Rob Mendez sounds like any other football coach on any other field across America — passionate, authoritative, knowledgeable — but he is like no other coach you know.

He has no arms or legs. He moves in a custom-made wheelchair that he operates with his shoulders. He diagrams plays on a smartphone attached to the chair, using a stylus that he maneuvers with his mouth.

He does all this with a spirit that seems to lift everyone around him — players, coaches, strangers, peers, and family.

“He’s kind of like the light in a dark room,” said Mendez’s father, Robert Sr. “He’s the same for us as he is for other people.”

Mendez, 28, is an assistant coach at San Jose High. Born without limbs, a condition his parents learned about a month before birth, he has been beating the odds for almost 30 years.

He started special-ed school at 18 months, taking to it immediately, his father recalled. He moved through elementary and middle school, attracting able-bodied friends at every turn, and then to Gilroy High, where his love for football began.

“He didn’t want to be any different,” said Kathi Visperas, who as a paraprofessional assisted Mendez from kindergarten through high school. “He’s an amazing person.”

Mendez faces obvious challenges, from the necessity of a caregiver to special-needs transportation, but he tackles them head on.
He has held jobs at Best Buy and Walmart. He has lived away from his parents for five years. He continues to take classes at San Jose City College.

“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,” Robert Sr. said.

For the past 10 years at five Santa Clara County high schools, Mendez has coached a sport he has never played, sharing a sharp mind for Xs and Os while embodying what it means to be mentally tough.

“The fight in life, I can relate to the fight on the field,” Mendez said. “Hopefully show them that I am not giving up, and they can’t give up on the field. We all need each other.”

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.”

Pierleoni, now the head coach at Christopher High in Gilroy, let Mendez wear a headset during games to hear plays and sit in on meetings with the quarterbacks.

“As a 14-year-old kid, I was having the time of my life,” Mendez said. “I just fell in love with the sport because it’s such a chess match out there and a mental game out there that you have to call the right play at the right time.

“Coach P taught me a lot of Xs and Os and what kind of play-calling fits best with certain personnel. I learned a lot from him.”

After graduating from Gilroy High in 2006, Mendez coached three years at his alma mater and then joined Pierleoni at Christopher. He spent three years coaching football there, moved on to Leland and then to Sobrato before joining San Jose’s staff this season. He is the junior varsity offensive coordinator and varsity quarterbacks coach.

“I didn’t know he was going to be that good,” said Kylan Harris, who starts at quarterback for the varsity. “He taught me better footwork. He’s good with his verbal skills.”

“I’m amazed,” added Mike Singam, another quarterback on the varsity roster.

Mendez’s passion for football is unmistakable, whether he is diagramming plays on his smart phone or catching a ride to Levi’s Stadium to watch his beloved 49ers.

But those who know him say he is more than football coach in a wheelchair.By doing tasks able-bodied people take for granted — getting up, going to work, contributing to his community — Mendez is an inspiration.

“I don’t even have to tell people to get up and be motivated and active in their daily lives,” said Mendez, who shares his story as a motivational speaker once or twice a month. “I just get random people coming up to me. It could get overwhelming at times when I am trying to get my work done. But I know that is essentially what I am here for. I show people that it is going to be OK, and I give them hope.

“It’s like going to order a coffee on my own and being confident to do that. I did not realize this five or six years ago — just waking up, getting out of bed, going to work and making your own money, that’s a simple motivation in itself because there are so many steps in itself to do it.”

Mendez said he learned from his parents long ago to not sulk in self-pity, to smile each day because happiness sends a message that everything is OK.

“We knew it would depend on his mental capacity,” Robert Sr. said. “When he was born, we had a hard time– I did, anyway — letting him go to school. It was highly recommended, people being persistent about it. He started going to school, and that was it. He was hooked.”

Visperas, the paraprofessional, remembers shedding tears when she heard Mendez give a motivational speech, so proud of the young man she assisted for all those years.

“That’s my baby up there,” she recalled thinking to herself. “I helped with this kid.”

The confidence and magnetic personality Mendez has now is no different from the confidence and magnetic personality he showed as a little kid, Visperas said. She called Mendez’s family — Robert Sr., mother Josie and sisters Jackie and Maddy — his backbone.

Robert Sr. sees it a little differently.

“We’ve kind of followed him,” he said. “He’s made it easy, but at the same time it’s hard.”
San Jose varsity coach David Ashkinaz could hear the passion in Mendez’s voice the first time the two spoke, a coach with football acumen that could help a program that has become more competitive on Ashkinaz’s watch.

“I didn’t bring him out here to be a feel-good story,” said Ashkinaz, in his third season. “We invited him in, and he’s really bought into it. The kids love him.”

Mendez’s knowledge, said Singam, makes the game easier to understand.

“Without him, I don’t think I’d have learned all those techniques,” he said. “Even though he can’t fully show you physically what to do, he teaches you in a way where you have an understanding.”

The impact goes beyond the players.

“Coach Rob has been an inspiration to the coaches,” said James Rumohr, San Jose’s J.V. head coach. “We can talk about how he’s been an inspiration to the players. But the coaches, he makes us go on a different level.”

Ten minutes into a practice session with the J.V. team, Mendez had turned a passing concept from his playbook into a successful play on the field.

With two receivers lined up on the right side, the quarterback dropped back and threw the ball exactly where Mendez wanted it — in a receiver’s hands.

“Not bad,” the coach said.

His work for the day done, Mendez pointed his wheelchair toward a parked van waiting to take him to Levi’s Stadium for a 49ers game.