Soldier to football leader

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Daniel Rodriguez – the war veteran and decorated hero – has nearly come full circle. (Daniel Rodriguez/TigerNet Staff)
Daniel Rodriguez – the war veteran and decorated hero – has nearly come full circle. (Daniel Rodriguez/TigerNet Staff)

CLEMSON – Daniel RodriguezDaniel Rodriguez
RS So. Wide Receiver
#83 5-8, 175
Stafford, VA

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walked off of Clemson’s practice field Tuesday evening with cuts on his nose and around his eyes, the blood welling up on a gash on his forehead. They were minor abrasions, the result of another long day of August camp when tempers flare and the wounds suffered in tackling drills are a daily occurrence.

In many ways, however, those wounds show that Rodriguez – the 24-year old war veteran and decorated hero – has come full circle. He is no longer the oddity, the feel-good story that teammates look at with deference and awe. He is merely Daniel, the football player, just another walk-on fighting for his spot on the team.

The minor aches and pains and the scratches that he suffers on Clemson’s practice field are, in many ways, helping to heal the wounds he suffered in Afghanistan back in 2009.

His story is familiar to us all by now. He was wounded Oct. 3, 2009, during a battle near Kamdesh, Afghanistan, while serving in the U.S. Army Combat Outpost Keating, in a mountainous region near the Pakistan border, was ambushed by nearly 300 Taliban insurgents. Eight Americans were killed; 22 were injured. Rodriguez was shot and wounded in the leg, neck and shoulder.

Once recovered and discharged from the military, Rodriguez kept a promise to his friend, Pfc. Kevin Thompson, who was killed during the initial moments of the attack. Rodriguez had told Thompson if he made it home from Afghanistan, he would find a way to play college football.

He found a home at Clemson, and saw action at wide receiver and on special teams last season, but he was always in the news. Rodriguez’ story was told countless times, and he received awards and appeared on television shows and had his name and picture in countless newspapers and magazines.

Once the spring progressed and summer workouts began in earnest, it would have been easy for Rodriguez to coast on his 15 minutes of fame and take it easy, content in the knowledge that he had given his best effort at being a college football player. After all, there are easier places across the country to earn playing time at wide receiver – Clemson is loaded – and he could bow out and defer to recruits who are taller, faster and stronger.

But quitting on the sport he loves isn’t in his DNA.

“It would have been very easy [to quit], but at the same time I never set out for the stardom that I got,” Rodriguez told TigerNet Tuesday evening. “All of this, going back to ground zero, was me having the dream and the ambition to play college football. All I wanted to do was play, and I didn’t care how I got there. I just happened to have a media uprising that followed me. I had to ground myself and say, ‘Hey I am here because of all the hard work I put in. Nothing other than that.’ So when the media kind of went away, it was me understanding that I got here because of my hard work. It was pretty easy and I just had to keep working hard.”

Rodriguez says that everything that happened last year was a whirlwind of information and emotions, and now that he has disappeared from the limelight and can concentrate on being just a football player, the game is slowing down.

“It has been a lot different. Last season when I came in, I was brand new and just thrown into the mix like a lot of freshmen are,” he said. “I was kind of lost with the speed and tempo of the offense. But this year, having an offseason under my belt and getting used to the speed and working with the coordinators and quarterbacks every day, the transformation has been 180 degrees.

“A year under your belt is a significant tool you have. Coming back and knowing what you are doing and feeling comfortable and getting that year under your belt and knowing what you are doing makes a big difference.”

Rodriguez appeared comfortable catching kicks during practice last week, and head coach Dabo SwinneyDabo Swinney
Head Coach
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said that the Virginia native had the touchdown catch of the day in a recent practice.

Quarterback Tajh BoydTajh Boyd
RS Sr. Quarterback
#10 6-1, 225
Hampton, VA

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says that Rodriguez has been impressive through the early stages in camp, and Rodriguez himself thinks that he can have an impact on offense as well as special teams.

“I have a very competitive nature and I thoroughly believe that I am capable of playing in that starting five with Tajh,” he said. “That is my mindset, regardless of whether I was recruited or not or if I was a walk-on. That is just my mentality. For me, being in the position I am in and having that year under my belt, I hope I can take advantage of the opportunity and the coaches will trust me to get out on the field.”

That competitive nature earned him some football battle scars following Tuesday’s nature, and for someone who has endured the real scars of battle, they are a welcome feeling as he transitions from soldier to football player.

“That is part of the game, and I love it,” he said. “Just being able to compete with those guys and go all out and get your nose in there with some guys is great. It gets pretty physical out there in those piles, but I love it.”

Rodriguez said that one of his goals heading into the fall was for the coaches to treat him like any other football player. The parking lot outside of the WestZone frequently has a truck parked in the first two rows, the license plate on the back signifying that its owner is the recipient of a Purple Heart. That alone makes him different from his teammates and even from his coaches.

Rodriguez understands that. But he also understands that now is the part of his life when he wants to be just Daniel, the football player.

“That is what I have striven for from day one. We had a one-on-one with the coaches before the season started, and I made it known to the coaches that obviously my military background is a significant part of my life,” he said. “But I said, ‘I beg you to look at me as Daniel the football player, not Daniel the soldier. I don’t want to be a feel-good story to this organization anymore or to my teammates. I want them to see that I have been busting my butt in the off-season and lifting weights and putting in the work just as much as they have. I want to be that player on the field that can be trust-worthy.’ It is really cool when the younger guys ask me questions and I can give them answers, because I was in that position last year. “

Rodriguez then got ready to ride the last shuttle of the day from the practice fields to the locker rooms, and he had one last statement.

“I really feel like I have made the transition from solider to teammate pretty smoothly, and I like it,” he said.

That transition was made evident as he walked toward the shuttle, his teammates throwing tape at their teammate and hurling good-natured insults at one of their own.

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