Daniel Rodriguez shares special day with his new Clemson family

Tajh Boyd: 'When you've got a guy like Daniel on your team, it changes your whole perspective'

Daniel Rodriguez stands on The Hill carrying the Flag as part of Military Appreciation Day

Photo by Mark Crammer

Daniel Rodriguez stands on The Hill carrying the Flag as part of Military Appreciation Day

Dabo Swinney cares plenty about Clemson's third-down conversion percentage.

The details of execution add up to winning and losing, and Clemson's young coach is forging a career out of taking the little things and spelling out a winning difference.

But for a few special moments on Saturday, the 'big picture' pulled Swinney from his narrow 'win today' focus.

As he stood atop The Hill on a brilliant autumn morning and watched Daniel Rodriguez wave the American flag to the appreciative roar of a packed house on Clemson's Military Appreciation Day, Swinney reflected back on what the past three years must have been like for his 24-year-old walk-on wide receiver.

The moment was a magical one.

There were all kinds of sub-plots swirling around the Daniel Rodriguez story on Saturday. He grew up as a Virginia Tech fan, dreamed of playing for the Hokies, and, after returning from his tours of service in Iraq and Afghanistan, first approached Frank Beamer about the possibility of joining the football team there. His late dad, too, was a fan of the Hokies, and Saturday was his birthday.

Rodriguez made his Death Valley entrance a memorable one, leading the Tigers onto the field, weaving his way through the band and teammates on the sideline, jumping over a bench, and then taking a quarter lap back to the Clemson student section and fans packed onto The Hill.

Another special moment came at the end of the third quarter, when Rodriguez ran onto the field to be reunited with two former colleagues, United States Air Force captains Michael Polidor and Justin Kulish.

Kulish and Polidor were among those in a force that came to the aid of Rodriguez and his unit when it was attacked and pinned down by an ambush of more than 200 Taliban fighters on Oct. 3, 2009.

Polidor spent eight hours flying over the battlefield in an F-15, dropping bombs and directing fire at the Taliban force. After the battle, Polidor was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions, while Rodriguez was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

"I can't image what was going through his head comparing where he was three years ago to where he is today," said Swinney "It was a special day, and I was proud to be an observer."

The Tigers, he said, are a better team for having Rodriguez among their members.

"His presence has helped the team, and he never forces his leadership," Swinney said. "It has really made the team appreciate our military, and realize that there are a lot more problems in the world than our third-down conversion rate."

"I love having him on our team," said wide receiver Sammy Watkins. "He's a motivator, and he brings fire to our team...Daniel's hyped up every day, hyped up just to be living. We know what he's been through...

"I like the way he comes in every day...and goes to work, just like everybody else. He practices hard, he plays hard...He's a great person and a really good guy."

"When you come to Clemson you learn about the military heritage and history, but when you've got a guy like Daniel on your team, it changes your whole perspective," said quarterback Tajh Boyd. "It's exciting to have him on our team - a guy of a similar age and to hear about everything that went on. That's real life."

Rodriguez said it was "a great honor" to have led his teammates down The Hill on Saturday."

“I am not a really big talker," Rodriguez said. "I just let them know that we're a family and this game was just like any other game when we dress up.

"I left a family in the military and suited up with a new family here at Clemson. It meant the world to me...I told them I just wanted to play as a family just like we do every other day. It meant something to me, and I just wanted to tell them that I'm appreciative of what they do and how they want to thank me for my service.”

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