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Chi Chi is more than just a golfer

 

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Sportswriters are supposed to be cynical, jaded, untrusting and unhealthy folk. But, with the exception of the unhealthy aspect, I am still a good natured kid at heart.

Because of that, I still believe in the general good of man even professional athletes. Call me naive or foolish, but I believe that professional athletes are just normal people with above average athletic abilities and above average bank accounts.

Unfortunately, a large number of professional athletes have been proving me wrong. Whether it's Allen Iverson not wanting to practice for three hours a day or Randy Moss not wanting to play hard for three plays a series. Today's professional athletes are being portrayed as self consumed, whiny, money hungry brats.

But, just when I was about to have a personal belief crisis, along came Chi Chi Rodriguez to restore my belief in the good of the professional athlete.

The small crowd who witnessed Rodriguez performance at the Bear Paw Classic golf exhibition at the Chinook Golf and Country Club, got to see one of the most friendly, outgoing and engaging personalities in sports.

Chi Chi laughed, teased, smiled and hugged his way into people's hearts. Of course, he knew he would.

"I can already picture the people laughing at what I say and seeing the impossible shots I can hit," Rodriguez said the day before the event. "That to me is happiness."

But even if Chi Chi had never graced us with his presences, the proof of his quality of person is without doubt.

Chi Chi, along with a teacher and part time detention officer Bill Hayes and Bob James, the founder of Raymond James Financial, Inc. founded the The Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation in Clearwater, Fla.

The foundation uses a holistic approach in its programs. It emphasizes life management, social skills, personal grooming, business skills, consumer education, reading enhancement, retail and art with the underlying forum being golf.

Golf was chosen as the key ingredient for the program because according the foundation website, "it does not require unusual size, speed, or strength for excellence. The sport does, however, require personal discipline, concentration, honesty, and tenacity. These qualities plus exposure to role models of successful adult golfers made the game a natural choice."

In order to be considered for the program, the children must meet two or more of the following requirements: abused, from a single parent home, on some form of government assistance, have poor grades, be socially withdrawn or have had minor scrapes with law enforcement.

"These are kids that society has given up on," Rodriguez said. "We have a ninety-nine percent attendance rate and a ninety-nine percent success rate. Our school uses golf as a vehicle to help straighten their lives out."

You can see the pride build in Chi Chi's eyes as he speaks about his kids. Some have become professional golfers with others becoming doctors, lawyers, F-16 fighter pilots and businessmen.

It's fulfilling to Rodriguez. It gives him a sense of importance and what his true calling is. Sure, he is a professional golfer but to pigeon hole him as just a golfer is wrong. He is a humanitarian.

"To win a golf tournament is a material thing," Rodriguez said. "To help a kid is a spiritual thing. The spiritual always outweighs the material."

Rodriguez has won eight PGA and 30 Senior PGA tournaments in his career totaling over $7 million in earnings. It has made him a wealthy man.

"My banker called me Chi Chi all my life," Rodriguez said. "After I started playing the senior tour, he started calling me Mr. Rodriguez."

The money is nice. But no moment in his golf career could ever equal the feeling he gets from seeing a child from his foundation succeed or the laughter he generates from doing events like Chinook. Like his foundation, golf and money for Rodriguez are vehicles that he can use to help people.

"It makes me rich," Rodriguez said. "When a kid says, Thank you, Uncle Chi Chi,' that makes me feel very proud and good."

Soon Rodriguez will be done competing on the senior tour. It grinds on him he admits. He'll scale back his tournament schedule gradually and when he turns 70 in three years he'll retire from professional golf.

He'll spend his remaining time at his foundation and doing more fund-raising exhibitions. He won't stop until somebody or something makes him.

"When I die," Rodriguez said. "I want my ashes taken to my foundation. I want them to put fresh rose in front of my little tomb each week. That way when my students walk by they can say, Chi Chi, he was our friend'."

Chi Chi Rodriguez is more than a golfer. He's more than a humanitarian and more than a friend. He is what is right about professional sports.

And he makes me still believe in the general goodness of people even professional athletes.

 

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