Allen Park — In October, the NFL celebrated the league’s ever-expanding diversity with more than 200 players wearing helmet decals of flags from countries that represented their nationalities. Those flags reflected the player either living in that country for two years or more or having a parent or grandparent born there.
The Detroit Lions had several participants, including Malcolm Rodriguez, one of 10 players around the league to don a Mexican flag.
“Having a chance to honor my heritage means everything, especially for my grandparents,” Rodriguez told the team’s website. “I just want to show respect for the culture and ethnicity that we have in my family. It’s just about making them proud.”
But the rookie linebacker’s unique ethnic roots extend beyond his Mexican lineage. A card-carrying member of the Cherokee Nation, Rodriguez is only one of a handful of players in the NFL with indigenous roots.
Raised in Wagoner, Okla. — the first United States town incorporated in American Indian territory in 1896 — the undercurrent of Native American life has always been present for Rodriguez. His roots with the Cherokee tribe come from his mother Shanna’s side, with her father’s lineage documented in the Dawes Rolls, a government-commissioned list of tribal members that was finalized in 1914.
That lineage opened the door for the Rodriguez family to enjoy the health and human service benefits afforded members of the Cherokee Nation, which was particularly valuable for Malcolm as a young child, covering his prescriptions, including his asthma inhalers.
“That was a blessing to be able to get that medical attention through our connection to the tribe,” Rodriguez said.
On weekends, Rodriguez would often spend time with his mother’s side of the family. He has fond memories of making Indian tacos, which consisted of a fried, homemade dough loaded with meats, beans and other toppings.
Since being drafted by the Lions in the sixth round this offseason, and having a featured role on HBO’s documentary series “Hard Knocks,” Rodriguez has quickly become one of Detroit’s most popular players. He’s also been one of the team’s most productive. Earning a starting job out of training camp, he racked up 54 tackles in the first eight games before an elbow injury sidelined him last week against Chicago.
His rapid rise, following a stellar college career at Oklahoma State, hasn’t gone unnoticed among the leaders of the Cherokee Nation, which is headquartered in Tahlequah, Okla., a half-hour east of Wagoner.
“Watching Cherokee athletes, like Malcolm Rodriguez, is inspiring for so many of our Cherokee citizens across the globe,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told Native News Online in September. “… As we saw on the HBO show ‘Hard Knocks,’ he embodies our ancestors’ spirit to persevere, and his competitiveness and commitment to succeed as a linebacker in the NFL shines… It shows our youth that if they are willing to work hard, live with the right values and good, moral character, they too can accomplish great things and fulfill a lifelong dream.”
Serving as an inspiration, particularly for those who share his unique ethnic background, isn’t something that’s lost on Rodriguez.
“It’s unique for the chief to reach out to me and say something like that about me,” Rodriguez said. “It’s one of those things where I keep doing what I’m doing, being the way I’ve always been, and keep influencing young kids, especially members of the tribe, that they can do whatever they want; they just have to keep working and doing their best.”
jdrogers@detroitnews.com
Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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