CHAMPAIGN — Josh Birky came up with the idea of a Judah Christian-St. Thomas More boys’ soccer alumni match simply as a means of raising funds for both programs.
But the first-ever version of this match, held Sunday afternoon at the Tribe’s Field of Dreams facility, took on far more significance than Birky or anyone else could have anticipated.
Judah senior-to-be Misa Rodriguez, a defender and midfielder with the Tribe, has been hospitalized since June 14 with a sudden brain bleed called an arteriovenous malformation.
“As soon as that happened, within a couple days I was like, ‘Well, this is obvious,’” said Birky, in his sixth season coaching Judah. “There’s going to be (medical) expenses. He’s such a part of the community, especially with a small school like this. Everyone knows (him) ... and it seemed like, the fundraiser’s here, how could we not put it toward that.”
All proceeds on the Tribe side and one-fourth of those on the Sabers’ side are going toward Rodriguez’s medical expenses. The two schools raised more than $1,000, according to Birky.
“We were happy to play for the cause,” said 2018 STM graduate Jake Sellett, who manned the Sabers’ net Sunday and currently coaches the STM boys’ soccer team. “It’s incredible. Definitely our thoughts and prayers are with him.”
Spectators paid $5 apiece to enter the Field of Dreams on Sunday, and a strong contingent showed up to line the fence and fill the bleachers despite a threatening sky that briefly brought pouring rain midway through the match’s first half.
A GoFundMe page set up on Rodriguez’s behalf had accumulated more than $14,000 as of Monday afternoon, as well.
Rodriguez’s mother, Damaris Rodriguez, has been providing Facebook updates about her son’s recovery and used one of those updates Monday to say: “Thank you to everyone who went out to the Field of Dreams (Sunday). You all truly have no idea how much we appreciate it!”
Misa Rodriguez already was recovering from an ACL injury that kept him from playing in the final week of Judah’s spring 2021 season. Birky said Rodriguez was likely going to miss the Tribe’s upcoming 2021 fall campaign because of that knee issue, but that didn’t stop Rodriguez from attending offseason workouts prior to being hospitalized.
“He drove me home a week before, on that Thursday. We talked, and he was hopeful he might get back for the last couple weeks,” Birky said. “And then just shock. It’s shocking. ... It’s just difficult to comprehend when it happens to someone that age, especially something serious like a brain. It wasn’t like a leg break or a fender bender. It was a major medical thing that’s going to stay with him for a long time.”
Birky said the 18-year-old has received an outpouring of support beyond the alumni match.
“We had a prayer meeting (at the Field of Dreams) a couple days after it happened. ... About 70, 80 people came out,” Birky said. “We signed a ball (and) we signed a jersey so we could get it back to him, to kind of let him know that we’re there. The guys have been sending him texts and sending him voice messages and pictures and everything else, just to kind of keep that connection.”
Sunday’s event also was a chance to see a collision of multiple eras in Judah and STM soccer history.
The Tribe sent out a pair of 2007 graduates in Jacob Peterson and Lee Bergfield to play among a smattering of more recent alumni. The latter is the Tribe’s current girls’ soccer coach, and he donned his collared high school varsity jersey for the occasion.
“It’s wonderful, I think, especially for the small schools because we don’t every year have this cavalcade of a whole bunch of great players,” Birky said. “Different generations of players that didn’t have the chance to play together, it’s kind of a different style of soccer, which is kind of cool to see.”
Judah earned a 5-1 win against STM behind a hat trick from 2020 grad Caleb Aldridge, a current Messiah University athlete in Pennsylvania. Also scoring for the Tribe were 2019 alumnus Micah Mills and 2020 grad Izak Brown.
The Sabers’ goal came from 2020 alumnus Slava Boehm, but Sellett stole the show at keeper with numerous sprawling and leaping saves, including a penalty-kick stop on Mills.
“I coached, as the assistant, a lot of these guys and watched them play with my brother (2020 STM grad Joe),” Sellett said. “Fun seeing some familiar faces at Judah, too, like Micah Mills.”
Of course, the true leading storyline Sunday was Rodriguez’s well being.
“The game (Sunday) night is an extension of how much our coaches, alumni and players are truly family,” Damaris Rodriguez told The News-Gazette. “In our hardest, most frustrating days, God has sent the perfect person with a message of hope: to not give up and believe that, in all of this chaos, the Lord has the victory and the perfect plan for Misa. As his mother, I am in awe of the love and support that has been show to us through our friends — but also our school community, which is an extension of our family.
“We serve a God of miracles, and I am choosing to believe that this is going to be part of an amazing story that the Lord is going to use in Misa’s life.”