Army veteran inspires Clemson

Originally Published: November 6, 2012
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | ESPN.com

Coming off the field during an Oct. 6 game against Georgia Tech, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd was having an "off" moment. So while the Tigers' defense battled the Yellow Jackets' offense (in a game that Clemson would win, 47-31), Boyd approached teammate Daniel Rodriguez for a quick talk.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Rodriguez
Jonathan Newton/The Washington PostDaniel Rodriguez recorded a recruiting video for coaches after returning from his Army service.

"He was like, 'Man, just go out there and ball off with these guys,'" Boyd says. "He says stuff like that that sparks you. And he makes you appreciate things more -- we complain and make excuses, but he reminds you that there are people out there risking their lives."

Rodriguez, an Army veteran who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is playing in his first season with the Tigers. After joining the team as a walk-on this summer, the 5-foot-8, 24-year-old freshman has earned a starting spot on special teams. Just as important as his play on the field has been his impact off it, sharing his experiences with teammates and inspiring them through their 8-1 season.

"Daniel always brings energy to practice and games and that's something you can't coach," senior center Dalton Freeman says. "We thrive off of his energy. It's a great reminder that life is so much more than football, so you should take everything you do seriously."

Growing up in Stafford, Va., Rodriguez started playing football when he was 6. During his junior and senior years at Brooke Point High School, several Division II and Division III schools recruited Rodriguez. "I was undersized and our program was still being built, so while I had good stats, nothing was for sure," Rodriguez says. He also admits he wasn't the strongest academic student. Still, he wanted to play football.

But four days after his high school graduation, Rodriguez's father, Ray, suffered a heart attack and died. Ray, a military veteran, had been his son's coach and mentor throughout his youth football days. Rodriguez was devastated. Without telling any family or friends, he enlisted in the Army.

"I needed to clear my head and have some discipline," Rodriguez says of his decision.

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Courtesy of Daniel RodriguezRodriguez served in the Army from 2006 to 2010.

His first tour was a 15-month deployment to Baghdad. "It was really eye-opening, being so young and exposed to what I was exposed to," Rodriguez says, describing his days kicking down doors and being targeted with roadside bombs and small-arms fire.

He thought about his friends who were starting college. "This was when Myspace and Facebook were evolving and I remember getting online, looking at my friends' pictures of them at parties, while I'm getting shot at and thinking, 'What did I do?'" Rodriguez says.

After returning home, he spent a year in training before leaving for a 12-month tour in northern Afghanistan. He had just celebrated his 20th birthday.

His outpost was in the mountains, "in the middle of nowhere," Rodriguez says. While he enjoyed hot meals and a gym facility in Iraq, he typically ate one meal a day in Afghanistan and lived and worked out in primitive conditions.

On Oct. 3, 2009, close to 400 Taliban attacked the American Combat Outpost Keating near the town of Kamdesh. Rodriguez was one of 53 Americans who battled the insurgents for more than 12 hours, continuing to fight even after he was hit with shrapnel in his leg and neck and bullet fragments in his shoulder. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed during the fight, including Rodriguez's close friend, Kevin Thompson.

Afterward, Rodriguez was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He was evacuated to a U.S. base in Afghanistan for medical treatment and given the option to go home. But Rodriguez, who achieved the rank of Sergeant during his time in the Army, chose to stay another five months to finish his tour.

He returned home in June of 2010 and had trouble readjusting. He drank too much, didn't sleep well and sulked. That August, he began taking classes at a local community college.

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Clemson AthleticsDaniel Rodriguez carries the American flag onto the field before a Clemson game celebrating Military Appreciation Day.

By his second semester, his attitude had improved. Rodriguez thought about a promise he'd made to Thompson before his friend died -- to walk on to a collegiate football team. He finished the semester and that summer, decided to focus on football. He began following a strict diet, working out six hours a day and maintaining his grades throughout the fall of 2011.

Rodriguez recorded a recruiting video for coaches, showing what type of athlete he was and why he wanted to play football. After linking it on YouTube, Rodriguez asked his friend, ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper, to tweet a link to his video (Tapper has more than 215,000 Twitter followers). The two met while Tapper was writing a book on the Battle of Kamdesh.

"He tweeted it and within a month, it had close to 400,000 views," Rodriguez says. "I received about 15,000 emails, letters, phone calls and texts."

He spent his Christmas break responding to the messages, many of which expressed gratitude for his inspiring story. More than 40 schools reached out to Rodriguez, including coaches from Virginia Tech, NC State, Clemson, UVA and Georgia Southern.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had seen Rodriguez's video after a board member sent him the link. "I was mesmerized watching this guy and how he was working," Swinney says. "I thought, 'I'd love to have a guy like this on my team'-- you could tell he was committed and focused on being the best he could be."

While Virginia Tech -- Rodriguez's favorite childhood collegiate team--was also pursuing Rodriguez, Clemson asked him to visit. "I came down during spring break and fell in love with it," Rodriguez says. "Seeing the campus and the facilities and meeting the coaches, I knew I wanted to come here."

[+] EnlargeDaniel Rodriguez
Courtesy of Daniel Rodriguez Rodriguez did a 12-month tour in northern Afghanistan.

Rodriguez was accepted last April and is attending Clemson on the G.I. Bill. Thus far, he loves Tiger life.

"It's awesome, just school and practice and being able to play every day," Rodriguez says. A feeling that, it seems, is mutual amongst his teammates and coaches.

"It's been a great dynamic to watch," Swinney says. "To have him in our locker room and part of our team is priceless … he's earned [the team's] respect and they admire him greatly. Typical 18- to 22-year-olds don't think too much about the future, so this guy brings a whole different perspective. He's humble and a natural leader."

Rodriguez has earned respect on the field as well. "He's done a heck of a job on special teams," Swinney says. "He's got a couple of years left and he'll continue to improve."

On Oct. 20, Military Appreciation Day, Rodriguez carried the flag and led his teammates onto the field before their game against Virginia Tech. "This place absolutely erupted when he led the team down the hill with the flag," Freeman says, an experience that Rodriguez described as "breathtaking."

During a halftime ceremony, Rodriguez met several of the pilots who'd saved his life that day in Afghanistan. The day held special meaning for another reason: it was his dad's birthday. Clemson won the game, 38-17, on an afternoon that brought together Rodriguez's past and present in a unique way.

"It's all kind of aligned," Rodriguez says.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.