Army vet fulfilling promise with Clemson
NOV 12, 2012 10:03a ET
He carried memories of the carnage he had witnessed. He was sullen and withdrawn. He drank a lot.
But the words came back to Rodriguez, a promise he made his friend while they were battling terror and the Taliban in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan in October 2009. Rodriguez had told Pfc. Kevin Thompson that he would pursue his dream of playing college football if he survived.
Rodriguez made it back.
The promise lives in the form of an orange uniform and unbridled enthusiasm that Rodriguez shows for his new team at Clemson, where he is a 24-year-old walk-on receiver and special teams player for the 11th-ranked Tigers (9-1).
He's one of two FBS players with a Purple Heart, joining Idaho's Corey Sandberg.
“He may only be a walk-on,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told The New York Times, “but he's a team leader to these 18- to 22-year-olds, some of whom have a sense of entitlement or want to feel sorry for themselves or don’t understand the privilege they have.
Plenty of stories have been written and have aired about Rodriguez and the perilous path he traveled from a high school football player whose father died only four days after he graduated high school in Stafford, Va.
He joined the Army to find discipline and direction and served in Iraq before going to Afghanistan, where he fought in the Battle of Kamdesh three years ago. Rodriguez was wounded when a bullet tore through his shoulder and shrapnel ripped into his legs and neck.
Thompson and seven other Americans were killed.
Rodriguez returned home a disillusioned, decorated vet who discovered that his Purple Heart and Bronze Star couldn't cure him of post-traumatic stress disorder. He visited Arlington National Cemetery about once a month, often breaking down at the graves of his friends.
Friends close to Rodriguez say he was not the same person after he came home, but therapy and the memories of the promise he made to Thompson spurred Rodriguez to continue his dream, even though he hadn’t played organized football since he was in high school and he’s 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds.
He began working out, which he has said helped alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, and asked a friend to make a video to show coaches his desire to play. The video went viral, thanks to Jake Tapper of ABC News, who had interviewed Rodriguez about the battle, and tweeted a link to it.
Swinney eventually saw it and offered Rodriguez a spot as a preferred walk-on.
“I was mesmerized by his video,” Swinney told the Times. “I'm watching and thinking, 'Holy cow, he's amazing.’ ”
Rodriguez has played in all 10 of Clemson's games, recording three special teams tackles. He caught his first collegiate pass in a blowout win over Ball State on Sept. 8 and now has three receptions for a total of 10 yards.
When Clemson celebrated Military Appreciation Day on Oct. 20, Rodriguez gave a pregame talk to teammates and proudly carried the American flag when the Tigers ran down the hill and onto the field before their game against Virginia Tech.
He didn't stop at the team's bench, enthusiastically waving the flag as he ran around the field.
Coincidentally, Rodriguez had grown up as a Hokies fan and had plans to enroll there after graduating high school.
In the third quarter, Rodriguez met Michael Polidor and Justin Kulish, Air Force captains who not only had piloted the pregame flyover but had provided air support for Rodriguez and his unit during the battle.
The three men hugged on the field while the game was stopped in the third quarter.
“I left a family in the military and suited up with a new family here at Clemson. It meant the world to me,” Rodriguez said after that game. “The respect and the fight we go through every day is something to see. 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 am appreciative of what they do and how they want to thank me for my service.”