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San Diego high school football coach born with rare disability sets example for perseverance

Posted at 7:16 AM, Sep 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-08 10:16:40-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- The phrase "overcoming the odds" is an understatement for Rob Mendez.

He's a high school football coach, a leader, and a motivator who was also born with a rare disability. But he doesn’t let that define him. He has won national recognition for his perseverance and though winning is as important to him as it is to any coach, it's not what drives him.

When you first meet Coach Mendez, it doesn't take long to forget why he’s in a wheelchair. Thirty-three years ago, he was born with Tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare genetic condition that prevents the development of arms and legs.

“I've always got to remind myself don't be your own worst enemy. Don't hold yourself back and pursue what you really want to do in life," said Mendez.

For Mendez, that's coaching football.

“My friends played football so I started going to practices,” he recalls. “I wasn't on the team and I was from a distance watching practice and the coaches, they waved me into the team huddle and they asked me if I wanted to be a part of the team and they gave me a jersey. At 14 years old, oh wow, I can't believe this!”

He started out as the manager of the Gilroy High team in Northern California.

“By the time I was a senior in high school I was wearing a headset with the coaches and listening to them," he said.

He even got to call some plays. Eventually, he became the head coach of the junior varsity team at Prospect High about 40 miles away, leading them to the finals of the district championship. Then, it was time for a change.

“I remember looking over the bay and realizing how beautiful downtown San Diego was and kind of told myself this is where I want to be, so six months later I made it happen,” he said.

He started in San Diego last year as the head coach of the junior varsity team at Hilltop High. Now, he's at Francis Parker as the offensive coordinator of the varsity team. He says the gridiron is like his second home and his team is like a second family, but it's his first family — in particular his dad — who helped him develop the confidence to succeed.

“I think he really tried to adapt to what I was able to do instead of focusing on what I was not able to do," Mendez said.

Today, that includes mobility using his head and neck to manipulate a specially designed wheelchair, drawing football patterns with his mouth, and operating his phone with his nose better than some can with their hands.

When asked if there’s ever been a moment when he wasn’t sure of himself, he said, “Oh yeah, I'm human. I doubt myself a lot.”

“You know I got really down sometimes especially in my early 20s. What if, what if I did have arms and legs, you know, where would I be?" he added.

Mendez said during the darkest times, four little words kept him going.

“My mantra, 'Who says I can't,' actually came from an 8th-grade dance when my friends were doubting me and dancing with this girl, you know, I wanted to dance with," he said.

So when he did donuts around her and made her laugh, he recalled, “I looked back, kind of with a chip on my shoulder and looked back at my friends and said, 'Oh yeah, who says I can't? Nobody.'”

It's that positivity that made him a natural in 2019, to win the ESPY's Jimmy V Award for perseverance. It’s named after legendary basketball coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993. Mendez says he still can’t believe they chose, “some small-town kid that coaches high school football.”

Mendez does have a caretaker to help him with things most of us take for granted, like brushing our teeth. He said he hopes to be the head coach of a varsity team and someday coach in the NFL. His book, "Who Says I Can't -- The Astonishing Story of a Fearless Life" is out now.

Mendez said the book is a way to reach people who may not follow sports.

It's not a role he asked for, but he said if he can inspire, he will.

“We do get down about what we cannot do and I just feel like my purpose is to exemplify persevering and carrying on what we're able to do. I think that I don't really need to say it, I kind of just do it,” Mendez said.

He said the one thing that always brought him back from feeling left out was remembering, “Oh yeah, well who says I can't?”