Coolidge football

Coolidge football players Jacob Gunter, from left, Malachi Rodriguez, Greg Rodriguez and Angelo Palacios have signed to play at the collegiate level.

COOLIDGE — After a season that concluded prematurely for most of them due to the pains of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, four Coolidge High School football players still received a happy ending to their story.

Malachi Rodriguez, Greg Rodriguez, Jacob Gunter and Angelo Palacios have all signed to play football at the collegiate level. Their coach, Rodger Schenks, said he was proud that a third of the seniors on the team were able to achieve this dream.

“They’re going to get a quality education,” Schenks said. “As a coach, this is another way where you’re competing, and we like competing. You’re trying to get your kids placed into college.”

The two Rodriguezes, unrelated, will both be attending Oklahoma Panhandle State University in the small town of Goodwell. The school came with a strong recommendation from Schenks, who was an all-American punter at the school during the 1990s.

That connection was enough for Malachi Rodriguez, who was itching to get out of Arizona and experience something new. As the anchor of the Bears’ defense along with Palacios, he believes his versatility on that side of the ball impressed coaches who were looking for somebody who could play multiple positions. And on his side, he felt a personal connection.

“I liked the team and what they were about,” he said. “They talked about their morals, and I was all for this team.”

Malachi Rodriguez said it was his dream to play in college while getting a degree, but it took some growth to get there. He recalls his younger days when he was more concerned with his own stats, but his time as a Bear changed that.

“I grew as a person,” he said. “I became more of a team player. Then I got closer to the guys, and I realized we all win together and lose together.”

Joining him in Goodwell is Greg Rodriguez, who starred at running back the past two seasons, combining speed with a toughness that people might not expect from someone his size. He said he’s glad to have a teammate joining him on his journey at the next level.

“Usually, I start off shy, and I end up becoming who I am,” Greg Rodriguez said. “So it’s going to be nice to have somebody I already know from Coolidge there with me.”

He isn’t sure what position he is going to play at OPSU, but wants to be a guy who can play anything and fill any role his team needs. He feels he can do that with this school, which made him feel comfortable in his own skin.

“It’s like a home away from home,” he said of the campus. “It reminds me of Coolidge, so I’m able to leave the state while feeling like home.”

Palacios, meanwhile is heading to Simpson College, a private liberal arts school in Indianola, Iowa. Unlike the Rodriguezes, he said he’s going there to play middle linebacker, which is a key position that carries a lot of pressure but also shows how much coaches believe in him.

“They said they liked my downhill speed, and just my ability to make a play,” he said. “I think they have some trust in me. They’ve been telling me they’re excited for me to come into the program and help out.”

Palacios said he was very impressed with the community support Simpson receives, with people traveling to road games to cheer them on.

His brother Abram, who was also a defensive leader for the Bears, signed to play at Arizona Christian University in Phoenix two years ago. With Angelo moving on, this marks the end of the family’s impact on the Bears’ program, for this generation anyway. He hopes people will remember what they accomplished.

“I’ve always tried to just do good for my family,” Palacios said. “I just wanted to live up to what my brothers did.”

Gunter, who as a senior started at quarterback for the first time and impressed everyone with his accuracy, will be attending Central Arizona College while playing for the Sonoran Sidewinders. The Tucson-based team is a part of the Hohokam Junior College Athletic Conference that was created by local football coaches after the Maricopa County Community College system eliminated the sport.

The pocket passer said he will be working on his speed and agility this summer in order to add another dimension to his game before playing in college.

“I’m excited for the competition,” Gunter said. “It should be a lot of fun.”

It remains to be seen what the Coolidge football team will be like next season. But as Schenks looks out at the number of younger students who joined his workout program, he said the legacy of the four who signed is already evident.

“All of them are quiet leaders, but they’ve been able to mentor some of our younger kids,” Schenks said. “It tells those kids that we may be in Coolidge and we may be a 3A school, but if I get good grades and take care of business on the field, I can get an opportunity to get an education, and possibly a free education that will help their families.”