By Kandi Carper ’05
Rodrick Jackson’s life changed forever Dec. 21, 2016. It was his 18th birthday – the day he changed his name to Rodrick Fisher and was adopted by the family who saved him from an uncertain future 10 months earlier.
During the emotional adoption court hearing, Jolene Fisher spoke on behalf of her husband, Adam, and daughters, Ally and Sydney, saying, “Rodrick, you swooped into our lives on March 2, 2016, so that we could rescue you from the conditions of your life. Little did we know that you would rescue us right back. Welcome to the Fisher family, Rodrick. We will love you today, tomorrow and for eternity.”
This joyous moment was shared a few weeks later on NBC Nightly News as a follow-up to the network’s previous story that aired in October. The Fishers’ story was reported in local and regional newspapers, and ABC’s Spokane affiliate produced a special feature on the family. In November, they appeared on The Rachael Ray Show.
Why so much media attention? The Fisher family is living a real-life Blind Side movie with an added twist – dad’s the football coach.
Imagine being 15 years old, homeless, without an education, structure or boundaries. The possibilities for poor choices and mistakes are endless – even for a good kid.
In fall 2014, Rodrick left what has been described as a “tough, volatile” home life, dropping out of school the beginning of his sophomore year at East Valley High School in Spokane Valley. He was under a CHINS Order (Child in Need of Services) at the time, meaning he had shelter, food and a court-appointed guardian but it wasn’t an ideal situation. Before that, from age 14 to 15, he spent time living on the streets, sleeping in parks or bouncing from one friend’s house to the next. It was a scary, sometimes dangerous time in his life.
Adam Fisher, East Valley’s head football coach, was one of Rodrick’s ninth-grade teachers. He wouldn’t see Rodrick again until June 2015, what should have been the end of his sophomore year.
“I recognized him but he didn’t look too good,” said Fisher.
Rodrick told the coach that he wanted to play football in the fall, but the reality was that he’d need to make up and pass five classes by the end of June or he wouldn’t be eligible to play that year, at least for the first five weeks.
“He turned out for what we call spring football,” said Fisher. “He was allowed to do that without grades because it’s just practice. I always knew he had some athletic talent, but there were just so many distractions in his life.”
In August, Rodrick showed up with the necessary paperwork to play football, but grades were another matter.
Coach Fisher recalled their conversation. Rodrick told him that he didn’t finish his classes and, yes, he remembered being told if he didn’t, there would be repercussions. The coach laid it on the line.
“I told him that if he wanted to play, he’d have to prove it, and if he missed one day of practice and any day of school, it would be over. If he wanted to play he’d get on the right path. To be honest, we had side bets in the office as to how long he was going to last. Fast forward – he made it. He showed up every single day. He played five games that year and did pretty well getting second-team All-League honors.”
During this time, Rodrick was living in someone’s detached garage. It wasn’t an ideal situation.
Jolene Fisher said that their church group was praying for Rodrick at the time, but she only knew him as No. 88 on the team. She told the group, “He’s really struggling, and I don’t know what he’s going to do after football season. Football is what he works for and lives for; it’s why he goes to school.”
Football season came to an end, and in January 2016, Rodrick was couch surfing again. Coach Fisher saw him at school one day in late January and, realizing that something was wrong, asked him if he needed to talk. They went to a small training room where they could talk privately, and Rodrick broke down. In an act of courage and of desperation, Rodrick reached out to the one man he knew he could trust – someone he respected, who had always been straight with him.
“Within the first 20 seconds, he just loses it. He said, ‘Coach, I have nowhere to go and nowhere to be. I want to make life changes and play college football.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to make life changes first before we can ever talk about college football. I’ve heard a lot of kids say a lot of things over the years, but I just don’t see the follow through.’ He said, ‘No, I’m serious,’ and I said, ‘Well, so am I.’”
