MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Steven Rhodes knew the news had to be good when Middle Tennessee State University president Sidney McPhee and athletic director Chris Massaro showed up during Monday’s football practice.
It was the plight of Rhodes, a former Marine and Blue Raiders walk-on, and his attempt at gaining eligibility this season that had caused a national whirlwind since his story came to light Sunday morning when it broke in a local newspaper. Social media helped spread the story, raising national awareness, and news outlets from around the country soon converged.
From nearby Antioch, Tenn., the 24-year-old Rhodes had just spent five years serving his country as a Marine Sergeant and he now wanted to follow his dream of playing college football. But because he had played in a military-only recreational league in 2012, the NCAA deemed him completely ineligible to play college football.
Initially, MTSU appealed and the NCAA granted Rhodes two years eligibility and then recently added two more for the full four years. But the NCAA also ruled he could not play this coming season and that he be forced to take a redshirt year because the military recreation league spanned two academic years.
On Monday, though, the NCAA reversed that ruling and declared Rhodes eligible immediately.
The Blue Raiders open the season Thursday, Aug. 29, against visiting Western Carolina, and Rhodes will join his teammates in uniform in Floyd Stadium. He’ll be ready to play from the get-go.
“This has been a wild ride with a lot of ups and downs,” Rhodes said soon after calling his wife, Adrienne, who is serving in the Navy in San Diego and will be discharged in September. They have two children — Kameron, 3, and Devon, 1. “I got my eligibility. I can play. It’s a blessing. … (Adrienne) was ecstatic when I gave her a call. It sounded like she was jumping up and down.”
MTSU and Rhodes had spent the past few weeks jumping through hoops.
The rule in question — NCAA bylaw 126.96.36.199.1 — states student-athletes who do not enter college within one year of their graduating high school class must be assessed one year of intercollegiate ineligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition. The NCAA ruled that the intramural games in which Rhodes played were “organized” competition because score was kept, there were game officials and teams wore uniforms.
“For intramurals, the rule that I was getting penalized under wasn’t there to penalize me,” Rhodes said. “It was there for other reasons. They didn’t revise the rule after so many years, and it kind of carried over. But they did the right thing now, and I just thank God for it.”
If Rhodes had entered college after graduating from nearby Smyrna High School in 2007 instead of going to work at a local automobile factory for one year before joining the Marines, he would have been eligible to play this season from the beginning. Instead, he became a Marine in 2008 and recently served as an air traffic controller at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.
“Eventually, common sense prevailed and a guy who served our country is allowed to pursue his dreams,” Massaro said after practice. “That’s what we are supposed to be about in collegiate athletics, making opportunities for people to pursue their dreams.”
The NCAA rule in question was originally formulated in 1980 when it was deemed that participation in organized competition while in the armed services, during church missions or other recognized foreign aid services of the U.S. government would not count against NCAA athletic eligibility. The rule was revised in 1986 to clarify the military aspect, but through several revisions that had nothing to do with military service, the military clause was omitted and/or lost.
“As a part of its continued review of Steven Rhodes’ eligibility, NCAA staff determined he may play immediately,” Kevin Lemmon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs, said Monday in a prepared statement. “Throughout this process, NCAA staff worked closely with Middle Tennessee State University, and we appreciate the school’s partnership.
“As a part of the ongoing review of NCAA rules, our members will examine the organized competition rules, especially as it impacts those returning from military service. We thank Steven for his service to our country and wish him the best as he begins college.”
Certainly, the national attention the story received the past 48 hours expedited the process for the NCAA, which has had several public relations snafus in recent months under president Mark Emmert. He dealt directly Monday with McPhee, Massaro and Darryl Simpson, MTSU’s assistant athletics director/compliance for the case’s quick resolution.
“We are hopeful that the NCAA will look at the bylaws regarding all individuals who serve in the military before becoming a student-athlete,” McPhee, a former member of the NCAA Board of Directors, said in a prepared statement.
At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Rhodes has played both tight end and defensive end during preseason camp and is expected to play on special teams early this season.
“I thought it was phenomenal,” Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill said about how quickly the issue was resolved once it attracted national attention. “This story is everything right about a college athlete, about a young man who served our country and sacrificed so much personally for our country. This is a feel-good story. I was proud and honored, really, as an American to see how Americans responded to it.”
And how will Rhodes react when he finally runs onto a college football field for the first time in a different kind of uniform than he has been wearing the past five years?
“It is going to be amazing. I am probably going to cry, to tell you the truth.”