It all started as a sore throat.
After a few days, Emilio Rodriguez had trouble swallowing. A week passed, and Rodriguez went to the doctor. After a a couple blood tests, doctors revealed that indeed the worst case scenario had come true -- Emilio had thyroid cancer.
Just 17 years old and nearing the end of his junior year at East Ridge High School in Woodbury, Rodriguez prepared for the toughest battle of his young life.
"Death," he said was the first thing that went through his head after the diagnosis. "Whenever you hear about cancer, it seems it's always about someone dying and that it's uncurable. I was really nervous and shocked."
Emilio had just finished his junior season at East Ridge -- a school in the midst of its first year of existence. Rodriguez played in all 25 games as a junior, tallying 3 goals and 3 assists on the Raptor blueline. Just a couple weeks after the Raptors were knocked out of the section playoffs, Emilio learned of his diagnosis. The day after school ended in June, Rodriguez was at United Hospital in St. Paul, undergoing surgery to remove his thyroid, as well as the cancerous tissue around it.
He felt stiff when he awoke from the seven hour surgery. Barely able to move his neck, Emilio's hockey playing career flashed before his eyes.
"When I found out how weak I was, and when I tried to move my neck, how hard that was… that kind of scared me. I thought I wouldn't be able to skate again," Rodriguez said. "I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to be myself."
But Emilio is back on the ice going full tilt in his senior season.
Less than a month after surgery, Rodriguez was in the weight room. Eight weeks later, he was back on the ice doing hockey related activities. Admittedly, it wasn't very pretty at first.
"It was like baby steps all over again," said East Ridge boys hockey coach Doug Long. "He came to a couple of our summer camps, and it was hard for him. He had no mobility in his neck. He had no peripheral vision because he couldn't turn his head. It was like starting all over."
"When I heard the doctors say how shocked they were with how my recovery was going, I thought, 'Maybe if I keep doing this, everything will fall into place for me,'" Rodriguez said.
It took weeks of work, but by the end of summer, Rodriguez was back to full strength.
"It's remarkable, his recovery," Long said. "I happened to pop in when they were playing three-on-three, and he was out there competing having a great time."
Watch Emilio at practice now, and he's figured out a way to skate through exhausting drills while keeping a smile on his face. But Long said it wasn't always that way. Among other things, Rodriguez said his battle with cancer has brought some new perspective on things, hockey and otherwise.
"Last season, I was always so hard on myself," said Rodriguez. "Now, I feel I've loosened up. I tell myself I've been through a lot this year. Just remember how it was when I first started [in July] and I could barely skate and barely handle a puck.
"It motivates me when I'm down because I know I've been in worse situations."
For the second straight season, Rodriguez hasn't missed a game, and as the Raptors begin the second half of their Suburban East Conference schedule, the team already has more conference points and overall victories than all of last season. But in many ways, the story East Ridge is writing this season is nothing compared to the one already authored by Emilio Rodriguez.
"You get a wake up call when something like that happens," Long said. "Here is someone who had a very serious illness and it laid him up for awhile. But he's not here making excuses.
"Life gets hard. But that's one of the hardest things anybody ever has to face and if he can deal with overcoming that, then overcoming everything else in the day-to-day aspect of life is small potatoes."