SARATOGA, Calif. (KGO) — Bay Area high school football coach Rob Mendez was born with a rare disorder called tetra-amelia syndrome, leaving him with no arms or legs. He doesn’t let his condition stop him. 31 years later, he’s changing the football community with his coaching ability as the JV coach of Prospect High School in Saratoga, Calif., and inspiring the world with his story. He will be honored at the 2019 ESPY Awards as the Jimmy V Perseverance Award recipient and was on the cover of ESPN Magazine’s heroes edition.
Now he has everyone asking, “who says I can’t?”
‘Who says I can’t?’ is an original statement for myself always to be determined and stay hungry in life,” Mendez said. “It always kept me hungry. I love it when the kids say ‘nobody’ because it’s true. Nobody but yourself can hold yourself back. That’s what I’ve realized over the years.” Not having arms or legs has stopped Mendez from being able to play sports or do certain jobs he has always been interested in, like being an electrician, but he always fought to find ways to be happy. One way he was able to do this is through coaching football.
He started as a manager on his Gilroy High School team as a freshman. At 18 years old, he moved up to be the quarterback’s coach on his high school’s football team. As he could not play football, Mendez taught himself the game by playing Madden football video games. He developed a great football mind, but he wanted more. “It’s only natural never to give up,” Mendez said. “I’ve always been like that ever since I was young. From my nurturing from my parents and my determination to be successful in life and all the doubts along the way, I’ve become more hungry along the way just to be accomplished in football and the career of coaching. I’ve always wanted to be a head coach.”
After 12 years of working, Prospect High School gave him that chance. “When I first met him, he blew me away with his personality,” Prospect Football Varsity Head Coach Mike Cable said. “As he approached, I didn’t know how he could be a football coach. But as soon as I met and spoke with him, the chair disappeared. I saw in front of me a man who loved football and kids. I just knew he was the right man for the job.” Mendez learned to diagram plays by using a pen in his mouth.
Some of his plays even came from playing Madden. In his first full season as head coach, he led the Panthers to a playoff birth and a near-perfect season. The pain of the loss hurt, but it did not stop his fire. “I’ve always been someone to be not afraid of failure,” Mendez said. “Be bold and fail, be bold and fail, be bold and succeed. It’s just natural to be bold and try things in life. Eventually, you will come across your passion, and for me, it was football and working with people. ‘Who says I can’t?’ was something that was very much for me to always stick with, and I hope people take away from it in a positive way where they are comfortable to motivate themselves to do whatever they want in life.”
Mendez has made stops at many different schools across the Bay Area, including Sobrato High School in Morgan Hill, Calif., where he met Coach Tim Alvernaz. Alvernaz hired Mendez to be on his staff but then followed Mendez to Prospect to be his number two. “He’s an inspiration to all of us,” Alvernaz said. “Honestly, when I first hired him at Sobrato High School, I knew he was something special. He knew his offense, he knows his x’s and o’s, and he brings an energy to the team, the players, and the rest of the coaching staff. I love it. I love him. He’s a great guy, and I’ll go to the end of the earth for him.”
When Mendez first took over the coaching job, many kids on the team were surprised to see a man with his condition coaching them. That sentiment has been followed by so many other coaches that he came across in his career. His resiliency inspired others around him and made it an asset to have him on the staff. But coaches on his staff say he only used that as an opportunity to teach and motivate once again.
“His mind is the greatest thing,” Prospect JV Assistant Defensive Coordinator Todd Livingston said. “When an able-body person says that they can’t do something, his greatest message is, ‘who says I can’t?’ His presence should tell anyone if you’re paying attention, that your mind is the most powerful thing. The positiveness of your mind can get you to do unbelievable things and feats, and that’s what he does.” “Who says I can’t?” has become a motto for the Prospect Football teams and, of course, for Mendez. However, the phrase was not born on the gridiron. It came well before Mendez started coaching football.