There, on the spot, without checking with Jolene, the coach offered their home to Rodrick. “I just felt called by God to reach out,” he said. “I knew that for him to have any chance of ever graduating from high school, let alone playing football – at any level – he would need structure and a stable family life. I was just trying to get this kid on the right track. With the path that he was on, he was either going to be dead or in prison.”
Adjusting to a new life
Jolene called a couple places that take in homeless boys. “The more I looked into it I thought, ‘This kid needs love, and he needs parents. He doesn’t need to live with a bunch of boys in a group home. How’s he going to get to school and practice? Who is going to hold him accountable for his grades?’ I knew the answer. We are!”
Since moving in with the Fishers and their daughters, Ally, 14, and Sydney, 13, in March 2016, things have been mostly positive, but like every family, there are ups and downs. At 41 and 40, Adam and Jolene are still learning how to parent teenagers, and with a son in addition to daughters. There’s been a learning curve for all of them. That, along with the added dynamic of Adam being Rodrick’s football coach.
“Rodrick and Sydney joke around a lot and tease each other the most,” said Jolene. “Ally, because she’s closer in age, seems to really get where Rodrick’s coming from a little bit more. She accepted him right away. Sydney really struggled with it. She’s the baby, and all the attention was on the two girls, and now it was split three ways. That was really hard for her. It took her longer to get there, but she’s there now. On adoption day, we all felt like one and that it was meant to be. The girls had fully accepted him by then.”
During the past year and a half, the family has shared exciting big things like family vacations, as well as little things like home-cooked dinners, chores, homework and church. Rodrick is making progress in the classroom, he’s gotten his driver’s license, he’s gained 30 lbs., and his self-confidence has blossomed.
“Rodrick really has a new lease on life,” said Jolene. “He’s so happy and hopeful. It’s amazing what hope brings to someone’s life. You see it in his eyes.”
In May, Rodrick finished first in the state in the Track and Field Championship for the 100- and 200-meter competition, with the best time in all divisions. And in June, he was awarded a $1,000 scholarship presented in the “Against All Odds” category at the fourth annual Spokane Youth Awards ceremony.
Because Rodrick missed so much school over the years, Adam is working to get the necessary waiver from the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association for him to play football at East Valley this fall.
Rodrick is well on his way to realizing his dream. In May, he made a verbal commitment to play football for Washington State University in 2018, something that would have been impossible two years ago.
The Fishers have been generous in sharing their story, not for personal glory or recognition but to offer hope to others in a similar situation. Adults have reached out to Adam and Jolene and kids from around the country have reached out to Rodrick.
“Rodrick loves telling the story because he knows it will inspire others,” said Jolene. “To profess how important we all are to each other is so important in bonding in a heartfelt way. We love telling our story over and over again. It gives us a chance to relive what we’ve been called to do and how far we’ve come as a family.”
Meet the Parents
Adam Fisher ’03 MEd curriculum and instruction, ’99 BA physical education; head football coach, weights/physical education teacher at East Valley High School in Spokane Valley; played football at EWU (’94-’96); graduate of South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard, Washington; son of Susie and Ed Fisher ’71.
Ed Fisher played football at Eastern (’67-’70); inducted into the EWU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009; coached football at South Kitsap High School for 23 years before returning to Spokane to serve as vice principal at North Central High School. He later helped Adam coach at East Valley alongside former Eastern head football coach Dick Zornes.
Jolene (Lee) Fisher ’01 MS exercise science, ’99 BS athletic training and exercise science, has her Holistic Health Coaching Certification through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and owns No Bad Days, a health, nutrition, and fitness coaching business. She is the founder of Spokane Women’s Heart Link Networking Group and is a former instructor at EWU and Whitworth University.
Their partnership: Adam and Jolene Fisher have been a couple since first meeting in middle school in Port Orchard, Washington. She was 14 and he was 15. After graduating from South Kitsap High School, Adam came to Eastern on a football scholarship, and a year later, Jolene followed him there. The couple graduated together but didn’t make it to Eastern’s commencement because they were walking down another aisle on June 12, 1999, on their wedding day.