By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
Sports Network (Philadelphia, PA) - After earning a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medal with Valor as a member of the United States Army, Daniel Rodriguez finally gets to live his lifelong dream of wearing a different kind of uniform -- one of a major college football team.
On July 31, the 24-year-old veteran was approved for three years of eligibility with the Clemson Tigers after head coach Dabo Swinney offered him a spot on the team as a walk-on.
Rodriguez has not played football since his days at Brooke Point High School in Stafford, Virginia where he lettered for three years as a receiver, running back, cornerback, kick returner, and even quarterback. His playing days were delayed once he finished high school however, as he enlisted in the Army in 2006.
During his military career (2006-10), Rodriguez served one and a half years in Iraq and a year in Afghanistan. On October 3, 2009, he was caught in the middle of the Battle of Kamdesh, where more than 300 Taliban forces attacked Rodriguez and his 29 fellow soldiers at the American Combat Outpost Keating. It was one of the bloodiest battles for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of eight of Rodriguez's comrades. Twenty-two others were wounded in the fight, including Rodriguez.
Though he's always loved the game, the aftermath of that day gave Rodriguez a new motivation for pursuing his dream of playing college football.
"I made a promise to a friend that I was going to play college football," Rodriguez said. That friend was brother-in-arms Kevin Thompson, who was one of the eight men killed in Kamdesh.
"I did not want my life to amount to just the military," he continued. "I went in with the idea that it was just going to be a stepping stone for my future. What I did not do out of high school was follow my heart and play football. I made that pact with my friend that I was going to play college football when I got out."
Rodriguez wasted no time trying to fulfill that promise once he was discharged from the service in 2010. He began taking college classes near his hometown, and he also started getting back into football, which included a six-hour-a-day training regimen.
Not long after, Rodriguez started producing workout videos to send out to college coaches. After he posted one of the videos to YouTube, his inspirational story went viral, grabbing the attention of many programs, including his home state schools of Virginia and Virginia Tech. But none were more impressed than Swinney and Clemson. The school was willing to go the extra mile to make sure that Rodriguez, who was just one credit shy of an Associates Degree, would be allowed to transfer while still having multiple years of athletic eligibility.
Knowing the accommodations Clemson went through to get him on the team made the decision to attend the school an easy one for Rodriguez.
"When I came down, that sealed the deal," Rodriguez said. "I didn't care how long it took me to come here. I knew I was going to play here. (Clemson going to bat for me) was the ultimate factor because Coach Dabo wanted to take that risk."
The gamble paid off, as the NCAA and the ACC officially approved his waiver last week, allowing him to become a full-time student-athlete starting in the fall.
Swinney pushed harder than anyone else to have Rodriguez join his team, and he could not be prouder of the fact that he has an American hero gracing his sideline.
"I am very happy for Daniel," Swinney said. "He is getting the opportunity to follow his dream. I have no doubt that he will become a great leader for us. His background and story is an inspiration to us all."
The 5-foot-8 Rodriguez began practicing with the receivers on Friday, Aug. 3, and while his impact on the field in the coming years remains to be seen, just knowing he has the opportunity to put on the Clemson jersey every week is more than enough to satisfy his boyhood dream and to honor the promise he made to a fallen friend.
"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. I have that opportunity, thanks to the NCAA, the ACC, and Clemson. That helmet is on my head. I have a school that I'm proud to be a part of, and now I'm going to let it all loose."
Having experienced the horrors of war, Rodriguez has been forced to grow up much faster than most 24-year-olds. He delayed his personal aspirations to serve for the good of his country, and he doesn't take for granted this rare opportunity at a second chance. The mere knowledge of his journey strikes an emotional chord in those of us who know that a true storybook ending is rare. His presence is sure to be an inspiration to each and every one of his new teammates, and the Clemson football team will be better off as a result.
08/08 08:48:04 ET