The Last Flight of ‘Cam Rod’

The Last Flight of ‘Cam Rod’

She’s arguably one of the most dangerous female strikers in the country, with a reputation that ripples far and wide in the local women’s football scene, amongst players young and old.

She’s been named best striker (UAAP Season 77); a member of the mythical eleven (UAAP Season 79, also Season 78 if not for accumulated cards); a national team player plucked from high school. But there is one slight aberration on her glowing resume – she has never won a championship title with the Ateneo de Manila University.

For Camille Rodriguez, it’s fine. It’s something that she can live with even after her five-year service.

“The results don’t show it but I’m glad to say our spirit never wavered. At least we didn’t give up and quit,” she said one quiet afternoon.

The 22-year-old booting Lady Eagle would brush it off, but she has been a central figure for most of her tenure in Ateneo. When she arrived, she was a multi-awarded high school prospect from Miriam College that people had high hopes for, only to end her first season miserably.

“I started out as a bad rookie. That season, zero goals. Imagine that,” she chuckled.

But it wasn’t too bad, because by season’s end, Ateneo had escaped bottom place for the first time ever. The following year she managed to score at least three, and Ateneo reached another milestone: third place.

As a junior, she outdid herself and much of the field with seven goal – a season-best that she shared with two others, eventually gaining the best striker recognition. Ateneo finished that season again in third.

In her fourth year, her output was trimmed down to five, but she was still part of the top three scorers for the season. Again, Ateneo ended up just outside of the top two.

In her fifth and final season this year, she exploded with eleven goals, including a hat-trick in one game. But two others were just as good—Charisa Lemoran of the University of Santo Tomas, and Kyra Dimaandal of the De La Salle University; the latter eventually won the annual accolade. Yet alas, Ateneo were still strapped to third.

“So we’re plateauing, trying to break out of third place. I guess that’s been our biggest challenge and we haven’t overcome it. It was either one goal, one win, or one draw that could’ve made the difference,” she recounted wistfully, calling the perennial outcome a ‘slump’.”

Teams have gone up and down around them, most notably La Salle, who were dead last in one of the blue-and-white’s best seasons but are now the reigning champions. In fact, the Ateneo women’s football team is the only squad that has not won a championship, let alone experienced a title match.

According to Rodriguez, who was appointed captain since becoming a senior, getting there has been a lot harder than it looked.

“The hardest part was to get everybody to want the same thing, but of course you have to take into consideration whatever they are feeling. So how do you get everyone on board and on the same page despite what they’re going through?”

She said that last year was the hardest to deal with. Morale had hit rock bottom, and teammates were on the verge of throwing in the towel. Luckily Rodriguez, along with Aina Martin, her co-captain at the time, were Psychology majors, and they were able to put their skills to use. Somehow they pulled the team together to finish Season 78 strong.

The problems didn’t end there, though. This year, it hasn’t been personal issues plaguing the team, but injuries.

“It’s like adversity, one after another, one that we’d have to conquer again and again,” she said.

Yet despite wave after wave of bad luck, the ladies picked themselves up, helped each other out, and miraculously finished third best.

“Definitely our greatest accomplishment as a team. At least we didn’t go down,” Rodriguez grinned proudly.

Two Sides to One Captain

Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 01 - captain
The Zamboanga native is big on character growth, hence why she considers her transformation from a goalless freshman striker to ending a collegiate career with a personal best as her best-ever achievement.

As captain, she’s known to be kind and caring, prioritizing her teammates’ well-being. Thus she’s thankful that the atmosphere within the Ateneo WFT has turned into a more nurturing one compared to when she had first arrived. After all, she is a big reason for the team’s philosophy change.

“To influence people to think more about their growth than the end goals of championships, medals, awards—that’s a big thing for me. I’m happy that I got to share it with the team and that they sort of understand now that what they do should be about theirs and the team’s growth.”

Don’t let the sweet demeanor fool you, though; she can be tough and stern when needed.

“Sometimes I snap at yung makukulit. For me training is training, we’re only given two hours and if you’re not super there that moment, you’re just wasting people’s time—yours, the coaches’ and your teammates.”

This mindset carried well into game time. Rodriguez insists on giving the game one’s full attention so that you respect your team and yourself as its player. The same intensity has been key to Rodriguez’s front as an intimidating striker.

“It’s a mind game. Naturally when you’re there, they have to feel threatened. But after the game, you don’t need to be a threat anymore,” she said with a glint in her eye.

Secret To Success

Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 06 - extra
Between 2016 and 2017, Rodriguez has racked up at least 23 goals in three different tournaments. How does she do it? Just what makes her so productive and so good at what she does?

