DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is Friday, and that means time for StoryCorps, the project that captures the memories of everyday people. States across the country are hosting their annual Special Olympics summer games, and New Jersey's opening ceremonies begin later today. Jose Rodriguez joined the New Jersey Special Olympics back in 2003. He was 13 years old. Special Olympics is for people with intellectual disabilities, and Jose struggles with reading and writing. At StoryCorps, Jose told his former coach, Charles Zelinsky, what his life was like before he found the games.
JOSE RODRIGUEZ: I got into the street life at the age of 8. If there was a fight, I was there. There was no turning anything down. I didn't care if he was bigger than me; I fought just about anybody. But my little brother got sick when he was 4, of encephalitis. I sort of helped my mom with him around the house - feeding him, and stretching him. After he passed away, that's when I realized, you know, my mom can't really handle another son passing away. So I basically turned my life around. I started playing basketball, and opportunities just opened up for me.
CHARLES ZELINSKY: Yes. And in 2006, New Jersey Special Olympics was going to the national games, and you were one of 10 athletes picked from the entire state. At that competition, we took fourth. But we had a second chance to go back, in 2010. Do you remember at halftime, we were losing by eight?
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. I gathered the team up and I was like, look, I didn't come here to lose. If you're ready to win, let's win this. And they all shook their head - yes, all right, we're ready to win now.
ZELINSKY: I think that if you hadn't gone through a lot of the things you did in your past, you probably wouldn't have been ready to take charge like that. When you think back to that week in Nebraska, what do you take away from it, other than the gold medal?
RODRIGUEZ: One of the players - Sean - I kept throwing him the ball; he kept trying. I was trying so hard to get him a basket. There's what, three seconds left? I got it right to him, a three-pointer. I look at him; I look at his family. Best feeling in my life, right there. That's what I take away. So I'm gonna ask you, in 20 years, what will you remember the most about me?
ZELINSKY: I think I'll remember most the way in which you care about people. And the players that aren't as talented on our team, they're as important to you as the best player on the team. You don't just put words out there, you show them. And you do it in a very kind way.
GREENE: Charles Zelinsky and Jose Rodriguez at StoryCorps in Trenton, New Jersey. Jose is now a Special Olympics coach himself, and he'll be coaching games this weekend. To see photos of Jose and his former teammates, visit NPR.org.