It all started with a promise to a friend. Daniel Rodriguez, a 25-year-old wide receiver, led the Clemson Tigers onto the football field on Military Appreciation Day last season. Striding past Howard’s rock to an equidistant spot relative the grass and top of the hill, Rodriguez undulated the American flag like a matador, gazed at the stars and stripes and sent Death Valley into thunderous assent as the Tigers enveloped the field.
Few, if any, players in college football have seen what Rodriguez has. Even fewer would want to. Four days before his high school graduation, his father, Ray, died of a heart attack. Ray was his mentor and football coach growing up – he also was a military veteran. College was out of the picture – a product of poor grades, and Rodriguez needed something to get him back on track and out of a splintered household. Without telling his family, he enlisted in the Army.
First came a 15-month deployment to Baghdad. Rodriguez dodged roadside bombs and bullets while his friends chased grades and girls, played football and drank cheap beer; the amenities he left to serve his country. Then came a 12-month tour in northern Afghanistan in the days following his 20th birthday. Stationed in the middle of towering, secluded mountains, “in the middle of nowhere,” Rodriguez said, he grew entrenched with the members of his unit, most notably his best friend, Kevin Thompson.
On Oct. 3, 2009, more than 350 Taliban attacked American Combat Outpost Keating in a battle that continued for more than 12 hours. Rodriguez was one of 53 Americans fending off insurgents. Three different security posts were breached, mortar shells reigned down like apocalyptic hellfire inside the perimeter of the base, and air support was virtually impractical as a result of the proximity between foe and friend.
“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.”
To keep the enemy from taking the bodies of his fallen comrades, Rodriguez’s team pushed forward 100 meters through rocket-propelled grenades and recoilless rifle rounds. Eventually, the firefight abated and the residual survivors were rescued. Rodriguez was left with shrapnel in his leg and neck, and a bullet in his shoulder. Eight of his friends were killed in the fight, including Kevin.
In the aftermath, Rodriguez was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and was given the opportunity to come home. He chose to stay another five months to finish the tour, didn’t even blink.
Rodriguez returned home to Virginia, finding only sleepless nights and incessant frustration, which he tried to drown with heaving drinking – any method that would allow him to forget. How can you assimilate when all you’ve known for years is how to keep yourself breathing, how to reload a weapon when the individual to your left’s life depends on the efficiency of that process, when you feel hollowed out by psychological and physical trauma that makes a concussion appear trivial? It’s a narrative marketed countless times by innumerable networks, many of whom that will never grasp the humanity affixed to the individual positioned behind the headline.
After enrolling in classes at a local community college, Rodriguez recollected a promise he made to Thompson, a promise to attempt walking on to a collegiate football team if he made it back.
“They told me, ‘you’re too old to play college football, you’re not even 200 pounds, you’re going to get demolished,’” he said.
Upon the completion of the semester, Rodriguez began training six hours a day, following a rigorous diet, and sustaining his measurably improved grades in the classroom. He then sent a personal recruitment video chronicling his development and ambition to play football at the collegiate level. Rodriguez got in touch with Jake Tapper of ABC News, who was in the midst of writing a book about the Battle of Kamdesh. Tapper had interviewed Rodriguez upon his arrival in the United States. Tapper linked it to his Twitter feed, and facilitated the video’s exposure.
After 40 schools reached out, Rodriguez decided on the University of Clemson after talking with head coach, Dabo Swinney, who was captivated by Rodriguez. Swinney also aided Rodriguez in the process of gaining an NCAA waiver, because Rodriguez was one credit short of his associate degree – they agreed.
Now, in his second year on the team, Rodriguez’s playing time is predominantly on special teams, with just 10 total receptions the past two years. September brought about a matchup between Clemson and Wake Forest. Rodriguez was substituted into the game, and ran a jet-sweep by the goal line three times, each time the defense held him back. It didn’t deter Rodriguez, but a moment he’d dreamed of was disallowed.
In Week 13 of this year against Citadel – Military Appreciation Day at Clemson – he checked into the game at receiver in the fourth quarter. Rodriguez caught a fly sweep from backup QB, Cole Stoudt, and lunged into the end-zone. What 36 months ago was filled with explosives and ammunition, had transformed into a genuinely emotive eruption of purple and orange hues, coating Death Valley in united elation. A two-yard touchdown catch has never looked so good.
“It’s awesome to be a part of this culture and I’m so happy for it,” said Rodriguez. “Coming from what I’ve gone through to here has been a great transformation going from one military family to a Clemson family.”
Daniel Rodriguez carries the names and memories of eight of his military brothers into stadiums brimming with color nearly every Saturday from August till January. Some games he carries a flag that he has nearly died protecting on a myriad of occasions, far from home. What he carries beneath his jersey cannot be quantified, it refuses to be typical or generic; it is a conglomeration of patriotism, resiliency, and rapport. Daniel Rodriguez’s moment didn’t change the outcome of a game, but it transcended a sport. And I am a better person as a result of hearing it.