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P-Rod and the funny man

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- The name Paul Rodriguez is iconic in Hispanic culture, no matter which one of them you're talking about.

The Paul you call to mind probably depends on how old you are. If you remember the '70s (or at least managed to survive them), the relevant Paul Rodriguez is likely the stand-up comedian/actor/film director.

That Paul Rodriguez is the famous Mexican-American funnyman not named George Lopez, although he has shared the silver screen with Latinos such as Lopez, Cheech Marin and Alex Reymundo.

If you don't know that Paul Rodriguez, you probably don't know who Gerald Ford is, either. But it's a good bet you do know that Paul Rodriguez Jr. (actually Paul Rodriguez III, but better known as P-Rod), is the skateboarder who was named TransWorld's Rookie of the Year in 2002 and has won five X Games medals -- three of them gold -- since then.

P-Rod's father, Paul Rodriguez, was born in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1955 to a family of migrant workers. He moved to the States as a young boy and grew up in East L.A. before joining the Air Force and eventually finding his calling as a comic.

Paul Rodriguez's comedic career spans decades and his jokes have been delivered worldwide in English and Spanish. He was the first Mexican-American comedian to appear on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," and he landed his own sitcom in the early '80s. That Paul Rodriguez starred in the film "Born in East L.A." in 1987; and in the early 1990s, he hosted "El Show de Paul Rodriguez" on Univision, which was broadcast in the U.S. and 17 countries in Central and South America. His vocation has brought him international accolades, but it also kept him on the road, absent from the lives of his wife and their son, Paul Rodriguez Jr., who was born in Tarzana, California, in 1984.

Today, the 24-year-old P-Rod can't speak Spanish.

"I would and should and wish that I could; but growing up, it was just me and my mom. She's Mexican, but she was born here," the younger Rodriguez says after a skate competition at the Dew Tour stop in Salt Lake City. "My dad wasn't around for me to pick it up from him when I was a kid. He was always away."

Paul says he realized very early on that his dad was different from most everybody else's.

"No matter where we went, there were people lining up to talk to him," he says. "I remember being at Disneyland where the lines were already so long, but we had to wait even more because people wanted to talk to my dad. And when we went to a Mexican restaurant, I remember guys coming out of the kitchen wanting to meet him."

But if dad's celebrity status didn't deliver much in the way of quality time, it did supply Paul with his first skateboard at age 12. Paul Sr. came home with a plank as a Christmas gift for his boy, not realizing it would roll out to be one of the most defining decisions -- and the best thirty bucks -- he ever put up. Little did he know that about 10 years later, the family would be standing together as the Paul Rodriguez Skate Park was unveiled in L.A.

"I'm not sure what I wanted to be before that -- an actor, or what. Who knows?" P-Rod says. "But as soon as I started skating, that was it. I wanted to be a pro skater; I was sure of it."

And sure enough, that's just what he did. As a sophomore at Birmingham High in L.A., he told his folks that he was skipping out on school to skate. Dad wasn't a fan of that notion; but ironically, that moment is when their lives start to look like they're related. Just as Paul Sr. once told his parents that he was stealing off to the entertainment industry, Paul Jr. promised he would make it someday as a skateboarder.

"My parents weren't big on the idea. I had to prove it to them," P-Rod explains.

His breakthrough soon followed. He was a pro skater by age 16; and by 19, he scored his first X Games gold medal, which triggered a shower of sponsorship deals including a giant contract with Nike, making him the first skater ever sponsored with a signature, namesake shoe by The Swoosh. (Nike has had several forays into skating. The company supplied Air Force Ones to several skaters in the late-'80s and began a full skate program -- which they canned when it didn't take off -- in the mid-'90s when Remy Stratton, Choppy Omega and Bam Margera were sponsored by the brand. Later, Nike launched Nike SB -- SkateBoarding -- under the Nike Air branch in early 2000.)

In 2005, Nike created the Zoom Air Paul Rodriguez, making him the first action sports athlete -- and the first Mexican-American -- to garner the company's signature shoe honors. This summer, the Zoom Air Paul Rodriguez III became available, and P-Rod appeared in a popular Nike ad campaign that featured Kobe Bryant and Ice Cube.

Today, Paul lives with his girlfriend, Rainbow, and their new baby girl in Los Angeles and cruises his skatepark at the Ritchie Valens Recreation Center (yes, "La Bamba" Ritchie Valens) on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Pacioma. It's no wonder that Paul's mass-marketability and depth attract flocks of fans of all ages and account for the many Mexican-Americans proud to call him their own.

"This whole thing is a blessing. It took me by surprise," he says. "I knew I was going to skate, but I never thought I was going to be a leader for my people. Not that I didn't want to be, but I didn't realize what would happen. Latinos have embraced me and the sport of skateboarding -- especially in L.A., where the Mexican-American population is growing so fast every day. It's a real blessing. I'm really grateful for what I can be to my community."

When asked if his life now is modeled more like his dad's or is something different altogether, he is quick to assimilate the two.

"It's the same thing for us, just in two different places," he says. "My dad goofs all the time, on stage, at home on my family. Everywhere he looks, he sees comedy in a situation, just like when I drive around the city all I see are stairs, and ledges, and rails to skate. We do what we love. We can't help it. We're really blessed to have those opportunities and live these lives. It's pretty much the same thing."

Like father, like son.

Mary Buckheit is an ESPN.com Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.