Nick Lucena winked, and only one person in the stadium could have possibly seen it: Head ref John Rodriguez.
Lucena had always been known for his fiery demeanor, and though Rodriguez cannot recall the exact year of the wink, he estimates it came at a tournament in Florida, when Lucena and Phil Dalhausser were playing Matt Olson and Kevin Wong, which would date it to the mid-2000s, which also dates it to when Lucena’s temper was nearing its zenith.
Or was that temper just theatrics? Something for the crowd to enjoy, an added element to an excellent match between one storied team and the next great one?
Perhaps, as it goes sometimes, it’s a bit of both.
“Phil (Dalhausser) chucked a set,” recalled Rodriguez, one of the most well-known and well-respected refs on the AVP Tour and p1440. “Which is rare but it happened, and I tweeted (whistled) it. Nick (Lucena) comes –– they were getting killed in the second set against (Kevin Wong and Matty Olson) –- flying over to my stand.”
And here is where the disconnect between crowd and players and refs begins, in that intimate space between ref stand and player, where only two individuals know what’s being said in the conversation.
“He goes ‘John, give me a yellow card, I’ve gotta get fired up,’ ” Rodriguez, said, laughing. “And he’s flailing his arms at me, and I’m like ‘Oh, all right, this isn’t so bad.’ And he says ‘Play along with me’ and I’m pointing at him and he’s pointing at me, and we’re not going overboard with it, but he says ‘Give me one more second and then give me a yellow card.’ So I said ‘Just don’t slam my stand or hit anything because then I have to give you a red card.’
“So he goes around a little bit longer and finally I tweet, give him a yellow card, and the audience goes ‘Booooo!’ And Nick’s pointing back at me and then he winks at me. It was just a fun time.”
Ah, yes, few on top of the stand, or maybe even in the entire game, players included, have as much fun as Rodriguez, this week’s guest on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.
The paths for a male to become a professional beach volleyball player are few and far between, no two the same. The paths for a male to become a professional beach volleyball referee are even more circuitous.
“We do not,” Rodriguez said repeatedly, “do this for the money. We do this because we love the game.”
Rest assured, Rodriguez does not, or initially did not, get into the game for the money. For the first handful of years in which he was involved in the game, he was a volunteer, a 20-something-year-old ball shagger.
“The opportunity as an adult ball shagger, I’m like this older guy amidst all these kids chasing balls next to me and just loving it, loving the game, getting to play afterwards on the pro courts,” Rodriguez said.
He shagged balls for so many years, in fact, that the AVP finally shrugged its shoulders and figured why not get the guy involved in a few more capacities? Maybe put him in the information booth, chat with the VIPs? After a few more years of that, the head ref at the time approached him and said “Hey, I know you know the game, and you’re already traveling with the AVP, so I know you could save me a lot of money if I could just use you for one day, maybe two days if we use you as an official,” Rodriguez recalled. “’So I said ‘Yeah, sure, that’ll be cool.’”
He worked Thursdays and Fridays as a ref, and when the bigger matches began, the more established refs were called in and Rodriguez, known affectionately as J-Rod among players and fans alike, would return to the information booths or wherever his talents and passion were needed.
Soon enough, Rodriguez could no longer be found in information booths or with the VIPs. No, John Rodriguez was a ref, from Qualifier Thursday to Finals Sunday, culminating in his Twitter handle becoming @avpjrod.
“I had no idea it would go on this path,” he said. “I’m loving it. And we do this because we love the sport. I think I’ve said that, sorry, but we enjoy what we do, and I think it shows from, all of us, sometimes we’re at the site from 6:30 to 7, whatever it is. It is a long day, but when we look back, and the day closes, we’re like ‘Hey, that was a great day! We had the best seats in the house, or standing, whatever it may be, we saw some amazing volleyball, and it’s all worth it.’
“The fatigue seems to go away and you wake up in the morning, get on your horse, and do the same thing again. We really love it.”