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Chris Rodriguez knows his mother would be proud of him starting his NFL journey


Most people probably didn't notice anything different about Chris Rodriguez’s helmet during the Senior Bowl, but for the former Kentucky Wildcat, the fact that he was donning a purple facemask carried heavy significance. 

At the time, Rodriguez was about a month removed from his mother, Stephanie Thornton, passing away from lupus in January. So, as a way of honoring her, Rodriguez was loaned a purple facemask -- the color for lupus awareness -- by LSU to wear during the college all-star week.  

Rodriguez is always looking for ways to highlight the impact Thornton had on him. He has a large support system that includes his father, aunts, uncles, cousins and his fiancé, but he credits his mother as "my biggest motivation in life" and someone who pushed him to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL. 

That dream came to life when the Washington Commanders drafted him in the sixth round, and while he can't savor the moment with her by his side, he wants to make sure he is living and playing for her. 

"It's hard I'm not sharing this moment with her, but I know she's looking down," Rodriguez told reporters after he was drafted. "She's proud of me, and I continue to make her proud."

Thornton had been dealing with lupus for most of her life. She was diagnosed in her late teenage years when Rodriguez's sister was born, so he had witnessed her battle with the autoimmune disease for most of his life.

That did not prevent Thornton from supporting Rodriguez throughout his playing career. She cheered him on as he became one of the top prospects in Georgia for amassing 4,730 yards at Ola High School.

That support carried over to Rodriguez's career at Kentucky, where he wrapped up his college career as one of the best running backs in program history. His 32 rushing touchdowns are second on the Wildcats' all-time list, and he recorded a school-record of 20 100-yard games.

The two were so close that Rodriguez considered his aspirations of making it to the NFL as their dream.

"All the goals and aspirations were through her," Rodriguez told Kentucky Sports. "I wanted to do everything through football to give her a better life. My mom had lupus, and I wanted her to not struggle or have to go through anything."

No matter what Rodriguez was going through in life, Thornton would do whatever was necessary for her to be there for him. One memory that sticks out the most was when Thornton made the trip up to Kentucky from Georgia when Rodriguez was going through a difficult time.

"That's one of the times that I cried to my mom," Rodriguez said. "It was just her holding me and me crying to her. And it was peaceful when she was holding me."

The day before Rodriguez and the rest of the Commanders' rookies reported to the training facility for minicamp was a tough one for him. He wanted his mom there with him "more than anything else," and the realization that she would not be there left him "shocked."

The next morning, Rodriguez got a text message from his sister that put things into perspective for him.

"It just kind of reminded me that mom's with me no matter what," Rodriguez said. "And just continue to do what I'm doing. I am making her proud."

Check out the top photos from Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez's college career. (Photos via The Associated Press)

Not long after Rodriguez got the call from the Commanders, Rodriguez posted a photo of him and Thornton on Instagram with the caption: "Today will be full of smiles and happy tears. Knowing I'm making you happy and fulfilling OUR dream me making it to the NFL. I love you, Momma. And I miss you so much. I know you'll be next to me when the time comes."

Rodriguez is certain that his mother is still watching over him and cheering him on as he begins the next chapter of his career.

"I know she's looking down and she's proud. If she were here, she'd still be proud."

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