Skip to main content

Football coach born without limbs to win ESPY perseverance award

Rob Mendez was born with tetra-amelia syndrome, robbing him of a life with arms and legs. That condition has not stopped him from forging a successful career as a football coach, and for that he has been named the winner of the Jimmy V Award, presented at the ESPYs next month.

“I am incredibly honored, excited and humbled to receive this honor,” Mendez said in a press release. “I still remember one of my favorite all-time ESPN anchors Stuart Scott delivering his Jimmy V Award acceptance speech. Thank you to ESPN and all of my family, friends and of course players for believing in me! Who Says I Can’t!”

Mendez is the junior varsity head coach at Prospect High School in Saratoga, Calif. He wants to pursue a minority coaching internship to forge a career in the NFL.

Tetra-amelia syndrome, caused by a gene mutation, has been found in "only a few families worldwide," according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. In addition to rendering those affected without arms or legs, it also typically causes severe malformations in other vital parts of the body, causing many to be stillborn or die shortly after delivery.

“What he is doing now versus what we were told before he was born, how he was going to come out, it’s the opposite,” Rob's father, Robert Mendez Sr., told the San Jose Mercury-News in 2016.

Rob's love of the game of the was fostered by his high school football coach.

Mendez’s introduction to football began shortly after he started high school. Friends who kept him company on the way home from middle school started playing the sport for Gilroy High, leaving the kid in the wheelchair alone.

Before long, Mendez started going to practice, watching from a distance.

The coaches took notice and invited the boy to join the huddle and listen in.

From there, a coach was born.

“I told him, ‘Hey, man, you should come out and hang with us,’” said Tim Pierleoni, then an assistant coach at Gilroy. “I had him stay with me most of the time. We had a great time. Robert is something else. As a freshman, he was something else, too. He had a great personality. Everybody loved him. I just thought he would be a great part of the team no matter what.”

In conjunction with winning the award, Mendez penned a letter for explaining what football means to him:

The other day I was thinking what my life would be like without you. I guess I'd probably be a manager at some store, probably nowhere near as fulfilled or happy as I am now. To put it simply, I'd be idling in life. But with you around every day, there is excitement and challenge. Every day when school ends, I'm jacked for practice. That feeling has never gone away. And I hope it never does. For all of this, football, I say thank you. From those first days flicking you up and down on my living room floor until now, you've helped me believe in myself and spread that confidence to others. For me, there has been no greater gift.

The full letter can be read here. Mendez will be honored as part of the ESPYs presentation on July 10.