Words By Jessica Rodriguez

Rob Mendez is the human embodiment of the word “persistence.” Armed with a whistle, markers and little else the football coach uses his infectious energy to mold young boys into ferocious players. The catch? Mendez has never played the game because he has no limbs. 

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Mendez, who hails from Gilroy, California, has been an assistant coach for 13 years. In 2019 he got his first head coaching gig at Prospect High School in Saratoga, California. 

Before taking over the school’s junior varsity team, the squad had a shoddy record. Then Mendez rolled up (literally). In his first year his team made it to their league championships. This incredible feat garnered national recognition when he won the Jimmy V award for perseverance at the 2019 ESPY Awards. 

The 31-year-old Mexican American was born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare genetic condition that kept his arms and legs from forming. It did not damper his spirit or his ability to achieve. In fact it’s fueled him. “Me being challenged has been my motivation,” Mendez has said. 

As a child Mendez loved sports, football especially. He started out playing the video game Madden NFL and got hooked. That’s when preparation and opportunity met. His freshman year of high school Mendez was invited to manage the team. “It made me feel important, it made me feel normal,” he said in the documentary about his life, Who Says I Can’t.

Although he’s never played, “His ability to study the game and ability to translate those things to the kids is unmatched by most of the coaches I know,” Tim Pierleoni, Mendez’s former Gilroy High School coach said in the same film.

From that point on, Mendez lived and breathed football. Soon after graduating from high school he became an assistant coach. It took 13 years to get his big chance. 

“Who says I can’t? Nobody!” This call and response is Mendez’s battle cry, mantra and North Star. It’s written on the back of his wheelchair, on shirts and his website. It guides his life and fuels his fire in the face of adversity, something Mendez faces daily. Basic tasks — eating, dressing, bathing–require the help of a caretaker. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there’s nothing Mendez doesn’t believe he can do. 

He channels that attitude to his athletes. “His passion as a coach blew me away,” said Mike Cable, head coach of Prospect’s varsity team. “I knew he would be a fit for these young athletes.”

Making his team a family is what sets Mendez apart. He understands the concept intimately. His close knit unit–parents Robert, Sr., Josie and sisters Jackie and Maddy–have always had his back. He provides that same unconditional support to his team. 

“Look at me and see how much passion I  put into coaching and how far it’s gotten me. When you dedicate yourself to something and open your mind to different possibilities and focus on what you can do, instead of what you can’t do, you really can go places in this world,” he said during his ESPY acceptance speech.

His dedication to the game and young people is taking him across the country. Mendez has started a traveling football camp and youth leadership summit that kicked off Superbowl weekend in Miami. Who says he can’t do anything? Nobody, indeed.

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