“When Cathy [Cabrera, one of their reliable defenders] got injured, I was like, ‘If we can’t defend the goal well, I should at least help my team by scoring a lot,” she said at one point in a jovial tone.

Whether that was a serious reason or not, it may have been a factor that contributed to hyper-focus. It’s a concept that was introduced to her by Martin one season, which she has candidly thrown around when people marvel at a sensational goal she just pulled off.

“Throughout the years I’ve developed this routine wherein I pack all my stuff the night before, know which goes where. I also do visualizations where I picture all the possible scenarios in a game. Sometimes I’d go so far as watching videos before sleeping,” she explained.

It’s normal for athletes to have superstitions that will bolster their confidence; for Rodriguez, she has the hyper-focus routine, which helps her know that she is in control.

“While others chit-chat, use earphones or music on the way to a game, I just get quiet. It’s to zone in. It silences my thoughts.”

She may appear confident on the pitch, but Rodriguez is not one immune to frustration. Just like anybody else, she is prone to self-doubt, and has succumbed to emotional bouts of anxiety. Having her team – and especially family, friends and loved ones – around to talk has helped eased the pressure.

“At times, it got to my head like people expect so much of me that just in a way broke me down. It became like a big distraction. From Coach Jaypee (Merida of Ateneo) I learned that the pressure will always be there. But it’s all about directing where you want your focus to be.”

Strong Alone, Unbreakable Together

Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 02 - goal celebration
Out of sheer gratitude, she has dedicated her success to the people who always had her back. Those who have witnessed the countless times she has scored have seen how she does it. That unmistakable point towards the heavens, or the few instances where she blows kisses to the crowd.

“I wanted everyone to see that whatever I do, it’s not really because of me lang. It’s really borne out of constant guidance and care, and the support of my mom and my dad.”

She has spoken highly of her father, a constant mentor and cheerleader since she started football, and who is also the first one to offer comfort after painful losses or times of overwhelming pressure.

“He’d always commend me, put me back into focus whenever I get disheartened, especially after that first year in college where I got zero goals. Sabi niya talaga sa akin, ‘You know, just keep trying’.”

Rodriguez also made sure to give credit to coaches who have developed her striker’s mentality, some of them brought in by her dad. Often they’d put in extra sessions on top of the regular training.

Then there’s her mother, whose untimely passing when she was twelve must have caused unbearable sadness. Yet these days, Rodriguez prefers knowing that her mama now has a better view of her from above. So it should come as no surprise whenever she plays like a player possessed, as if she’s putting on a show for someone each time she laces up those boots.

“She is always with me, always the one guiding me. Even when she was still alive, she’d always be the supporter in everything I do. Doing that goal celebration is my way of paying tribute.”

Doubling Back and Counting Blessings

Rodriguez wasn’t always a footballer. She had a very active childhood where she dabbled in ballet, gymnastics, figure skating, and even swimming, where she won multiple awards. After that, she got so immersed in taekwondo, and almost stuck with it. Eventually, it was the beautiful game that swept her off her feet ,but ironically, the first encounter left an impression none too pleasing.

“Oh, when it was first introduced to me, I hated it,” she laughs, alluding to the times her father brought her to his games. After her brother made her jealous of a medal he’d won from the sport, football started to charm its way into her heart.

“I think iba din talaga na football’s a team sport. So I think that’s what changed also. Before that all of my sports were individual. Siguro na-enjoy ko yung sama-samang accomplishment.”

From a sprightly ten-year-old at the Ateneo Football Center to being a bonafide star of the Ateneo WFT, Rodriguez has really come a long way. And she wouldn’t change any of it. In fact, it changed her.

“If it wasn’t for AWFT, I would have been a cranky, burnt out lady you wouldn’t enjoy being around with. I’m the type who can be hard on their self but my teammates taught me to enjoy the experience.”

Like a driver who is revving up the engine, about to leave one place for another, Rodriguez has one last look at the rear-view mirror back at Ateneo, hopeful she has done enough to leave it in a better place.

“I hope they will remember me as someone who gave it their all knowing that it was never for me but that it was always for the team, all the time. One big fight. Never say die.”

Finding Inspiration

Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 03 - AWFT
Her feats may have earned her fans who leave behind simple messages to her on social media or who make shy requests to have their pictures taken with her – moving gestures that continue to surprise her –but Rodriguez also has people she looks up to, particularly teammates.

“Pia Villaflor, whose intense work ethic is inspiring. Aina Martin, from her I learned simple changes in mindset, to take the time to process how you see things. Gely Tiu, for the ‘whoa nagawa mo yun’ moments and her leadership. Cecille Dayrit and Maan Cadayona, underrated sila but were very important to AWFT. Nona Amoncio, we spend so much time together that I basically grew up with her.”

