During a pregame meeting Friday, the Michigan softball team received a surprise that set the emotional tone for the weekend series. Teammate and friend Kaylee America Rodriguez, who was diagnosed with cancer in the fall, arrived to a chorus of cheers as the entire room stood up to embrace and greet her.
Her teammates’ reactions to seeing her highlighted the immense impact her journey has had on the Wolverines in recent months.
“It was just so amazing to see her, like I broke down in tears crying,” junior catcher Keke Tholl said Tuesday. “She’s just an inspiration to all of us, and we’re just so happy that she was able to come and see us.”
Even when Rodriguez hasn’t been physically with the team, her presence is constantly felt. Her No. 5 jersey may not be out on the field, but it’s represented in a special ribbon decal on every Michigan helmet. And her “Kaylee Strong” T-shirts have made an appearance everywhere — from being worn by her teammates before games, to being sold at the M Den, or even to being worn by the Pittsburgh softball team in a show of support.
Rodriguez’s story has reached so many and touched so many hearts in part because of the impression she makes on those around her.
“If you know K-Rod, you love her. Her energy is just unmatched,” graduate outfielder Lexie Blair said Feb. 6. “Not a day goes by where someone is not reaching out to her, calling her, Facetiming her, whatever the case is. She is always in our minds, in our hearts, and we’ll embody the energy that she’d be bringing us in the season.”
Having Rodriguez back around the Wolverines, even if just for one day, certainly helped them appreciate her positive energy in the face of adversity.
And while the majority of Friday was spent focusing on the game at hand, what players valued most about seeing Rodriguez was the chance to simply catch up with a good friend.
“It’s great to talk softball with her and great to talk about how excited we are for the season, excited for her to see us in person and see us really out there on the field supporting her,” graduate infielder Melina Livingston said Tuesday. “But at the end of the day, we’re just catching up like we’ve been friends our whole lives, so just picking up right where we left off.”
With illness sweeping through the roster as the weekend progressed, Rodriguez was forced to keep her distance. But as she always has, she continued to stay involved from afar. She consistently texts with her teammates and uplifts their achievements on social media just as they do for her.
Although Rodriguez won’t always be with Michigan this season, her impact is evident in every aspect of its culture and performance.
“K-Rod’s whole experience is something that we’re watching from afar, yet it touches our hearts so closely,” Michigan coach Bonnie Tholl said Tuesday. “It’s just a reminder that every day is precious.”
And every day for the Wolverines this season is a chance to be inspired by and play for K-Rod — their softball sister.