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.”
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.