After winning the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at The 2019 ESPYS, Rob Mendez, the high school football coach who was born without arms and legs, found his life transformed in a way he never could have imagined.
But there he was at the Green Bay Packers' indoor practice facility last December, zigzagging back and forth in his motorized wheelchair, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the Packers took a knee to listen to Mendez's words of inspiration. A few weeks before that, Mendez visited a Carolina Panthers practice in Charlotte, North Carolina, absorbing everything he could from then-head coach Ron Rivera. He also observed workouts with the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers.
At each stop along the way, Mendez says there was chatter about him applying for the NFL's Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, a program that for 30 years has helped promising diverse coaches gain exposure to NFL training camps and offseason workouts with the goal of landing a full-time coaching job. A day of interviews at the NFL Network further perpetuated that dream.
"A lot of folks in the league were encouraging me to apply," Mendez said. "I was really excited about it."
After his Prospect High School (Saratoga, California) junior varsity team finished the 2019 season 7-2, losing the district championship game for the second straight year, Mendez discussed his future with Prospect varsity coach Tom Cable. Cable offered Mendez the opportunity to return as the JV head coach, but Mendez made the difficult decision to leave the school that gave him his first head-coaching job. He wanted to coach varsity in Southern California, near his personal assistant and caretaker on the road. And if the stars somehow aligned and a college or the NFL came calling, he'd be ready.
"I just felt like if I was ever going to try something like this in my life, now was the time to do it," he said.
But as he began putting together his résumé and applying for jobs, the coronavirus pandemic struck. He didn't complete the application for the Bill Walsh Fellowship. And now, like so many of us, Mendez's life is frozen, his future unknown.
"It just sort of paused everything," Mendez said. "Kind of a holding pattern. But look, I'm lucky to have my health. My family is doing OK through all of this. It's one of those moments in life when you really can appreciate the little things because there are so many people out there who aren't as lucky right now. I know it will all work out."
Without sports or a job and a California state order to stay home, Mendez has spent the past two weeks with his girlfriend in her Los Angeles-area apartment. The couple, introduced by NFL linebacker Clay Matthews, met in South Florida during Super Bowl week.
Aside from a trip to a warehouse club to stock up on groceries for a month, Mendez says they haven't gone anywhere. They fill their days with reading, watching movies and television, keeping up on the news, playing video games and polishing Mendez's coaching résumé. He's also working on a book that is scheduled to come out at the end of the year.
"I love sports. Usually this time of year I'd be watching March Madness or getting excited about the Masters," he said. "It's an adjustment. But I've gone back to Call of Duty, Madden. I'm trying to build a following on Twitch. And then every night we watch Scott Van Pelt and an episode of 'Cheers.'"
Mendez doesn't think any of his health issues make him any more susceptible to COVID-19 than the average person. His biggest challenge today, he says, is the scoliosis in his back, which the virus has no effect on. And he touts his immune system as one of his greatest strengths -- he spent much of the past four months on airplanes, traveling coast-to-coast for interviews, speaking engagements and red-carpet appearances and never got sick.
Even in early March, before multiple states issued stay-at-home orders, Mendez traveled to Seattle, Texas and Florida.
"I have a pretty darn good immune system with everything I've been exposed to all these years," Mendez said. "I use my mouth way more than the average person to do just about everything. So I've got a strong immune system. I don't worry about that. But I'm staying indoors and have gone under self-quarantine with my girlfriend to try and stay healthy."
The fact that he is 300 miles away from his parents' home in Morgan Hill, California, worries Mendez's family. He says his mom calls every three or four hours to check on him. But he gets it.
"As long as I answer my mom's calls and she knows I'm fine, everything is OK," Mendez said. "They are worried that they can't get to me in 15 to 20 minutes like they used to. She likes hearing me. There's nothing wrong with that."
On March 4, Mendez visited Houston Astros spring training as a guest of manager Dusty Baker. He hit it off with Alex Bregman after teasing the Astros third baseman about his batting stance. Bregman ended up giving Mendez an autographed bat. Then Justin Verlander challenged Mendez to a video game showdown in MLB The Show. Mendez admitted he "sucks at hitting," but he countered with a FIFA challenge. Verlander turned to Astros slugger Yuli Gurriel. "But they had a game that day so we ran out of time," Mendez said.
A week after Mendez's visit, MLB canceled the remainder of spring training and postponed the start of the 2020 season.
"Just another amazing experience," he said. "Those guys were great."
When he visited the Packers in December, Mendez said he teased Rodgers that the quarterback should lighten up a bit. Everybody laughed, and Rodgers, who grew up in the Bay Area, sat with Mendez in the cafeteria and peppered him with questions about Bay Area high school football.
"Aaron Jones was telling me they have had guests before but [Rodgers] doesn't usually open up to a lot of people," Mendez said. "But we just had a really good connection. I don't know why, but I felt so comfortable just totally being myself. We talked about the schools that we play at Prospect and my experience visiting the Rams, meeting Jared Goff and how we both hope Goff can have a great career."
For now, life waits. The speeches. The smiles. The rubbing shoulders with the sports elite. The next chapter of Mendez's coaching career.
"I'm not used to sitting around with these long days," he said. "Usually I'm out and about and making things happen. But this puts everything in perspective. As much as I want to get out there and have the world go back to normal, we need to be smart. We need to help the families who are going through tough times. And whenever the time is right, sports will come back. Football will come back. And I'll be ready."