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‘He’s a mama’s boy’: Why Tony Rojas stuck with Fairfax football

Tony Rojas is a star running back and linebacker at Fairfax High and is committed to play at Penn State. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Daniela Rojas is used to the pain.

Today, it’s in her toes. It’s the kind of discomfort that might send some to the hospital. But by now she’s accustomed to it. She has lived in a wheelchair, on crutches or with a limp for as long as she remembers, a daily fight against her spina bifida neuropathy, a disability that can paralyze the lower limbs.

Doctors used to tell her she would never be able to walk, and she has done that. So she will put off her next couple of surgeries — the 56th and 57th since she was born — until her son, Tony Rojas, heads to Penn State in January.

“It’s been a lot of tears,” Daniela says of the constant pain, her voice breaking. “It’s been a roller coaster. I’ve felt like life wasn’t fair. But God has blessed me with these kids.”

Coaches and teammates describe Tony, who plays running back and linebacker for Fairfax High and is the state’s third-highest-ranked recruit, as an anomaly. In passing moments, they talk about the on-field skills that earned him All-Met honors last fall. But they mostly want to talk about his heart and his mom.

“Her being over in surgeries and having someone like Tony who’s always there behind closed doors to be the man of the household that he can be — and in return she’s given him everything that she can — it’s this working balance where they want what is best for each other,” Fairfax assistant coach Darnell Parker said. “I think that’s what drives their relationship to be so strong. …

“He’s a mama’s boy.”

Sticking with Fairfax

Rojas grew up in a household with his mom, two older sisters and almost no football. “He was supposed to be a soccer star,” his mother says, noting the love Tony’s grandfather had for the sport.

But Josh Richards, a family friend and youth football coach, pushed him toward the gridiron. Richards noticed Rojas’s shy nature — the way he would peer behind the banister of their basement steps, hoping to avoid conversation — and wanted to see whether football might break the kid out of his shell.

Rojas took quickly to the sport, and by the time he entered high school, people outside of his immediate circle knew of his talent.

Parker, who arrived at Fairfax after Rojas’s freshman season, was taken with the athlete’s demeanor and commitment. He observed the way Rojas, despite his introversion, encouraged teammates to join him in the weight room and the way he would stay late in the coming years to help freshmen with their technique.

And, of course, he witnessed the gravitational pull this wiry teen had on the field, which mirrored the Division I-bound players Parker had coached at North Stafford.

Rojas was humiliating private school players in seven-on-seven scrimmages, and he remained dominant when the team returned from the pandemic in the spring of 2021. But Fairfax, not much of a football program, went 2-4 in its shortened season, prompting Rojas to consider a world outside the school.

“We’re getting our heads kicked in, but every game Tony has like 10 catches for 150 yards,” Parker said. “Tony texted me right after the last game and was like, ‘My dream is to go Division I, and I don’t know if I can go Division I playing at Fairfax.’ ”

Several local teams made inquiries, and even IMG Academy, a boarding school in Florida synonymous with collegiate recruitment, made contact in hopes Rojas would go south. But he and Parker continued to talk. When the subject of his family and loyalty arose, it clicked.

“I just automatically knew that Fairfax was home, and I wouldn’t be in this position without them,” Rojas said. “And leaving the coaches and people who took me to where I am today [would have been] disrespectful. I knew I wouldn’t leave.”

Soon, teammates picked up on Rojas’s habits. Guys studied the playbook and showed up to practice on time. They started attending college camps and whispered about sticking with the sport after high school. The attendance at offseason workouts ballooned from about 20 to roughly 75.

From 2015 through the spring of 2021, the Lions went 13-43.

Since then, they are 13-2, including a 4-0 start this year.

His mother’s son

The Rojas family wants you to know that, if nothing else, they show up for one another. Daniela wakes up by 6 a.m. every day to make her son’s breakfast and lunch. Tony encourages his mom to get through her days. Daniela said her children are her biggest motivation and mentions that they pushed her to lose more than 100 pounds, which eased her fight against her disabilities.

For the next few months, it’s just the two of them. One sister teaches in Florida, while the other attends Penn State; Rojas’s father has been absent throughout his life, though he has attempted to reconnect with his son in recent years.

“She’s always been there to support me,” Rojas said of his mom. “All my games, my whole career, she’s been there. I want to be there for her.”

Once Rojas selected linebacker as his position of choice for college, their mailbox overflowed. Parker remembers one of Rojas’s final recruiting trips, when he returned at 1 a.m. with five offers, including one from the Nittany Lions.

“Every offer that would come in — it got up to two dozen or more — I would cry at every offer he got,” Daniela said. “I think that [commitment] was the biggest, happiest moment of my life.”

The next morning, he was the first one in the gym for 6:30 workouts.

Rojas had options to play at other preeminent programs, such as Georgia or Clemson. But they couldn’t offer what Penn State did.

“When he broke it down for me, he said the way they treated his mom from the very moment she stepped on campus, that meant the most to him,” Parker said. “The little things, like providing a golf cart for his mom or providing transportation up the stairs – those little things you don’t necessarily think of — just meant the world to Tony. That’s exactly what drove his decision, between the way they treated his family and then also remaining close [geographically] to his family.”

The stressors of the recruiting process are in the rearview. But Rojas can’t escape the attention now. Children flock for pictures and autographs at Fairfax games and Penn State visits. He was just invited to play in the All-American Bowl in San Antonio. He’s Fairfax’s homecoming king.

The Lions will enter Friday’s matchup against Edison with perhaps their biggest test of the season: They will play without Rojas, who has scored 14 of the team’s 22 offensive touchdowns but will be in Boston with his family for his aunt’s wedding.

Rojas will keep an eye on the results. Fairfax hasn’t won a playoff game in 28 years. This fall, that is his top priority.

Well, that and whatever his mom says.