Rodriguez also saluted the determination of teammates who fell to season-ending injuries and are enduring tedious exercises day after day just to play and serve the team again.

Her fellow Ateneans are not the only ones who have merited her respect. She also thinks highly of opponents who have challenged her to raise her level.

“Hazel Lustan (UST), her touch and read of the game, how she’s deadly in the sense that she can score out of nothing. Dai Dolino (FEU/OutKast FC), her tenacity, skills and smarts. Since she’s a defender and I’m a striker, she’s like the final big boss like you know in video games. Once past her, okay na.”

As for fellow top strikers Dimaandal and Lemoran, Rodriguez refuses to think of them as rivals. “I actually feel happy for them when they score like, ‘Wow, galing mo!'”Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 04 - Palacios

Inna Palacios is also someone Rodriguez considers exceptional. Like her, the La Sallian goalkeeper is a larger-than-life persona in Philippine women’s football, and apparently the supposed rival is someone she already knew from way before. The two of them started out with football almost at the same time, and rose through the ranks together from RIFA (Rizal Football Association) to the national team. They became close friends, until circumstances like college pulled them apart.

(Interesting tidbit: Palacios nearly went to Ateneo due to their friendship)

Rodriguez said they became distant as a result, but have patched things up, especially now that their respective collegiate careers are over.

“It’s a pleasure seeing her grow from way back when to now. More than her skills it’s her consistency every year, every game. She’s one of the few who stood by the national team, always there unlike me who stopped. It’s really nice seeing her maximize her potential through becoming a champion.”

Rodriguez is also a certified fan of Argentina’s Lionel Messi, contrary to how she’s often been compared to Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo on initials and number of choice alone.

“I like how he’s unassuming, doesn’t do much tricks and instead goes back to the simple principles of football ethics. I know people call me ‘CR7’ but I want to be Messi.”

Looking Forward

So what’s next for the ruminative forward?

For now, she will focus on the other tournament her team is still competing in: the PFF Women’s League. Ateneo are now in sixth place and are looking to climb up the ladder before the season ends in the second round. Rodriguez has indicated that she hopes to finish the season with the AWFT if management will let her. If yes, the league will be Rodriguez’s last hurrah with the team she has been practically synonymous with. If not, club team Hiraya FC are waiting in the wings.

“Ni-recruit na ako. Kasi why not, I’ll be playing hanggang sa kaya.”

Rodriguez is also entertaining the idea of coaching or mentoring the next generation of young girls with their football, something she thinks she can do with Girls Got Game, a non-profit group that teaches sports to underprivileged girls. She wants to give back to football, for everything it has done for her.

“I have this opportunity to influence and I’d like to use that to inspire the growth of Philippine women’s football. Hopefully it’s a power to make good change.”

One that is definitely on the Ateneo stalwart’s plate is a return to the national team. Rodriguez has featured in every youth national team she was eligible for, debuted for the seniors in 2009 at the age of 14, scored her first international goal against Malaysia a year later, but stopped short in 2011.

“I think I came to a point where I decided that I wanted to live in a way. I wanted to experience college fully in the sense that I’ve been a student-varsity-national-athlete for the whole of high school and I felt like I just needed a break. Some people say na kaya naman but it’s really different, especially with Ateneo,” she explained.

People have wondered about her absence, as her talents no doubt would have made significant impact on any team. But with the rigors of a demanding academic life now over, Rodriguez has pledged to suit up for the blue, red and white again.

It’s a decision that comes at a crucial time when the Philippines is preparing for the Southeast Asian Games next month in Malaysia. The women’s team is riding on momentum that is as high as it has ever been, and it is only right that the nation’s best respond to the call to rise with it. More than the SEA Games, it is the AFC Women’s Asian Cup next year in Jordan among Asia’s elite that is most imperative, as it also serves as a stepping stone to the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Rodriguez sadly begged off the qualifiers earlier this year due to academics. Fortunately, this time around she’s fully committed.

“I’d like to say that at least now I get to concentrate on it more. Siyempre nakaka-miss din naman. Tapos iba rin talaga when you represent your country.”

No Regrets, Only Opportunities

Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 05 - national team
One cannot help but feel a tinge of melancholy when regarding Rodriguez’s case: all the accolades, the cult status, yet never found glory with the Ateneo Lady Eagles within the sphere of the UAAP games. Yet sympathizers can find comfort in the fact that she still did find some kind of glory in her own little way, absent of any regret.

After all, with her return to the national team and with the PFF Women’s League, whether she ends up in the AWFT or in Hiraya FC or in some other club, the door to sporting euphoria has not been completely shut.

“I’ll never really let go of football,” she said with a knowing smile.

And like what an old childhood friend told her towards the end of their collegiate careers, one who had a hand in convincing her back to the national team: Cam, Jordan ah.

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