NOVI, Mich. — Friday night, Catholic Central’s high school gymnasium was filled to the brim. All sections of the blue bleachers had been pulled out to maximize capacity, but spectators still spilled into the upper deck. They lounged against the railings circling the deck, where numerous state championship banners hung.
The Michigan wrestling team stood on the left side of the gym while Arizona State stood on the right. High school staff lined the edges of the mat, waiting for the meet to begin.
Everyone quieted down as the announcer began to talk. The two teams would wrestle, but before that, a man would lead the pre-meet prayer.
That man was Michigan wrestling legend and former Catholic Central coach Mike Rodriguez.
“That was great,” said senior Adam Coon. “That was great to have him here. There was a lot of tradition there, both for Catholic Central and for the University of Michigan. It was great to have him sitting on our bench and I definitely loved the prayer that he led with. That was a very class act, and I very much enjoyed having him on the bench with us for sure.”
Added Michigan coach Joe McFarland: “It was an honor to sit next to him on the bench — it was an honor to have him on our bench, I should say. I mean, you think about how many lives that guy has changed. Seriously. From 40 years of coaching here? There’s a lot of lives he molded.”
The prayer was short and brief, but it was everything it needed to be. Rodriguez handed the microphone back as quickly as he’d gotten it, but the audience didn’t let the brevity of the moment get away from them, applauding until he took his seat.
“Coach Rod” led the Catholic Central wrestling program for 40 years, coaching the Shamrocks to seven state championship titles. He coached in over 730 dual meet wins, earning a spot as one of the winningest high school wrestling coaches in Michigan history.
When he was in high school, Rodriguez was a senior with 15 different collegiate offers. But he knew he wanted to go to Michigan. He ended up in prep school for a couple of years because he didn’t have the grades for Michigan yet. He had to focus on rigorous academics at that time, explaining how he had to sit in a room for an hour and write about a single topic.
He really wasn’t a fan of the intensity.
“I wrote half a page in a whole hour,” Rodriguez said. “I was not into the writing thing. I wrote half a page, came back bloody. He asked me, ‘Well, what are you doing in here?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna go to college.’ He says, ‘Well, where? Wayne State?’ And I said, ‘No, I want to go to Michigan.’ And he said, ‘Michigan? You are? Who’s gonna help you?’ It was a struggle, but I got there and it was well worth it.”
Before his coaching career, he was a three-time Big Ten champion and two-time NCAA finalist. He even was a member of the basketball team until he was cut between his sophomore or junior season. A new coach came in wanting to build his team around height. Rodriguez didn’t fit that mold.
He wasn’t happy about it, but he took it out on the mat. That seemed to pay off, as Rodriguez graduated as one of the most decorated Michigan wrestlers in history. He even went on to place fifth at the World Championships in Japan.
After that? He went home.
Rodriguez spent the next 40 years coaching at Catholic Central. So with the Wolverines set to wrestle the Sun Devils at Catholic Central, it was only fitting that Rodriguez led the prayer.
“I saw a young man that was here when I had him as a freshman, some state placers, and it’s just such a joy to see them back again and still living and being productive,” Rodriguez said. “They own businesses or are doctors or lawyers, and it’s just such a blessing to work at this place because they come here to be successful.
“And you see all of (these banners) up on the wall, it’s all put up there by hard work. God tells us a man should know how to work hard, and that’s what I tried to teach them here.”