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Daniel Rodriguez took the long way to his roster spot on the Clemson University football team. He went to Iraq and Afghanistan first. His four years in the U.S. Army left him with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and PTSD. He eventually decided that part of his recovery should include playing college football. He tells his story in a new book titled, "Rise: A Soldier, A Dream, and A Promise Kept."
Bill Littlefield spoke with Rodriguez about his journey.
Highlights from Bill's interview with Daniel Rodriguez
BL: You say in the book that you joined the Army “on a whim.” When did you begin to understand what you'd signed up for?
DR: I think upon my arrival into Iraq; on the helicopter I was in we took small-arms fire coming into Baghdad. And I think then is when it hit me. It was kind of one of those moments you realize that you're in it for the long haul and have to be more serious about what you decided to do.
BL: Tell us about the promise that eventually led you to devote so much time and energy to finding a place on a college football team.
DR: It was late September. Me and my good friend, Kevin Thompson, we would just talk all the time. We would tell each other what we wanted to do when we get out of the military, and you talk about how good you had it. And mine was to go back to school and try to play football again. I missed sports. We promised each other that we would get out of the military, for one, and do something that we wanted to do and not let our military careers define us as men.
And two weeks later he was killed in front of me during that Battle of Kamdesh on Oct. 3, 2009. And it was just tough. It was a tough loss for me, seeing a friend killed in front of me and having to send him home in a body bag. What ultimately came of it was me fulfilling the promise, and that's where I'm at today.
BL: You made a video of your grueling daily workouts that became a bit of a hit on social media.
Tell me a little bit about how you think going public with your goal helped you to achieve it.
DR: Well, it definitely put it out there. And the funny thing about it is, I sent it out to college coaches but it was password-protected. I just put it on YouTube to get a URL. Next thing I know, the dang thing went viral. But going public with it really just made me have an attitude of, "At least I know I did everything I could." I spent my last penny hiring a friend who owned that production company to shoot that video. When I went public and it started going out there, it was like, "Well, I have nothing to hide behind now. This reality might happen faster than I thought it would, and I just have to make the most of it."
BL: Your video caught the attention of the head coach at Clemson, where the university applied for an NCAA waiver because your high school transcript was less-than adequate. Just making the team was a major achievement, but you’ve done more than just make the team. At least one highlight came during a blowout against Ball State, right?
DR: Correct, yeah. That was my first catch. My first reception as a college athlete. Standing ovation on a four-yard catch (laughing). It was a great moment, a great moment in Clemson history.
BL: In the epilogue of the book, you write, "I believe in my heart that I can play in the National Football League." Have you received any encouragement along that line?
DR: Yeah, it's funny, we go to practice every day and there's NFL scouts. I'll make catches or plays and I'll look to the sideline and you can see an NFL scout writing notes. I mean, it's encouraging. I do believe that I can play. Will I? I don't know. Will I get an opportunity? We'll see. But I believe that I can, and if the opportunity presents itself then, absolutely, I'll try to make the most of it and give everything I've got.
Bill's Thoughts On 'Rise: A Soldier, a Dream, and a Promise Kept'
[sidebar title="An Excerpt From 'Rise'" width="630" align="right"] Read an excerpt from Rodriguez's 'Rise: A Soldier, a Dream, and a Promise Kept.' [/sidebar]
When he was in high school, Daniel Rodriguez was a screw-up. He'd be the first to acknowledge that. He was on and off the football team for various reasons, and his academic performance might charitably be characterized as terrible.
He joined the Army, fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and came home confused. He'd lost friends in combat. He was suffering from PTSD. He wasn't sure what he'd accomplished or what he could accomplish. He had no idea what to do with himself, until he decided to try to make good on the intention he'd expressed to a friend who hadn't made it home: Rodriguez would go to college, and he would play college football.
It was an unlikely plan, but perseverance and the power of social media made it happen. Rodriguez made the team at Clemson, where he is presently a senior. Success may have gone to his head. He's now talking about playing in the NFL. But given what he's accomplished, only a fool would bet against him.
This segment aired on October 11, 2014.
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