EAGAN, Minn. — The shock struck Rob Rodriguez first.
Then came the sadness.
The pride, always there, might be stronger than before.
On Aug. 3, with the Vikings set to hold their annual night practice of training camp, the Vikings assistant defensive line coach had a window for a nap at the team hotel.
"As I was settling in, I got a text from my brother, and he was saying there was an active shooter at the mall, and he wanted to make sure everyone was OK," Rodriguez explained. "A family text chain was already going."
Still trying to piece together what was happening, Rodriguez searched Twitter for more information.
The people of his beloved hometown, El Paso, adjacent to the mall where he had gone on his first date years ago, were under attack.
"Instantly it all became very real, and then you start to worry about your family," Rodriguez said. "Thank goodness, my family did a good job of communicating with each other, so I knew my immediate family was OK, but I have such a big family."
A 21-year-old who drove approximately 650 miles from the Dallas area to El Paso identified himself as the shooter and told investigators the incident was racially motivated.
Twenty-two people perished, including one as young as 15. Twenty-four more were injured in the rampage.
" 'Shock' is the right word. It's a terrifying feeling," Rodriguez said. "You've got to understand, El Paso, even though it's a big city, it's very much a small town and a tight-knit community. We all know each other. Sure enough, two degrees of separation, you're talking about this person or that person. It really is a big family, so it was shock and terror.
"Sadness didn't kick in until later," he continued. "I felt shocked for the first time in a long time. I can't imagine being a person that lost someone close to them because of the emotions that I was going through."
Representing the 915
Internal emotions still stirring, Rodriguez outwardly expressed his support for his hometown by writing "915" (area code of El Paso) on the front of his black Vikings hat before the night practice.
"It was still really fresh. I had a lot of emotions, and there was still a lot of fear in me because we didn't know exactly [that all relatives were OK], when I walked out to the field, I was still in shock, and we were still looking for people," Rodriguez said. "We were trying to make sure that some of our cousins and extended family and friends were OK. We didn't know, so you're kind of fearful of that because you've already accepted that something bad has happened, and you're just fearful that it's someone close to you. It was an uneasy feeling."
Rodriguez is accustomed to absorbing the powerful strikes from Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and other Vikings defensive linemen during hand-work drills.
Occasional misplacements/mistakes during the drills have at times left bruises on Rodriguez's arms.
But this time, the players replaced hand-work with hugs, passing along a message of "we've got your back."
They had been filled in by defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who himself embraced El Paso when working as an assistant coach at UTEP from 2010-12, about Rodriguez's grief.
"It just says so much about the guys in the room and Andre as well," Rodriguez said. "Andre had conveyed to the guys what had happened and how much my city means to me.
"We are a family within a family on the defensive line," he added. "Like always, they rise to the occasion. They took a load off my shoulders by doing that. They let me take a deep breath and be a coach for a few hours."
After the practice was over, Rodriguez's older of two sons was among the children running out to their fathers, reconnecting after a long start to training camp.
"It just reminds you of everything that's good about my life and how fortunate I am," Rodriguez said. "It gave me a couple of hours of happiness on a really tough day. It still makes me sad to know that those folks were really going through a nightmare that night and I got a window where I got to be really happy because those guys rose to the occasion."
Land of opportunity
That touching post-practice moment couldn't have been predicted when Rodriguez's grandmother, Delia Arrieta, immigrated to El Paso from Camargo, Chihuahua, Mexico, in the early 1960s, leaving behind a ranch she grew up on so that future descendants would have more opportunities. She became a U.S. citizen in the early 1990s, which Rodriguez said was "one of the happiest days of her life."
Rodriguez asked her why she'd leave the ranch and endure the hardships she encountered as a first-generation immigrant. He was part of the answer to his own question.
She explained: "Honestly, I didn't do it for your mom and your uncles and aunts. I did it for you and your children, that you guys would grow up in this country and never know a day where people would treat you like you were from somewhere else, like you were an outsider. You would belong and be afforded all of the rights and privileges of any other American."
Rodriguez said he thinks about his grandmother during each playing of the National Anthem and when he sees his children place their hands over their hearts.
He said it is possible — and proven by El Paso residents and others — that people can take pride in being Americans and also in having a cultural heritage from another country.
"That sacrifice that my grandmother made is the American dream," Rodriguez said. "The American dream isn't coming here and doing for yourself, at least for our culture and a lot of South and Central American cultures, the American dream is to come and sacrifice so the next generations can flourish.
"I hope it shines a light on how good those people are, that in the face of such darkness, they were a shining light and came together," Rodriguez said. "The things that they did and the stories that I hear out of El Paso make me so proud to be from El Paso."
Helping the healing
The next day, another shooting made national headlines. This time, a 24-year-old killed nine people and wounded 27 others in just 32 seconds, turning the Oregon District of Dayton, Ohio, into a horrific scene.
Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, his brother, Tito, who spent training camp with the Vikings, and tackle Olisaemeka Udoh all grew up near Dayton. Ifeadi had celebrated his 24th birthday in the Oregon District in 2018.
"I'm on the outskirts, but Dayton is not a very rich, uppity place," Ifeadi explained. "People mind themselves and do their thing. It's more of a blue-collar town, and for that to happen, you don't ever want to see a small city [make] national news. It breaks my heart."
Rodriguez, Patterson and Ifeadi connected through their sorrow and wanted to help victims by writing letters to the people of El Paso and Dayton that were sent last week along with donations from the Vikings to support victims' funds in each community.
"I'm always proud to be a Viking, but it made me really proud to think of everybody in the building," Rodriguez said of learning about the financial support. "First and foremost, I was very proud, but I also wanted to express my support. That's my city, and when you say it hit home, my heart still swells with a lot of grief for those people.
"I'm fortunate that no one I knew was directly involved in it, but it still hurts me," Rodriguez said. "I can only imagine the hurt that my fellow citizens are going through, just because that's the way our community is. It still hurts me, and I still feel grief for them. I wanted to show my support and tell them that the Vikings are with you, that I'm with El Paso."
Ifeadi explained of his letter: "I thought it was important to let the people of Dayton know, 'You guys aren't doing this by yourself. You guys are in the national news. There are people that are thinking about you.' There's people from Dayton that are doing good things and have a platform, and I feel like I owe it to myself and the people around me, to my community to speak up and let them know, 'You have my support.' "
Rodriguez knows there will be "a lot of heartache going forward," but he expects "the strength of El Paso" will help overcome the tragedy.
"We've got beautiful mountains, great food, great weather — but the strength of El Paso is the people," Rodriguez said. "You get to know them, and it's just amazing. You fall in love with it. I think it's kind of shown itself in these last few weeks.
"Andre immediately came in and embraced the city. He was very positive, and sure enough, people loved him there," he added. "He's never said a bad word about my city, and I've always loved and respected him for that. It hurt him, too. He really showed a lot of support for me because he knows how much El Paso means to me. I could tell it meant something to him, too, so it was nice to share it with him."
Under challenging times, Rodriguez has seen his community show toughness and camaraderie, as well as how tight-knit it is. He credits those virtues with shaping him.
"The biggest thing I want to get through is how much that city rose to the occasion," Rodriguez said. "Hopefully one of the things that I convey to the people around me is hard work, dedication, toughness, but also love. I hope that I'm a good person, that I represent my city in that sense, that I represent my family in that sense, that I'm a good person to work around. I just feel so adamantly that that city represents what I'm all about. I wouldn't be the man I am today if I wasn't from there."