CLEMSON — Tuesday, Daniel Rodriguez had a moment he won’t forget.
Following months of paperwork and appeals, the ACC and NCAA approved the sophomore walk-on wide receiver’s bid for immediate eligibility at Clemson, starting with Friday’s first preseason workout.
“Getting that word that I was going to have an opportunity to suit up this season for Clemson… it felt amazing, it felt really good,” Rodriguez said.
That moment was just another step for the 24-year-old on a journey that has taken him from unmotivated high school student to Iraq and one of the bloodiest battles of the Afghan War to landing at Clemson.
Rodriguez wants to make a major impact here – on the field, in the locker room, and as a role model for fellow veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers.
He has the platform – and a compelling tale to share.
“Now that I’m in a position to talk back, have the spotlight on me, I hope my story can help veterans with PTSD and kids who aren’t doing well in high school,” he said. “It’s not too late to get back what you love, and you can overcome PTSD. It just takes a lot of will to get it accomplished.”
By his own admission, Rodriguez was a less-than-motivated student at Stafford, Va.’s Brooke Point High. He played all over the field but didn’t have college-worthy grades. Six days after he graduated, his father, Ray, dropped dead of a heart attack.
Daniel went straight to his local Army recruiter’s office.
“I went to the recruiter and said, ‘Get me out of here,’” he recalled. “I had to get out of the environment, get out of that mix.”
Be careful what you wish for.
Following basic training, Rodriguez went to Iraq, where he saw countless bombs in a 12-month street patrol. He went from there to Afghanistan.
On a remote mountain in the eastern part of Afghanistan, his life changed forever on the morning of Oct. 3, 2009.
His small, remote base was besieged by Taliban fighters; Rodriguez’s 60-member 4th Combat Brigade was outnumbered 5-to-1.
Rodriguez had made a friend, Kevin Thomson. They spoke often about post-military life, and Rodriguez vowed he’d play college football because “I didn’t want my life to be just military; I went in with the idea that it’d be a pedestal to what I did with my future.”
That morning, as Taliban rockets and mortar fire rained down on the camp, Thomson ran into position. A bullet went through his head, killing him instantly.
Rodriguez drug his friend’s body back to a barracks, taking a bullet in the shoulder and shrapnel in both legs. The brigade’s remaining members held off the Tailban for three days, until help arrived. Eight American soldiers died; 22 were wounded.
Rodriguez earned a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medal of Valor, and was promoted three more times – to sergeant – before being honorably discharged in June 2011.
Upon returning to Fort Carson, Colo., he was diagnosed with PTSD.
“I don’t think any of us who made it off that mountain alive weren’t,” Rodriguez said.
He went through counseling, but it didn’t really stick. Rodriguez returned home to Virginia and enrolled in Germanna Community College, simultaneously training six hours per day “going through the grind of two-a-days on my own,” he said.
Friends suggested a YouTube video to get college coaches’ attention; with the help of a friend who owned a production company, he uploaded one. It went viral; 50 coaches, including Dabo Swinney, contacted him.
So did Dan Rather.
“It was getting out of hand,” he said. “Just me and my laptop in my room. No help – I’m an independent person – just sitting on the bed, emailing Dan Rather back, saying, ‘Sure, I’ll do a video shoot.’ I never thought it’d get this much attention.”
Three schools – Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech – emerged as contenders for his services. UVA told Rodriguez his high school grades simply weren’t high enough for admission. Virginia Tech was interested, but said he’d need to obtain his associate’s degree to be eligible.
Then, he visited Clemson. Following an hour-long conversation with Swinney, himself a former walk-on wide receiver at Alabama, this was home.
Rodriguez was one credit short of his associate’s degree, but Clemson was willing to apply to the ACC and NCAA for a waiver that would give him immediate eligibility.
“That sealed the deal,” he said. “I didn’t care how long it took me to get here. I was going to play here. Coach Dabo wanted to take that risk, take that leap, which had never been done at Clemson. It was a stretch but I’d taken I’d taken a lot of risk on my life, going into Afghanistan.”
PTSD comes and goes – in sleepless nights, terrors sparked by a slamming door, fireworks or something as unexpected as a balloon popping; as Rodriguez quipped, “it’s not something you can schedule.”
Sports ease the pain.
“When I get in that weight room, put on those cleats, it’s one of those things that clears my mind, puts me at ease,” he said. “It’s something I have back. My peace of mind, my good nature, my well-being I abandoned is back.”
This fall, Rodriguez says he hopes to play “in every game,” including the Oct. 20 home game against Virginia Tech, which just happens to be Military Appreciation Day and his father’s birthday.
He has no delusions of grandeur, but knows he can help on the field – as a wide receiver and on special teams – and in the locker room.
“I love being in this position. There’s really no pressure on me,” he said. “I’m not this high-scouted athlete expected to change this program. I’m not. Just a cog on the wheel who’s going to better the team from an individual standpoint and what I’ve been through as a person.”
Suiting up with Clemson, he said, is like adding a “family in orange” to his military family.
Running down the hill for the first time will be like a movie montage; Rodriguez says pieces of his life will flash before him.
It isn’t the end of his journey. Just another step.
“It’s not for me to shut out what I’ve been through. It’s what catapults me beyond what I’m doing to succeed,” he said. “I’m using the hardships, the horrors, the killing, friends I’ve lost as my fuel to where I want to be. You can turn and manipulate anything negative in your life and use it, you’re on top.”