Despite its lexicon being littered with military terms—formation, trenches, bomb, blitz, for example—football is not war. It is unfathomably trivial by comparison. But superstars on the field can be easily confused as heroes. And that’s why it’s vitally important to identify true heroes, the people who protect American freedom.
In the case of Daniel Rodriguez, it just so happens that he’s a football player, too.
The Clemson junior was recently honored by the Football Writers Association of America with the Armed Forces Merit Award. But it is hardly his first decoration. A lifetime before he stepped foot on the college gridiron, Rodriguez earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his valor in the Battle of Kamdesh on Oct. 3, 2009, one of the bloodiest fights in the War in Afghanistan, when just 38 American troops fought some 300 Taliban combatants. Eight American soldiers died, and 22 were injured, including Rodriguez.
While the 26-year-old admits his football accolades rest on the same shelf with those he received from his military career, he says it’s not at all difficult to separate the two chapters in his life.
“It’s pretty wild to reflect back and think that I’ve already been through two tours of duty and have (those awards) and I met the president and everything that went with it,” Rodriguez says. “But now I’m at a point in my life, with college, about to graduate, and having success on the football field with my team that is incredible. I can distinguish the two separate parts of my life, but definitely one would never come without the other.”
After serving in the Army from 2006-10, when he fought 18 months in Iraq and one year in Afghanistan, Rodriguez was able to walk onto the Tigers after coach Dabo Swinney saw a workout video of the former high school standout and learned of his bravery in combat. Since then he has become a locker room leader who contributes at wide receiver and plays a key role on special teams.
Out of high school, Rodriguez had opportunities to play football at the small-college level, but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. Only days after the death of his father, he enlisted. “The military really gave me perspective on what I wanted to accomplish,” Rodriguez says. “I didn’t feel like I had anything else going for me, and I could see myself becoming a person that made excuses of why I never left my hometown. So I forced myself into an obligation…. For me it was a way out, a way to get my education paid for through the GI Bill, and becoming my own man and learn responsibility and work ethic, and a lot of things that the military instills in you. I needed that in my life.”
Ultimately, the character that was developed in Rodriguez through service allowed him to renew his dream of playing football. And the sport itself helped him overcome the demons that followed him back from the Middle East. Throwing himself into three-a-day workouts to get in shape and prove he deserved a major college opportunity gave Rodriguez new purpose.
“You learn a lot about yourself in combat, but it’s even harder when you get home to try to overcome that and put yourself in a proper position to succeed,” Rodriguez says. “Football has given me a priority again and something to work toward. It’s given me a lot more opportunities to network and be a part of a team again, and get back some of the feelings that I missed for a long time when I got back.”
Indeed, football and war have very little in common. But they both require teamwork—people depending on one another to do a job, sacrifice, and stand up with courage when things look bleakest. Rodriguez has now proven himself dependable and capable twice. Those dual experiences will serve him well in the future.
“The mindset I have going into anything now is that it’s all attainable as long as I think the right way,” he says. “I’d love to get into coaching down the road if there’s an opportunity. I would love to help out youths who are like I was, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.”
Eight years after entering the Army and three seasons into his college football career, Rodriguez now has his answer: Anything he wants.