By Robert Weintraub
New York Times
September 22, 2012
When No. 10 Clemson plays at No. 4 Florida State on Saturday night, Daniel Rodriguez, a walk-on wide receiver, will be a member of the Tigers' kickoff coverage unit. The sure-to-be frenzied atmosphere is not likely to affect him much.
That is partly because, at 24, Rodriguez is older than most college players. And also because his service in Iraq and Afghanistan will probably leave him unfazed by the raucous cheering of Seminoles fans.
On Oct. 3, 2009, Rodriguez was deployed in Nuristan Province, in the far northeastern corner of Afghanistan along the Pakistan border. He was a sergeant and had experienced a year of fighting in Iraq. About 50 United States and Afghan soldiers manned Combat Outpost Keating, a forward operating base near the remote town of Kamdesh.
Keating, surrounded by towering mountains, was in a place that “just bred terrorists,” Rodriguez said. Just after dawn, while Rodriguez was checking a computer, a coordinated attack, involving at least 175 enemy gunmen and perhaps twice that number, was mounted.
Shortly before, Rodriguez had promised his close friend, Pfc. Kevin Thompson, that if he made it home, he would chase his dream of playing college football. When the battle began, Thompson was killed almost instantly, one of eight Americans to die in a day of intense fighting. Rodriguez was wounded in his leg, neck and shoulder. “But I got my quota,” he said, referring to Taliban fighters.
“I vividly remember thinking, this is it,” he said. “My intent was to kill as many of them before they killed me. I kept a round in my pocket just in case; I was going to take my own life. But it wasn’t my day to go.”
Rodriguez earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his efforts at Keating. Six months later, when Rodriguez returned to his home in Virginia, he enrolled in classes at a community college. But he found himself adrift and struggling with the psychological effects of his time at war.
His father, also an Army veteran, had died suddenly days after Rodriguez graduated from high school, spurring him to volunteer for military service. His father’s death left Rodriguez with little guidance for how to deal with the toll his military service had taken.
“I was basically drunk for the first two months I was home,” he said, adding that he could not relate to his classmates. “When the kid next to you thinks a major problem is that he couldn’t log on to Facebook, it makes you angry.”
It wasn’t until he remembered the promise he made to Thompson that Rodriguez found a focus. Rodriguez committed to getting back in shape, pushed on by his pledge as well as a coterie of friends who scoffed at him.
“They told me, ‘You’re too old to play college football, you’re not even 200 pounds, you’re going to get demolished,’ ” he recalled with a laugh.
One of the friends, Stephen Batt, had a cousin with filmmaking experience. “I told Daniel, ‘If you trust me to shoot and edit as a short film, rather than as a standard recruiting video, it’ll have a better chance of catching the notice of coaches,’ ” said the cousin, Ryan Russell Smith, who produced a video that Rodriguez planned to send to college coaches.
Smith mixed artistic shots of Rodriguez training and catching passes with footage Rodriguez had shot while in combat. The video also explained why Rodriguez had been away from football.
Rodriguez eventually got in touch with Jake Tapper of ABC News, who was writing a book about the Battle of Kamdesh and had interviewed Rodriguez. After being told of the video, Tapper linked to it from his Twitter feed, helping the short film go viral. Rodriguez, whose phone number, e-mail and home address were in the video, was soon receiving messages from coaches like Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech, as well as strangers captivated by his experiences and determination. Then he heard from Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, whose energetic style captivated Rodriguez.
“I was in class when he sent the message, and I literally got up, left the classroom and called him,” Rodriguez said.
Swinney offered Rodriguez a spot as a preferred walk-on, and worked to gain an N.C.A.A. waiver for Rodriguez, who was one credit short of his associate degree. “I was mesmerized by his video,” Swinney said. “I’m watching and thinking, Holy cow, he’s amazing.”
Now Rodriguez has the manner of an everyday student, complete with flip-flops and shorts. He says he has mostly shed the bitter taste of war.
“I’ve convinced myself that the years I should have been in college I was at war, so I’m just getting those years back,” he said.
His Purple Heart has proved to be a boon in solving the difficulty of campus parking. A South Carolina law guarantees anyone who has a Purple Heart free parking, permits or meters notwithstanding.
“Everyone wants to ride with him,” Swinney said.
Rodriguez has played in Clemson’s three games, mostly on special teams. The highlight came two Saturdays ago, when Rodriguez caught a 4-yard pass in the fourth quarter of a 52-27 win over Ball State. The Memorial Stadium crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Now, nearly three years after the battle, Rodriguez is proud to wear a different uniform.
“He may only be a walk-on,” said Swinney, “but he’s a team leader to these 18- to 22-year-olds, some of whom have a sense of entitlement or want to feel sorry for themselves or don’t understand the privilege they have.”