Francisco "Paco" Rodriguez died this week, at the age of 25. But as his brother, Alex, told us, "He's not only in heaven, but walking the earth in other people."
Paco Rodriguez was known as El Nino Azteca — Kid Aztec — on the west side of Chicago, where he was a boxer, and a great one. He was a 2001 Golden Gloves champion, and was fighting for the U.S. Boxing Association super bantamweight championship in Philadelphia on Nov. 20, when he lost in a 10th round technical knockout to Teon Kennedy.
Paco Rodriguez was a local hero in Chicago. Youngsters flocked to watch him train in the west side Park District field house, where they saw a young man who was respectful, cheerful and kind. He visited scores of local classrooms, where he told youngsters that the key to success in boxing wasn't strength and brutishness, but discipline, sportsmanship and respect.
"He really tried to help kids stay out of trouble," says Alex Rodriguez, who was also his manager. "For him, boxing was a sport. He loved the sport, but he didn't like hurting people."
Francisco Rodriguez had a young wife, Sonia, and a 5-month-old girl, Ginette.
The Philadelphia medical examiner has ruled that his death was an accident, caused by "a full blunt-impact injury" — a punch, or multiple punches, to the head.
I don't want to use Francisco Rodriguez's death as another occasion to question whether boxing should be viewed as sport. The Boxrec Boxing Encyclopedia lists five boxers who died in 2008 as the direct result of being hit in the ring. It is much harder to calculate, of course, how many sustain long-term brain damage.
Paco Rodriguez chose to be a boxer and was proud of his vocation. He might have one day hit someone with the same kind of "full blunt-impact injury" with which Teon Kennedy struck him.
Shortly after he was pronounced dead in Philadelphia, doctors approached Francisco Rodriguez's family and gently pointed out one last way in which he might help others.
"My brother was so strong and healthy," says Alex Rodriguez. "His heart and lungs were in perfect condition. It would have been a terrible waste not to share his life with others. How could we not help another family? I'm sure he would have wanted that."
So his family let doctors remove eight of Paco Rodriguez's organs, to donate them to five people. Details are being withheld for the moment, but all of the transplant surgeries should be done by this weekend. Five people might live because of the gift Paco Rodriguez gave them in death.
"Those people will have more Christmases, more birthdays," Alex Rodriguez told us. "And they'll remember my brother as we do: a real hero."