance to honor her memory, Rodriguez wanted everyone to know she is with him for the ride.

He wanted his cleats painted yellow to represent sarcoma awareness, and asked for her picture and name to be included, too. When he finally saw the design in person, saw the detail in her face on the side of his right shoe, he almost couldn’t contain his emotions.

“When I first saw them I teared up a little bit,” Rodriguez told the Free Press this week. “I was trying to hold it off on camera, but inside I was crying a little bit cause the picture is identical. It looks just like her. So I know the family’s going to be proud of that and repping her, so I can’t wait.”

Rodriguez is one of at least 26 Lions players and coaches who will take part in the NFL’s annual giving initiative this week.

Their causes range from raising awareness about human trafficking (Alex Anzalone) to youth health and wellness services (Bobby Price), and some players will donate their shoes to NFL Auction, the league’s official auction site where proceeds will benefit the charity of their choice.

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Rodriguez said he plans to keep his shoes and give them to his father’s side of the family.

“I just want to recognize her and I know she’s looking down and she’s smiling and happy,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just one of those things I just want to do for the family.”

Lions coach Dan Campbell, who will not be wearing custom cleats Sunday, said the “My Cause, My Cleats” program has empowered players to use their stage for something bigger than football.

“This is one of those good things that has transpired throughout the years,” Campbell said. “It puts a spotlight on what they’re representing and I think it’s a great thing.”

Here are the stories behind four other Lions players and the cleats they’ll wear Sunday:

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Amon-Ra St. Brown

Cause: Cancer.

Charity: Jessie Rees Foundation.

St. Brown first learned of NEGU – Never Ever Give Up – and the Jessie Rees Foundation when its founder, Erik Rees, spoke at The Opening, a Nike-sponsored recruiting showcase St. Brown attended in high school.

Jessie made it her mission to help children fighting cancer after she was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas (DIPG) in 2011. She died 10 months later in January of 2012.

St. Brown said he was moved by Jessie’s story, found familiarity in her Orange County, Calif., roots, where he grew up, and has worn a silicone bracelet supporting the organization ever since.

In addition to gold-painted shoes, which represents childhood cancer, and the NEGU logo, St. Brown had the hashtag LucasStrong added to the toe of his left shoe after he met another childhood cancer survivor, Lucas Gidelski, through teammate Anthony Pittman at a game in November.

“Giving back, I think for me is super important,” St. Brown said. “Kids that look up to us, which is crazy to me; I feel like I’m a regular person. But some kids that look up to us and especially kids with cancer, they fight a battle that I feel like none of us on Earth (should go through). Those are probably some of the strongest people on this planet. So just to be there for them, give them support, whatever they need, make them happy, cause they have so much going on already just to take their mind off that, whatever it is, I think is awesome.”

Pittman, college teammates with Gidelski’s cousin, is wearing shoes to support Financial Assistance for Renaissance Men (F.A.R.M.), a local program that helps fathers and that Pittman has supported in “My Cause, My Cleats” in the past.

John Cominsky

Cause: Underprivileged youth.

Charity: Cominsky Family Foundation.

Cominsky started his own foundation with his wife, Brittany, two years ago to help underprivileged youth in his hometown of Barberton, Ohio.

Initially, he created the charity to make the football camp he has hosted since he entered the NFL free to local youth, but it has since expanded to support families in need in other ways.

Last year, the Cominsky Family Foundation ran a backpack blessings program that sent non-perishable goods home with school-aged children on the free lunch program, and the foundation has funded other community requests, from covering sign-up fees for athletic programs to providing gifts during the holidays for families who need assistance.

Cominsky said he hopes to host a turkey drive in Barberton next fall.

His shoes are painted purple, white, black – the colors of Barberton High.

“(We’ve gotten) a lot of good feedback, especially from the teachers cause the teachers are the ones that know the home life, and so when they give us the kids who most likely needed help on the weekends, we were able to help those kids,” Cominsky said. “It just relieves those teachers of that stress. But yeah, we’ve probably reached a couple hundred kids, maybe even into the thousands now. … A lot of positivity.”

Jerry Jacobs

Cause: Pneumonia awareness.

Charity: National Urban League.

Jacobs was 9 years old when his mother passed away from pneumonia, and he has made it his mission to honor her.

“She just helped me love the game of football, for real,” he said. “When I started playing I was 6, I was just playing. But once I started scoring and seeing her running on the sideline it was just like, ‘Damn.’ I got video, she was running with me, so it just means a lot to have your mom make you start off in football. So it started off right there. It just means a lot that I can do something for her. I know she’s proud.”

Jacobs said he thought about taking part in the “My Cause, My Cleats” program last season, but was overwhelmed by all his responsibilities as an undrafted rookie. He saw teammates recognize family members and causes close to them, and knew he wanted to promote pneumonia awareness this season.

When his shoes came back from the designer, he sent a picture of the cleats to the group text he shares with the two older sisters who helped raise him. After the game, he plans to add them to the memorial he has at his house for his mother, alongside her ashes.

“I seen last year when guys was getting their cleats done, it was really meaningful,” Jacobs said. “For us to even get that from the NFL to let us go out there and wear cleats like that, that means a lot to us, too. So I just know everybody’s happy to put awareness to stuff they want to do and help out with on some cleats, and go out there and play for other people. It means a lot.”

Dan Skipper

Cause: Military Appreciation/Support.

Charity: Michigan Heroes Museum.

Skipper does not come from an extensive military background, but his appreciation for those who’ve served has grown while working with the Michigan Heroes Museum during his time in Detroit.

Located in Frankenmuth, the museum collects and displays artifacts that document the history of men and women from Michigan who have served in foreign wars. The museum has the largest medal of honor collection in the state, which is reflected in Skipper’s custom cleats, and helps coordinate the Lions’ Hometown Heroes program, which honors a veteran at every home game.

Skipper said he wanted to promote the museum in past seasons of “My Cause, My Cleats,” since he first took part in a fundraiser with museum vice president Ronnie Cyrus, but never was assured of a spot on the 53-man roster until now.

“I think it’s great because you get to pick something that’s near and dear to you,” Skipper said. “There’s no limit. You can pick something here, at home. It’s something that hits home for you and something that you want to support, so everyone that’s doing these has something that they care about and even guys that don’t do that, too. We’ve all got something we care about and I think it just lets the public eye into things that we’re supportive of, and kind of a deeper glimpse into who we are as people.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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