Hector Rodriguez (white uniform) grapples with his sparring partner, Brian Vandevender during Jiu-Jitsu training at the Ribeiro Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Institute in Yorktown, VA.
If you sat down and had a conversation with Hector Rodriguez today, you’d probably never believe him when he tells you about his past anger, depressive and intrapersonal issues.
His demeanor sets the tone of this story because of his constant strive to input positivity into his life while continually learning Jiu-Jitsu at the Ribeiro Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Institute in Yorktown, VA.
According to the U.S. Air Force retiree, he was quite the troublemaker growing up.
“As a kid, I got into a lot of trouble,” Rodriguez said. “Growing up in the Philadelphia and Newark [New Jersey] area, I was in a lot of fights. My mother didn’t appreciate that, so she got me into Catholic schools. Well, I got into more fights and that hurt my chances there in that setting. As it would happen, I got the opportunity to attend the Milton Hershey School, and that’s where I saw my potential.”
After graduation, Rodriguez enlisted and became an F-16 Fighting Falcon jet mechanic and worked his way up to crew chief. With all of his career being spent overseas in high operational tempo areas in support of the Global War On Terror, he decided to get married, according to Rodriguez.
“Life for me in the military wasn’t too bad,” he said. “I worked hard. I eventually rose to the rank of Master Sergeant or E-7. But I still had anger problems, so I began to drink a little bit more than usual after being stationed in Germany from Aviano Air Base, Italy. I brought my wife with me, and she saw how my routine basically boiled down to this: Drinking at home, going to work, coming home and drinking more. Repeat that six or seven days a week, and you have the gist of who I was.”
Rodriguez said that he finally got stationed in the Hampton Roads, Virginia area, but his life and military career in the mid-Atlantic was about to hit a dramatic turn for the worse.
“While in Hampton Roads, I was still drinking and smoking a lot of cigarettes,” Rodriguez said. “I deployed again, and when I got back, my wife told me that we weren’t going to be able to continue the marriage. I was so enraged that I started kicking doors and punching walls. Before you know it, I was taken into custody by the local police and booked in jail.”
Realizing his situation, Rodriguez said that he needed to make a change.
“I awoke to find myself inside a jail cell,” he said. “I thought to myself: ‘I have to do better than this. I have to find a positive purpose in life.”
Shortly after his release and his career in jeopardy, Rodriguez began to research outlets for his frustrations.
“While looking for an outlet, I found the [Jiu Jitsu] Institute,” Rodriguez said. “I got here not really knowing what to expect because of my small stature. At the time, there wasn’t a real Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) ‘101’ here. You were kind of thrown into the mix. But now, there is a ‘BJJ 101’ for new students to the martial art.”
Rodriguez stated that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is probably one of the most challenging sports he’s ever done.
“When I first started, it was quite humiliating,” he said. “I was so out of shape that I was being tossed around like it was nothing. But, I thought if I stick with it, I will get better.”
Even though he believed he could continue, Rodriguez said that with issues with his career, he lost focus and did not attend as much as he needed.
“One of my best friends here told me something that made me really think,” Rodriguez said. “It was in regards to my level of commitment. He said, ‘Hector, you don’t train here. You just visit.’ That blew my mind because I knew that he was right.”
Right he was, according to Professor Ben Eaton, head instructor of the Jiu Jitsu Institute and the person who advised Rodriguez about his waning dedication to the martial art.
“Yes, when Hector first got here he wasn’t fully committed,” Eaton said. “But I understood that he was just getting into the program and had a lot of issues going on outside the dojo.”
After about five years of various training programs including grappling, Rodriguez’s focus and perseverance have changed immensely, according to Eaton.
“When I met him, he was at one of the lowest points in his life,” Eaton said. “I wasn’t sure if he’d stick around too long. But I was discussing the issue with a fellow employee, and we came to the consensus that he must have a reason to seek a change. He’s become one of the school’s most devoted students. I believe he’s done a complete 180-degree turn in his life, both professionally and personally.”
Rodriguez said that without Jiu-Jitsu, his life would be different and was even able to retire from the Air Force.
“If not for Jiu Jitsu, I would not have married my new wife because she would not have liked the person I was before,” he said. “My mother and siblings also see a difference in me too. They know that I had a lot of anger. That anger isn’t really there anymore because I know have a positive conduit to release it.”
“Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a martial art has helped me to keep a lot of promises to myself and to others. I’m faster, smarter, and happier than I have ever been before. I can prove every single new aspect of my life is connected to my involvement in Jiu-Jitsu. It even helped me change my behavior and mindset enough that the Air Force gave me a second chance and allowed me to honorably retired from the service.”
As to a recommendation for others, Rodriguez said that he would not hesitate to advise people looking for a purpose to try Jiu-Jitsu as a mean to subside depression, vent irritation and gravitate to more of a healthier lifestyle.
“I would absolutely recommend ‘BJJ’ to someone looking for purpose in life,” he said. “Mostly because ‘BJJ’ put me into the situation where I have interaction with a bunch of like-minded and motivated individuals moving forward in life. For example, I ‘roll’ with a friend that has a lot of personal issues, too. He’s applied ‘BJJ,’ to his life and he’s going to school through a program with the [Huntington Ingalls Industries] Shipyard and is doing great.”
Rodriguez’s tenacity has also proven that he is ready for more life-improving steps.
“My want to be here at the Jiu Jitsu Institute is evident to those around me,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve worked my way up to a ‘3-stripe’ Blue Belt while preparing to compete in the IBJJF Master World Championship in Las Vegas next year. I now have completely quit smoking. My nutrition is to the point that I lost about 40 pounds, and my sleep regimen has drastically improved. Currently, I’m working towards my Masters of Business Administration degree. None of this would have been possible if I had not reached out and found help through the Jiu Jitsu Institute. The people there believe in the goals I’ve set for myself and family. And my friends at the Institute have helped me become the best version of me.”
Living in the past as a former member of a group—military, high school football team or police—for some is all we have as a form of foundation for our future identity.