CLEMSON – War references are synonymous with football. However, battles fought on the gridiron are hardly the same as those on an actual battlefield.
When athletes take the football field they fight to win the game, nothing more, nothing less. Afterward, they shake hands. In combat, soldiers put their lives on the line every day and often don’t make it out at all.
Daniel Rodriguez proudly served his country in Afghanistan, narrowly escaping with his life. In keeping a promise, Rodriguez traded in his military fatigues for a football uniform at Clemson University where he is now a red-shirt freshman receiver.
On Sept. 26, the Stafford, Va., native became the first nominee for the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award, to be announced at the end of the season.
During a battle near Kamdesh, Afghanistan, on Oct. 3, 2009, Rodriguez’s platoon was ambushed by nearly 300 Taliban insurgents. As he zigzagged to his post in a mortar pit, Rodriguez turned to see his friend, Pfc. Kevin Thompson, take a fatal bullet.
Rodriguez was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart for shrapnel in his neck and legs as well as a bullet in his shoulder – injuries he’d sustained while attempting to carry his comrade off the battlefield.
Upon release from the military, Rodriguez remembered a promise he’d made to Thompson – if he made it home from Afghanistan, he would find a way to play college football.
After enrolling at Germanna Community College, despite not having played organized football since high school, Rodriguez began training. He sent a video of himself catching passes, spliced with video he’d shot during combat, to four-year schools.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney offered Rodriguez a spot on the team.
“I was mesmerized by his video,” Swinney said “I’m watching and thinking, ‘Holy cow, he’s amazing.’”
Rodriguez enlisted in the Army after high school and served from 2006-2010, spending 18 months in Iraq and a year in Afghanistan.
He’s earned a starting spot on Clemson’s kickoff coverage team, and on Sept. 8 against Ball State he caught the first pass of his college career in the second half – a four-yarder from backup quarterback Morgan Roberts and was given a standing ovation from the fans in attendance.
“It took him seven years and two wars to get his first college reception,” said Swinney. “But he has no bigger fans than his teammates.”
When Clemson faces off with Virginia Tech on Military Appreciation Day on Oct. 20, it will be Rodriguez who leads the Tigers down the hill and he’ll be carrying the American flag.
“You always dream of that second chance to play football again,” Rodriguez said. “I’m in that position. I have that second opportunity that so many people have said, ‘I wish I could get one more shot.’ Well, now it is my shot.”
The Courage Award was created by ESPN The Magazine’s senior writer Gene Wojciechowski, also an FWAA member. A select group of writers from the FWAA vote on the winner each year. The requirements for nomination include displaying courage on or off the field, including overcoming an injury or physical handicap, preventing a disaster or living through hardship.
Tiffany Grady-Hudgins is the sports editor for our sister paper, The Union Daily Times in Union, S.C.
She can be contacted at email@example.com