Special story for a special season

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Celebrating the closeness of family and gift-giving around the Christmas holiday has been a staple since St. Clement of Alexandria referenced the celebration of the Nativity and the Epiphany around 200 A.D.

For 17-year-old Andrew Rodriguez of Alexandria, this Christmas will be spent without two key players, his father and sister who are serving overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rodriguez, a senior scholar and powerhouse football player at Bishop Ireton High School, was finishing up exams in his Advanced Placement and Honors courses in statistics, physics, Spanish and religion on Tuesday when we caught up with him in the hallways.

“It’s going to be tough not having my dad and sister around for the holidays,” Rodriguez said as he emerged from a grueling exam in A.P. statistics. “He’s missed two of the last three Christmases. I miss him and my sister a lot, but we talk every couple of weeks and we e-mail a lot.”

Lately those e-mails have carried some pretty heartwarming news to his sister Amy Rodriguez, who’s serving in the Army in Iraq, and to his dad, Major General David Rodriguez, commander of the U.S. Army’s vaunted  82nd Airborne, now serving in the cold, dusty mountains of Afghanistan. His son carries a 4.5 GPA, is a National Merit Scholar and is being courted by scouts from Harvard, Princeton and West Point.

“He’s the kind of kid you’d want your daughter to bring home,” said principal Bill Simmons. “Half the kids at the school think he’s their best friend. When he’s on campus he’s not Big Man on Campus. He’s just one of the guys. He has time for everybody.”

As a wide receiver, linebacker and running back for the Cardinals, this football season Rodriguez carried the ball into the end zone 12 times, carrying Bishop Ireton to the state championship in Lynchburg, the first time in 15 years. “I like to compete,” he says in a quiet voice which cloaks his fierce spirit of determination. While the Cardinals lost the state title to Liberty Christian Academy, they finished the season 9-3.

On Tuesday, Rodriguez was recognized nationally as an Old Spice Red Zone Player of the Year. He is among an elite group of players eligible to be selected as a recipient and be honored in a full-page feature in USA Today in February. “We’re  recognizing high school football players who go above and beyond the call of duty,” said a spokesman for Proctor & Gamble, sponsor of the award. “The program honors athletes like Andy who are able to elevate their play and step up when the heat is on. These athletes embody leadership, performance and desire, and serve as examples to their teammates on and off the field.”

For now, Rodriguez said he spends a lot of his spare time in chapel, praying for his family’s safe return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives in Alexandria with relatives so he can attend Bishop Ireton, while his mother lives at the Army Base in Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd. It is there he will be spending the holidays with her and his brother David, a junior at Gettysburg College, and his sister Melissa, a graduate student at Virginia Tech.

“We pray a lot here at school,” Rodriquez says softy. “We get very worried about them, but we say a lot of prayers and we know they’d be home for Christmas if they could. We’re just proud they’re serving their country.”
 
Remembering Judge Backus
He was once a fearsome litigator and winning politician who became mayor of Alexandria by age 39. Later he went on to serve 47 years as the senior Circuit Court judge in Alexandria. Twenty years after he retired in 1979, the city named its courthouse after him: Judge Franklin P. Backus.

Backus passed away Oct. 7 of congestive heart failure. On Tuesday, on what would have been his 94th birthday, the Alexandria Rotary Club honored Backus and his widow, 86-year-old Virginia Gray Backus of Alexandria, whom he married when he was 76. It was his first and only marriage. “His work was his life … he had a vibrant mind,” Virginia Backus said. “We met when we were teenagers, but later in our 70s we met again and we almost immediately got married.”

A lifelong Alexandria citizen, Backus served in World War II as a lieutenant commander on aircraft carriers which cruised the Pacific Rim. In the 1950s, after a short stint as an attorney, Backus was invited onto the bench and soon established the Juvenile Court System in Alexandria. “He had the patience of Job,” noted Alexandria attorney Gant Redmon said. “When he ruled that was it.”

Backus also once chaired the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce and was president of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Mayor William D. Euille recalled that when he ran for mayor he stopped by Goodwin House just to pick his brain. “We spent several hours together and he gave me fantastic advice,” Euille recalled. “Alexandria was fortunate to have such a giant. We’re going to miss him.”

One of his old buddies, retired architect Bill Vosbeck, said Backus loved the Homestead, where they’d go for days on golf jaunts.

John Gray, a retired attorney, remembered Backus as “a jurist of the first order.” Back then, he said, “Alexandria used to be a small town and everybody knew each other. He had integrity, character, and was respected in every corner of the community.”

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