Walk-On Warrior

Walk On Warrior
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Wounded at the Battle of Kamdesh, this decorated sergeant’s video earns him a shot at his football dream.

Finishing what he starts never has been a problem for former Army Sgt. Daniel Rodriguez, no matter whether his mission was to overcome combat injuries and complete a tour in Afghanistan or realize a dream to play college football.

Rodriguez, 26, joined the Clemson University football team as a recruited walk-on in 2012, seven years after he last had played high school football and more than three years after the Battle of Kamdesh, where his heroism was recognized with a Bronze Star for valor and a

Purple Heart.

This fall, Rodriguez hopes to emerge as a consistent target at wide receiver for the Tigers after making his mark as a special teams contributor during his first two seasons on the South Carolina campus.

“He loves the fact that he’s an inspiration to a lot of people, especially veterans and our military,” Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney says. “He relishes that role, but he really wants to be a great football player. He has improved as much as anybody we’ve had on our team the last couple of years. He’s developed into a very good football player and I have no doubt this will be his best year.”

Rodriguez landed a spot on the Clemson team after creating a recruiting video that highlighted his unconventional workouts honed during a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, his athleticism, military experience and leadership.

Though Swinney knew Rodriguez only through what he saw on that video, he immediately invited him

to campus.

“I get a lot of videos,” Swinney says. “I clicked on this video and was just captivated by it. It captivated me to the point where as soon as the video was over and showed his [contact] information, I picked up the phone and called him.”

The path Rodriguez traveled to end up at Clemson was far from typical.

Rodriguez was a three-year letter winner on the Brooke Point High School, Va., football team, playing slot receiver, running back, cornerback, holder, quarterback and kick returner. But the 5-8, 175-pounder’s family life took an unexpected turn when his parents divorced after his sophomore year and then his father died four days after Rodriguez’s high school graduation in 2006. With his home life adrift, Rodriguez decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Army. His father had served eight years

during Vietnam.

“I was either going to sit around and make excuses because of his death as to why I didn’t amount to anything or use that as motivation to get the hell out of town and do something with my life,” he says. “I went with the second option.”

Just days after enlisting, Rodriguez was sent to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. Twenty-four days after graduating boot camp, he deployed to Iraq.

“You got out in patrol every day and you’re kicking down doors,” he recalls. “It puts in perspective where you are at – in the streets of Bagdad as a 19-year-old trying not to die and seeing your friends die. It was a tough time and a hard deployment but it really does make you grow up.”

After 12 months in Iraq, Rodriguez returned to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo., for a year before deploying to Afghanistan. He was one of 38 troops who battled 300 Taliban insurgents in the battle at Combat Outpost Keating, near Kamdesh, on Oct. 3, 2009. He survived one of the bloodiest battles of the war, but was left with shrapnel in his leg and neck and a bullet fragment in his shoulder. His injuries could have earned him a ticket home, but Rodriguez opted to stay and continue the fight.

“I’ve always been taught to finish what you start,” he says. “I couldn’t live with myself knowing I got to go home while I had friends fighting out there. I wouldn’t have been able to look at myself in the mirror if I would have lost another friend on that deployment with me sleeping in a warm bed every night back in the States.”

Among the soldiers killed in the battle of Kamdesh was Rodriguez’s best friend, Kevin Thompson. Rodriguez had promised Thompson that if he survived the deployment he would attempt to fulfill his dream of playing college football.

Despite post-traumatic stress disorder, he ultimately overcame the downward spiral that engulfed him and hit the gym and the books to honor his promise and realize his dream.

“I decided I wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass me by without doing everything I could,” he says. “For me, it was just go all out. Transform my body. Quit drinking and every chance I get, better myself and get my grades up academically at a community college so I could transfer to a four-year college that had a football team.”

Rodriguez was sitting in a community college history class when he received a voicemail and e-mail from Swinney.

“It was definitely out of the blue,” Rodriguez says. “I actually just walked out of class and called him back. It was one of those things where you knew the feeling felt right and I had to capitalize on it sooner rather than later. It was very, very exciting.”

Rodriguez’s recruiting video had gone viral after CNN’s Jake Tapper, who had become friends with Rodriguez while researching a book on the Battle of Kamdesh, tweeted a link to it.

Though more than 150 colleges ultimately contacted Rodriguez about playing football, Rodriguez was sold on Clemson as soon as he made an unofficial visit to the campus. He has no regrets.

“It’s fun to be around young guys,” he says. “We learn from each other. At the end of the day, we’re family so it is a great place to play.”

Rodriguez scored his first career touchdown in November 2013 in a 52-6 win against the Citadel. He and his team, which upset Ohio State in the Orange Bowl in January 2014, hope to continue their

winning ways this season. Clemson enters 2014 ranked among the top 25 teams in

the nation.

Rodriguez will graduate in December with a major in parks, recreation and tourism management and a minor in athletic leadership, but his post-college future is secure. His autobiography, “Rise: A Soldier, Dream and a Promise Kept,” will be published in October and Sony Tristar has purchased the movie rights to the story.

“I will be moving out to LA and working on that and book tours and public speaking,” he says. “I plan to ride it out and see where it takes me. Hopefully, the next chapter of my life will be just as fruitful as this one was.”


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