You might not remember his name, but last year Daniel Rodriguez put his arms around America and dried its tears with his voice.
He is the "singing cop," the New York City police officer who sang at funerals of those claimed by the attacks on the World Trade Center. He sang at the World Series. He sang at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. He sang at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. He sang, and sang again, "God Bless America" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." Old Glory fluttered in the breeze whenever and wherever he sang.
Although his press biography says he is on leave from the NYPD, Rodriguez says, "I'm not going back." Things have taken off for him. He's done more than 45 concerts this year and is booked for twice as many next year. He played the White House last March.
Earlier this year, "Daniel Rodriguez: The Spirit of America," his debut CD, came out. The album includes "God Bless America," "America the Beautiful" and "We Will Go On," the single he released a year ago this month. A second CD, a collection of love songs, is due out in February. Rodriguez has an agent. He's being mentored by the great Placido Domingo and his associates at the Washington Opera. They are teaching him how to produce, enhance and protect his voice. Both Domingo and Rodriguez sang at a memorial service at Yankee Stadium 12 days after the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
Domingo, Rodriguez says, thinks he has the talent to be "another him." Rodriguez laughs at the thought.
Rodriguez, 38, speaks in engaging bursts and punctuates his sentences with laughter. If he weren't a singer, he says, he'd be a comedian. "I am exactly where I always wanted to be," Rodriguez says.
As the gospel song says, he's come this far by faith. "In my life, it's been my faith that has gotten me through tough times," he says.
At 19, he became a father. His first marriage failed. During the bleakest years, there were times he didn't sing at all.
Just two years ago, he failed miserably at an audition at the Metropolitan Opera that New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a friend, had helped arrange.
A man Rodriguez would not name stopped him just as he began to sing "La donna e mobile" from "Rigoletto." The man said the way Rodriguez was singing just wouldn't do. Rodriguez remembers the man saying that a cop who sang was incongruous to him. "So what makes you think a New York City police officer can sing opera?" Rodriguez says the man asked.
The man didn't understand, Rodriguez says: "I wasn't a cop who sang, I was a singer who became a policeman."
Rodriguez had been singing all his life.
As a teenager, he worked with Elliot Dorfman, a Juilliard-trained teacher. Dorfman trained Rodriguez as a baritone, thinking he'd face less competition than a tenor would. It was like pointing a kid toward being a baseball catcher to better his odds of making it to the major leagues, Rodriguez says.
At 17, he performed as a baritone at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. But the tenor always needed a way to support himself.
He worked just to put money in his pocket and food on the table, including a stint at the post office. He even led a gospel choir composed of postal workers. "There was a lot of 'Praise the Lord!' " Rodriguez says. "It was a lot of fun."
He joined the police department looking for a steady paycheck but found a career. He sang at his graduation from the police academy in 1996 and quickly became one of the department's official singers.
Being a police officer, he says, gives a person permission to intervene in the lives of others for the good. That's what he was doing when he worked the "bucket brigade" at Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11. That's what he was doing when he worked the morgue detail. That's what he was doing when he sang at the dozens of funerals, first to purge his own grief and later to help so many others with theirs.
His singing was a gift from God he could offer the bereaved, wherever they were, he says. In the days following 9/11, the nation mourned. Even now, people come up to him and tell him how much his singing meant to them.
The sentiments humble him. After all, he says, he views himself as a regular guy, like his idol Mario Lanza. Rodriguez says the Philadelphia truck-driver-turned-opera-singer "sang each song as if it would be his last."
Rodriguez has many more songs to sing. He has appeared on the "Today" show and has met some of his idols, including Julie Andrews. He has married a second time and is living with wife Ginamarie on New York's Staten Island. His oldest child, Daniel, is in college. His daughter, Jai-Lisa, 12, teases him about his salsa dancing. He has lost about 25 pounds since last year. Life is good. There are so many blessings, Rodriguez says.
"I feel like I'm a part of a worldwide family of people working for me to do well," he says.
Nevertheless, Rodriguez says he knows that some view him as a novelty act whose fame exceeds his talent.
While he is eager to see how far his talent takes him, Rodriguez says he doesn't want to "be a rock star or a millionaire." He believes his real success is finding something he loves and sticking to it.