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Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Boyd-Buchanan football coach Kevin Rodriguez poses for a portrait on the Boyd-Buchanan football field on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Rodriguez met his biological father for the first time at age 50, thanks to his wife Barbara's work tracking him down.
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Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Boyd-Buchanan football coach Kevin Rodriguez poses for a portrait on the Boyd-Buchanan football field on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Rodriguez met his biological father for the first time at age 50, thanks to his wife Barbara's work tracking him down.

There is a Cuban proverb that says, "A love that can last forever takes but a second to come about."

The phrase summarizes Boyd-Buchanan football coach Kevin Rodriguez's lifelong search for his true identity.

For nearly 50 years Kevin wondered who he really was. He had never met his biological father, and until he was 18 he believed his last name was Orr, the surname of the man his mother had married when he was an infant.

Ultimately, when he was 18 years old, Kevin learned that his life to that point had been a lie.

"One of my aunts broke the news to me that the man I had thought was my father really wasn't," Kevin said. "My mom was in the military, and so was the man who I had thought was my dad. What I didn't know was that she had met someone before she was married and wound up getting pregnant with me.

"It was the 1960s and there was no such thing as being a single mother, especially in the military, so she married the Orr man and gave me his last name.

"Even though I had no memory of the man who I had thought was my dad, at least I knew something about him. But then when I found out he wasn't really my father, I felt sort of lost. I didn't know who I was anymore."

When he was less than a month old, Kevin's grandfather took him and his mother from the abusive relationship of the man whose name he carried. But that did not end the cycle of abusive adult males, as several other men his mother either dated or married turned out to be negative influences.

"If you can imagine bad stepdads, I had them all," Kevin said. "You name it, emotional or physical abuse, and I experienced it growing up. But what was even worse was not knowing who my real dad was.

"Most kids grow up dreaming of being a fireman or a policeman, but I just wanted to grow up and be a dad. I wanted to give my children the love and security I never felt."

Almost immediately his soon-to-be wife Barbara began an exhaustive search to find out his true heritage.

Through many twists and turns of false hope, only to run into a disappointing dead end, Barbara continued searching. For 30 years she carried a tenacious belief that she eventually would find the missing piece of her husband's life and at the very least bring closure.

"I kept hitting those walls, and it got to the point that Kevin was so tired of getting his hopes up only to have the rug pulled out from under him that he told me to just stop looking," Barbara said. "But I'm a very determined person and I wasn't going to give up. I was willing to start all over from scratch so many times because I knew that deep down this was something that really meant a lot to him."

Finally, in 2015 Barbara bought Kevin an Ancestry DNA kit for Father's Day. Soon after, she received an email alerting her to a second cousin and she immediately reached out to the stranger, who pointed her in the direction of a man named Luis Rodriguez.

Barbara contacted the man through email and explained in detail how her family believed he might be her husband's father. Soon after, the family's phone rang and a North Carolina number flashed across the caller ID.

The man spoke with Barbara and identified himself as Luis Rodriguez, adding that he understood how important it was to find out who Kevin's father was, but that he did not think it was him. When Barbara insisted, the man politely informed her that he was certain it wasn't he, as he was never informed of any pregnancy.

"That's when I decided to step in and explain that we didn't want anything from him, because I figured he probably thought this was some sort of scam or something," Kevin explained. "Really, all we wanted was some closure. I just wanted to know who my father was.

"So I emailed him to apologize and said that my mother had told me he likely wouldn't remember because it had been just a rainy Saturday afternoon encounter years ago. The next day I got an email back from him saying, 'We need to talk.' That's all it said."

The two men agreed to meet and begin sorting through the complicated details. For everyone's piece of mind, they agreed to take a DNA test.

"I didn't want to walk around anymore wondering if I had really found who my father was, so we drove to North Carolina to meet him and did the test right there in the parking lot," Kevin said. "We had lunch and talked for a while and agreed that we would be back in contact once the results came back.

"When we got the email we spoke before opening it, and then I read the results to him that said there was a 99.9997-percent chance that he was in fact my father. He replied, 'It's an honor to be your father. You're my son, and that's the way it's going to be from now on.' My reaction was just this huge sense of relief going through my whole body.

"When I hung up the phone, Barbara put it best when she said, 'My heart is so full right now.' We finally knew who I truly was. Through our conversations I had gotten to know a lot about him, and just knowing I've got this strong man's blood in my veins made me a more confident person immediately. I finally felt complete."

Time was needed on both sides to let this all sink in, but eventually Kevin, Barbara, their two children and their grandchildren all traveled to meet the part of the family they never knew they had.

The families later came together for Christmas in Gatlinburg and have remained in contact.

"That Christmas was more about just spending time together," Kevin said. "One of the funnier moments was having him teach me how to tie a tie, and even at 50 I felt like a little boy hanging on every word. You're never too old to want to earn your father's approval.

"He told me that Barbara and I had built an amazing family and that he was proud of me. That meant more to me than anything I've ever gotten. It's still surreal every time he calls to say 'Happy Birthday' or just hearing him say 'I love you.'"

Eventually, after discussing the idea with the entire family, Kevin legally changed his last name from Orr to Rodriguez. His kids changed their last names as well.

"It was validation of who I am," Kevin said. "I couldn't have asked for a better man to be my father, but we both admitted we're a little bitter that we weren't brought together sooner. The way I look at it, though, God always answers prayer — even if sometimes it takes 30 years."

For much of his early life Kevin's uncertainty about who he was caused him to feel as if he didn't deserve even to be loved. He felt like an outsider in nearly every social circle. That personal struggle led him to pursue a career in which he could become the positive role model he had lacked.

"At some point in my life I had a voice in my head that said, 'Nobody is going to be here for you, but you can grow up to be there for somebody else,'" said Kevin, who has coached high school football for 22 years, including 10 at Soddy-Daisy — four as the Trojans' head coach. "I was just drawn to coaching, and I've always felt led to find the kids on a team who either come from a tough home life or maybe don't have a father figure to help guide them. I've had players text me 'Happy Father's Day,' and that made me feel like I was doing something positive for them.

"After getting to know my real dad and seeing how protective he is of his family and the people he cares about, I realized that I had inherited that trait from him. I'm the same way with my two kids, my family and the kids who I coach."

When the Boyd-Buchanan head coaching position surprisingly came open just one month before the season was to kick off, the timing should have made the job a tough sell. But Kevin never hesitated.

"I knew there was a group of kids who needed a leader," Kevin said. "I spoke with my wife about it, and then I called my dad. Both of them agreed that I needed to pursue it, and I'm very glad that I did, because I believe we're making a positive impact on the kids.

"I am who I am because I'm my father's son."

Contact Stephen Hargis at 423-757-293 or shargis@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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