Solid orange hero: One man’s journey from combat to Clemson
By Molly Collins
Media Relations intern, Class of 2013
On a blistering September afternoon in Death Valley, Clemson led Ball State 52-20 late in the fourth quarter. It was then that a wide receiver entered the game to a standing ovation from a roaring crowd, as he went on to catch a 4-yard pass, at the time giving him, as he joked with his teammate, “more yards than Sammy Watkins.”
For Daniel Rodriguez, a 24-year-old Army veteran attending Clemson on the GI Bill, playing college football is a dream that has been a long time coming.
Rodriguez lost his father just four days after graduating from Brooke Point High School in Stafford, Va. He was vacationing with his friends in Myrtle Beach when his mother called to relay the news. While he knew that his father had not been in good health, his death still left Rodriguez with regrets.
“It was tough. You think of things you should have taken advantage of, spending more time playing catch … things like that,” he said.
And with regret came uncertainty, as house payments, bills and the responsibility of being the man of the house pushed Rodriguez to get out of Virginia to make a life for himself.
“I said I’m not going to make some excuse for why I’m not something,” he stated.
His father being an Army veteran, Rodriguez felt obligated to follow in his footsteps, which meant leaving a career in college football behind after a successful run on his high school team. He enlisted, breaking the news to his mom and sister just seven days before his departure for basic training.
After a year in Iraq, Rodriguez was deployed to Nuristan Province, located northeast of Afghanistan. He was stationed at Combat Outpost Keating, a base near the town of Kamdesh situated among mountains in an area that, according to Rodriguez, “just bred terrorists.”
“It was a very hostile place. We fought so much, all the time,” he said.
On Oct. 3, 2009, the hostility rose when Rodriguez came down to the base to use a computer and was greeted by the attack of hundreds of enemy fighters. Then ensued 18 hours of bloody battle, during which Pfc. Kevin Thompson, a close friend of Rodriguez, was shot and killed.
“He was dead before he hit the ground,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez suffered injuries to his neck, legs and shoulder during the battle, and at one point, he was sure that this was the end.
“It just wasn’t my day to go,” he said.
Rodriguez was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor for his efforts, and as for the outcome of the battle, he said he “got his quota,” referring to the number of Taliban fighters that he took down.
As Rodriguez reflected on his life while overseas, the wish that he had played college football weighed heavy on his mind. And not long before Thompson’s death, Rodriguez had promised him that he would pursue that dream once arriving home. However, upon returning to Virginia, upholding that promise was a struggle.
“I was drinking,” said Rodriguez. “I was like, ‘I’m a war veteran, leave me alone.’ ”
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the sense of self-pity that accompanied it made what Rodriguez calls the “transition from combat to classroom” difficult when he enrolled in classes at Germanna Community College just three months after returning from Afghanistan.
“You’re trying to do your homework, and the kid next to you is complaining that he couldn’t log onto Facebook,” said Rodriguez. “I was like, ‘You have no idea.’ ”
He made the adjustments and finished the spring semester; and after taking time to travel throughout Europe and South and Central America, he came back for the fall semester with the determination to uphold his promise to Thompson and get back to football.
“I was going to do really well in school, transfer in, and then walk on to a team,” Rodriguez said. “That was the goal.”
With this goal came a strict diet, six-hour-per-day workouts and a trainer, along with the production of a recruitment video that would go viral after hitting YouTube, Twitter and the inboxes of hundreds of college football coaches.
“Over 50 were asking me for transcripts,” he said. “I hadn’t even played a snap.”
Rodriguez fielded interest from the likes of Virginia Tech and NC State, but when he heard from Coach Dabo Swinney, something told him to call.
“I had followed Clemson the previous year. I remember watching the Auburn game and how fired up he was. I thought man, it’s got to be sweet to play for that school,” he recalls.
Swinney offered Rodriguez the chance to walk on to the team and take part in pre-season camp. After a daunting application process, including seeking waivers from the ACC and NCAA to make him academically eligible, he made it to campus for summer classes; the rest was history.
“Other schools said get your associate’s degree, but Clemson was willing to push it,” he said.
Clemson is treating Rodriguez well, as he says that he “couldn’t ask to be in a better place.” And when it comes to Death Valley, he calls this one “a lot friendlier” than the terrain of Afghanistan.
The inspiration in Rodriguez’s story is contagious and has spanned the nation. Most recently, he has been nominated for the Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award and the USAA Athletic Inspiration Award — both awards honoring players for their contributions on and off the field. As for what’s next for Rodriguez, he sees no limit as to what he can accomplish.
“I made it here. The sky’s the limit,” he said.