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Army veteran Daniel Rodriguez overcomes battle scars to play football for Clemson

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CLEMSON, S.C. — Daniel Rodriguez lives alone in a two-story off-campus apartment where he sleeps three to four nights a week on the first-floor couch. It’s not that Rodriguez is afraid of beds; it’s that when he’s secluded, he prefers to be ready to fight. A cornered-off second-floor bedroom doesn’t allow for that.

This is how Clemson’s newest and most unique walk-on football player, a 24-year-old from Stafford, lives. Symptoms of Rodriguez’s post-traumatic stress disorder still linger from his time in the Army, especially the year he spent in Afghanistan. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star Medal for bravery in combat during one of the bloodiest battles in the Afghan war. 

Now he plays major college football, where hollow analogies frequently are drawn between war and the action that takes place on a 100-yard field. Rodriguez sees some similarities between soldiers and football players, but he scoffs at any comparison between playing football and surviving a battle during war.

Seated in the Clemson football team’s dining hall last week as he relived his war experiences, Rodriguez looked around at some of his teammates eating lunch nearby.

“Like, training camp, in comparison, yeah, we’re here a few hours a day,” he said. “People socialize. We’re making good friends. We’re bonding. But at the end of the day, you get to go home. You can play XBox and talk to your girlfriend and watch TV.

“At war, in the military, you’re training constantly, you go home, everybody collectively goes to a location, a base, so that bond is so much thicker because you’re so secluded or taken or sucked away from what you know. And then when you deploy, that guy is all you’ve got. His bullet is going to save your life, and yours is going to save his.”

Life-and-death situation

A little after 5 a.m. on Oct. 3, 2009, Spec. Daniel Rodriguez went to the aid station at Combat Outpost Keating, a remote military base in the Kamdesh district of eastern Afghanistan, to fill out online forms. When he heard shots being fired outside, he figured another routine Taliban disturbance was at hand.

Armed with a 9mm pistol, Rodriguez left the aid station and ran to the end of the barracks. Keating is located in a valley, and when Rodriguez looked up at the surrounding mountain ridges, all he could see were muzzle flashes.

That day, more than 300 Taliban insurgents attacked the base, inhabited by 53 soldiers. Roughly 300 meters lay between Rodriguez and the machine gun he was supposed to man during such encounters. So Rodriguez, who starred at Brooke Point High as a slot receiver, defensive back and kickoff returner from 2003 to 2005, zigzagged as quickly as he could along an inclined dirt path while off-the-mark bullets kicked rocks at his ankles.  

Rodriguez arrived at his machine gun just as Kevin Thompson, another soldier, was coming outside. Rodriguez began to load the machine gun, and when he looked back, Thompson was struck in the head by a bullet. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Rodriguez spent the rest of the day killing as many Taliban insurgents as he could. Though just 5 feet 8 and 175 pounds, he twice tried to drag Thompson, who was 6-5 and close to 300 pounds, inside, and each time he was struck by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade. The first time it struck his right leg. The second time it struck his neck. The metal shards were so hot that his wounds were instantly cauterized. Another soldier had to pull the shrapnel from Rodriguez’s neck with a pair of pliers.

He is convinced that Thompson’s body lying outside the post kept Taliban fighters from coming inside. Rodriguez shot them in the back as they walked past.

A survivor comes home 

Eight U.S. soldiers died during the Battle of Kamdesh and 22 more, including Rodriguez, were wounded. Rodriguez was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star Medal and was honorably discharged a year and two days after the fight. He returned home listless, guilt-ridden and depressed.

When Rodriguez arrived at Reagan National Airport in October 2010, a limousine filled with family and friends picked him up. When the limo crossed into Stafford County, it was joined by a police escort. And when the limo arrived at the Potomac waterfront home of Rodriguez’s girlfriend, the party was joined by dozens of others — a hero’s welcome.

But Rodriguez shrank from the spotlight. Several people who attended the party said he seemed uncomfortable and distant.

“You could just see in his eyes that he was a different person,” said Veronica Rodriguez, Daniel’s older sister. “I remember looking over at him and he was just sitting at the bar in a daze. You could tell he was a million miles away.”

