Marcher in orange
Sure, war references are freely used in football because they’re effective, and there are similarities. In football, one team tries to push another down the field in a battle for position. But it’s not really war.
Not the kind that Daniel Rodriguez has fought and nearly died in. A star in high school, Rodriguez thought he’d be playing football after high school, not fighting in wars in Iraq, where he lost a dozen buddies and acquired a traumatic brain disorder, and in Afghanistan, where he was involved in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
The Virginia native dreamed of playing at Virginia Tech, a dream he deferred. Instead, he enlisted in the Army after his father passed away, days after graduation. Besides, at 5’6” and 140 pounds, he wasn’t getting a lot of attention from big schools. In the Army, he became best friends with Kevin Thompson, who had his own dream of becoming a butcher. They shared their goals with each other while stationed in a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan.
Early one October morning in 2009, 300 Taliban fighters attacked Rodriguez, Thompson and 58 of their comrades. As he zigzagged to his post in a mortar pit, bullets whizzed past his ankles. He turned around to see his buddy get hit in the head by a bullet. He was dead before he hit the ground. Rodriguez kept fighting for 12 more hours. He and his men took out 150 Taliban, losing eight men and sustaining 22 injuries.
Rodriguez was awarded a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart for shrapnel in his neck and legs, as well as for a bullet in his shoulder; the injuries he sustained while trying to drag Thompson, at 6’5” and almost 300 pounds, a couple of times off the battlefield. It didn’t seem right to him that his best friend was out there alone.
Out of the Army, he began grueling workouts, a video of which caught the attention of Virginia Tech’s and Clemson’s highly touted football programs. Rodriguez found solace on the football field and it’s also how he deals with his PTSD. He has become 175 pounds of pure muscle and even grew a couple of inches.
The interest came when he was just shy of his associate’s degree, something he needed to transfer. Clemson invited him to walk-on and fought for him to get an eligibility waiver, something his favorite team wasn’t willing to do.
So, October 20 looms large in Rodriguez’ future. It will be his father’s birthday; he will be clad in Clemson orange and, along with his new “orange family,” he will play at Virginia Tech, a military academy, on Military Appreciation Day.
When he marches down the field carrying the American flag, I’m sure both sides will cheer him on. It will be a good day, and he will keep his promise to his best friend.