kaylee rodriguez

Michigan softball player Kaylee America Rodriguez was about a month removed from her cancer diagnosis in fall 2022 when she thought about what she now calls “the last leg” of her recovery. She faced two stretches of grueling chemotherapy on either side of a partial hip replacement surgery in January 2023.

A large tumor in her left hip, the result of Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, forced her to withdraw from Michigan for the 2022-23 academic year. She had returned home to Miami for treatment and would miss the ensuing softball season. Eventually, Rodriguez lost her hair, her appetite and the ability to walk without assistance. Still, even in those early days, Rodriguez, who had several specialty roles on Michigan’s Big Ten championship team in 2021, never let softball drift away.

She said, “That was the entire goal. Very early on, I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m not playing again. There’s no way I’m going to be on a softball field and not playing.’ It was my motivation, my inspiration.” Rodriguez’s quest to return carries distinct circumstances. She sat in the same hospital where her brother Keanu had just a year earlier and consulted with the same oncologist on how to fight her cancer. Keanu had a different type, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, in the summer and fall of 2021. He never had to step away from baseball fully, finished high school, and earned a spot as an outfielder and pitcher at Miami Dade College.

Rodriguez said, “He’s living his dream.” Her cancer experience would be more prolonged and more damaging, removing her entirely from softball and putting her return in doubt. The Wolverines have started their second season without “K Rod,” as Rodriguez is known to her teammates and coaches. Her progress is undeniable but, like many going through cancer recoveries, not linear. Will Rodriguez ever complete her last leg? “I’m not taking myself out of the race.” Until early 2022, Rodriguez had a reasonably charmed path in softball. She had no history of significant injuries. She’d never missed more than a day or two in a season.

Rodriguez became a star athlete in high school, helping her teams to multiple district titles in both softball and soccer while also competing in track before pivoting midway through to focus on softball. She signed with Michigan in April 2020. Rodriguez spent her first two seasons with the Wolverines primarily as a pinch runner, scoring 11 runs as a freshman and then recording nine runs and four stolen bases as a sophomore. She immediately hit it off with her teammates.”She was my best friend, just a bright light,” catcher Keke Tholl said. “She is fun, energetic, always positive. She’s like a yes woman, very reliable, and will always be there for you when you need her.”

As Rodriguez’s teammates continued with the season, they remained connected to her, wearing “Kaylee Strong” T-shirts and ribbon decals on their batting helmets. She would track their scores and stats, but watching the games “hurt a bit.” Rodriguez focused on getting through the 22 weeks of treatment after her surgery. Whenever De Angulo came to her hospital room, she greeted him with, “Hey, hey, hey,” from the 1970s sitcom “What’s Happening!!” On August 16, she rang the bell to signify being cancer-free. “It was a party; everyone was smiling, and they were having the time of their lives,” Keanu said. “Kaylee was like the ‘it’ girl on the floor; the nurses loved her. She had an amazing goodbye.”

Days later, she said hello again to Michigan. Rodriguez’s overall health is on a good trajectory. She had her chemo port removed on March 7. Patients with Ewing sarcoma have a 65% to 70% chance of survival, according to De Angulo, and while there’s a risk of recurrence, Rodriguez’s scans have remained clear so far. Her softball outlook, though, is murkier.

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