Rodriguez remained there — wherever he was — for the better part of a year. He could sleep only two to three hours at a time. He was rarely hungry, and his communication with friends and family became erratic. Stephan Batt, one of Rodriguez’s closest childhood friends, said he couldn’t remember seeing Rodriguez without a gun during that time .

“So many of these soldiers are committing suicide, and when you see them showing these symptoms that Daniel was showing, that is always a concern that’s in the back of your mind,” said Vanessa Adelson, the mother of Stephan Mace, a 21-year-old from Loudoun County who died as a result of injuries suffered during the Battle of Kamdesh. Adelson became a confidante of Rodriguez’s after Mace’s death.

Rodriguez acknowledged drinking heavily upon his return from the Army. On Oct. 17, 2010, Adelson’s husband and Rodriguez were guests of friends of the Adelson family in a suite at FedEx Field during a Washington Redskins game against the Indianapolis Colts. Vanessa Adelson described Rodriguez as “a belligerent drunk at that game.”

Rodriguez took classes at Germanna Community College during the spring of 2011 and spent the following summer traveling in Central and South America, as well as Spain. He said he returned from that trip ready to begin his life again.

“Some soldiers, they try to go back to school and they just can’t cut it,” Rodriguez said. “They can’t adjust, and they drop out. I adjusted. I loved it.”

Rodriguez never before had applied himself in school. Four days after his high school graduation in 2006, his father — a staff sergeant in the Army in the 1970s — died of a heart attack. Having received interest only from a few Division III football programs, Rodriguez elected to join the military. He served 15 months in Iraq and then spent a year in Fort Carson, Colo., where he met a soldier named Kevin Thompson.

Thompson was from Reno, Nev., and he wanted to be a butcher. Rodriguez still had aspirations of playing college football. The pair discussed their dreams often while stationed in Afghanistan and even made promises to each other that once they were out of the military, they each would pursue their civilian objectives. At the time, Rodriguez said, he made the vow for the sake of saying it out loud. He didn’t take it seriously.

Then Thompson was killed during the Battle of Kamdesh, and the oath became more real.

In the fall of 2011, Rodriguez plunged into training to return to football. As the intensity of his workouts increased, his appetite returned, as did his ability to sleep for solid durations. Subsequently, he re-engaged with friends and family.

On Nov. 6, 2011, the Redskins played the San Francisco 49ers at FedEx Field, and the Adelsons had offered Rodriguez tickets in their friends’ suite. Before the game, Vanessa Adelson said she sent Rodriguez a text message: “You cannot drink and be out of control again.”

His response: “I’m not drinking anymore.”

‘It’s not going to backfire’

In the late fall of 2011, a friend of Rodriguez’s produced a YouTube video highlighting Rodriguez’s workouts and his goal of playing college football. The video went viral, and more than 50 schools reached out.

While Rodriguez was in class one day this past spring, he received an e-mail from Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney expressing his interest in allowing Rodriguez to play for the Tigers as a walk-on wide receiver and special teams player.

Because Rodriguez remains one course shy of completing his associate’s degree, Clemson had to file waivers with the NCAA and the ACC.

A Clemson spokesman said the school never previously had filed such a request. The waivers were granted earlier this month.

Rodriguez “is going to set a precedent that nobody else on that team can match,” said Brad Larson, who played and coached at Division II Doane College in Nebraska before serving with Rodriguez in Afghanistan. “It’s not going to backfire in his face, but the other players are going to realize that they need to start working half as hard as Daniel because he’ll outwork anybody on that team.”

Rodriguez knows the night terrors will return occasionally for the rest of his life, that he may always feel the urge to sleep on a residence’s first floor. But he found therapy in training to return to a football field, and so for at least a little while longer — he has three years of eligibility while he attends school on the G.I. Bill — he’ll take full advantage of the catharsis his sport brings.

“My advantage in life is that anything that happens to me now, anything with football, is an opportunity,” Rodriguez said. “I’m excited to run wind sprints. That’s an opportunity I got to fight for. I’m getting a second chance now. Some of these guys might complain about it; they might not want to do it. For me, I don’t care. It beats being shot at.”

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