Clemson walk-on carries message of hope

CLEMSON, S.C. — It is always with him, lurking in the background.

Sometimes it finds him in the middle of the night, waking him from a sound sleep.

Sometimes the expiration date on a milk carton can set loose Daniel Rodriguez’s memories, bringing back the horrors of Oct. 3, 2009.

“Your brain knows,” Rodriguez said. “Your mind knows.”

That day, the Battle of Kamdesh unfolded in northern Afghanistan, changing Rodriguez’s life forever.

Its horrors left Rodriguez with post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects as many as 15 percent of Afghan and Iraqi War veterans. He’ll never fully leave it behind, but the journey he started this fall has helped significantly while inspiring others along the way.

Rodriguez is in his first season as a walk-on wide receiver for No. 14 Clemson, which will face No. 9 LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve. He has played in every game this season on special teams while catching three passes for 10 yards, but his message — that combat veterans can overcome their demons with effort — is even more important.

“Now that I’m in a position to talk back, have the spotlight on me, I hope my story can help veterans with PTSD and kids who aren’t doing well in high school,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not too late to get back what you love, and you can overcome PTSD. It just takes a lot of will to get it accomplished.”

This past week, Rodriguez was honored with the Orange Bowl-Football Writers Association of America Courage Award, which recognizes a player who displays courage on or off the field, overcomes an injury or physical handicap, prevents a disaster or lives through hardship. He’ll be honored at the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 7.

“It further recognizes what he’s done and recognizes the perseverance that he’s portrayed and the fact that people have gained inspiration from his story — just like I have, just like his teammates have,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s really kind of neat to see where he was a few years ago to where he is now — not only fulfilling a dream of getting accepted into a major school like Clemson but having an opportunity to be on the team, be able to play. It’s been almost like a movie script for him.”

Rodriguez said he was a less-than-motivated student at Brooke Point High School in Stafford, Va. He played all over the field but didn’t have college-worthy grades.

Six days after he graduated, his father, Ray, died of a heart attack. Rodriguez went straight to his local Army recruiter’s office.

“I went to the recruiter and said, ‘Get me out of here,’ ” he recalled. “I had to get out of the environment, get out of that mix.”

Following basic training, Rodriguez went to Iraq, where he saw countless bombs in a 12-month street patrol. He went from there to Afghanistan.

On a remote mountain near the Pakistani border, his life changed forever just after sunrise on the morning of Oct. 3, 2009.

His small, remote base was besieged by Taliban fighters; Rodriguez’s 60-member 4th Combat Brigade was outnumbered 5-to-1.

During his tenure, Rodriguez had made a friend named Kevin Thomson.

They spoke often about post-military life, and Rodriguez vowed he’d play college football.

“I didn’t want my life to be just military,” Rodriguez said. “I went in with the idea that it’d be a pedestal to what I did with my future.”

That morning, as rockets and mortar fire rained down on the camp, Thomson ran into position. A bullet went through his head, killing him instantly.

Rodriguez dragged his friend’s body back to a barracks, taking a bullet in the shoulder and shrapnel to his neck and both legs. The brigade’s remaining members held off the Tailban for three days until help arrived. Eight American soldiers died, and 22 were wounded.

Rodriguez earned a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medal and was promoted three more times — to sergeant — before being honorably discharged in June 2011. Upon returning to Fort Carson, Colo., he was diagnosed with PTSD.

“I don’t think any of us who made it off that mountain alive weren’t,” he said.

Like more than half of fellow military PTSD sufferers, he resisted significant treatment from psychologists. He began drinking heavily.

The promise he made to Thomson stuck with him, though. Back in Virginia, he enrolled at Germanna Community College and began training six hours per day. A friend, Stephen Batt, suggested making a YouTube video to get coaches’ attention. With help from Batt’s cousin, who owned a production company, they produced one.

ABC News White House correspondent Jake Tapper — who wrote a best-selling book on Kamdesh — linked the video to his Twitter feed, and it went viral. Fifty coaches, including Swinney, contacted him.

Three schools — Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech — emerged as contenders for his services. Virginia told Rodriguez that his high school grades simply weren’t high enough for admission. Virginia Tech was interested but said he’d need to obtain his associate’s degree to be eligible.

Then he visited Clemson. Following an hourlong conversation with Swinney, a former walk-on wide receiver at Alabama, he was home.

Rodriguez was one credit short of his associate’s degree, but Clemson was willing to apply to the ACC and NCAA for a waiver that would give him immediate eligibility.

“That sealed the deal,” he said. “I didn’t care how long it took me to get here. I was going to play here. Coach Dabo wanted to take that risk, take that leap, which had never been done at Clemson. It was a stretch, but I’d taken a lot of risk on my life.”

The NCAA granted the waiver in early August, and Rodriguez quickly proved he was more than just a great story, earning roles on the Tigers’ special teams units.

With every catch, every tackle, the mention of his name on Memorial Stadium’s public-address system earned a gigantic roar.

Football, he said, is therapy.

“When I get in that weight room, put on those cleats, it’s one of those things that clears my mind, puts me at ease,” he said. “It’s something I have back. My peace of mind, my good nature, my well-being I abandoned is back.”

His biggest moment came Oct. 20 against Virginia Tech — Clemson’s Military Appreciation Day and his late father’s birthday. Rodriguez led his teammates down the hill and onto the field while carrying the American flag.

At the end of the third quarter, Clemson honored U.S. Air Force Captains Michal Polidor and Justin Kulish, who came to the aid of Rodriguez’s unit in Kamdesh, bombing Taliban targets. Rodriguez ran across the field and embraced both.

“It was a great honor to be able to do that here at Clemson, just to see the reaction from the crowd, throughout the entire game,” he said. “It just really put a cap on everything I was feeling. It was emotional; it was awesome. I couldn’t imagine feeling better.”

Rodriguez will never leave Kamdesh and PTSD behind. He said he’s honored that many draw inspiration from his story, but he doesn’t want it to define him.

His perseverance does a perfectly good job of that.

“It’s not for me to shut out what I’ve been through. It’s what catapults me beyond what I’m doing to succeed,” he said. “I’m using the hardships, the horrors, the killing, friends I’ve lost as my fuel to where I want to be. (If) you can turn and manipulate anything negative in your life and use it, you’re on top.”