COLUMBIA -- On springtime Saturdays, Rodney Paulk and his younger brother Leonard packed their gear and rifles and drove three hours from their Columbia home to brackish marshlands of eastern South Carolina. Dressed in camouflage jackets, Rodney showed Leonard how to properly handle the rifle and how to track the beasts they had come to hunt: wild boars.
Rodney, who is two years older than Leonard, started hunting as a high school junior, and he soon became quite proficient at picking off boars and deer. Having some meat to bring home for processing was always a highlight of the trips, but not the sole reason for Rodney bringing Leonard, who shot a boar one time but was never a marksman like his brother.
"He showed me something to do instead of getting in trouble," Leonard said.
With everything he does, Rodney tries to set a positive example for his brothers, Leonard, who plays at East Carolina, and Darius, a high school senior.
On the rare occasions he goes to bars with his South Carolina football teammates, he drinks only water, having abstained from alcohol all his life. He resolved to stop cursing when Leonard reached high school, and stuck to that. Above all, he always remembers what his father used to tell him: "All we've got is our name."
Rodney Paulk, a sixth-year senior starting linebacker for the Gamecocks, describes himself as "unlike other people," and he is especially different than most college football players. He has no tattoos. He graduated in December with a degree in marine science, a major tougher than those taken by many of his teammates. He achieved a 3.0 GPA and never missed a class except for football road games, he said.
His football career is uncommon, too. After missing the 2008 and 2009 seasons with knee injuries, he shared starting duties this season with Shaq Wilson and ranks third on the team with 52 tackles. Paulk, 23, is the defense's smartest and most mature player, and his teammates rave about his ability to make accurate pre-snap reads just as much as they admire his character.
"Rodney's a real man," Wilson said. "That's the person you want to be like when you grow up, Rodney Paulk."
While Paulk prides himself on his reputation, he is not self- righteous about it.
"I'm not perfect by any sense, but I know right from wrong," he said. "It was instilled in me from when I was a little boy."
In many ways, his sense of duty was born in the midnight skies above Panama in 1989, when 23-year-old Leonard Paulk Sr. parachuted with his fellow Army Rangers, taking fire from the ground as they began their mission to find dictator Manuel Noriega. While bullets whizzed through the air, Leonard thought of his wife, Sonya, and 1-year-old son, Rodney, back home. He didn't know if he would ever see them again. That moment, he said, "changed my whole life."
He stayed in the military and retired five years ago as a 1st Sgt. His military career served him well, but it was never his first choice. A standout high school football strong safety in Miami, he played against future Miami Hurricanes stars Melvin Bratton and Brett Perriman. North Carolina State and LSU recruited Leonard, but he fell 50 points shy of the required 700 SAT score. His father wanted Leonard to join him as a longshoreman. Instead, he enlisted in the Army.
After he and Sonya started having kids, "I didn't want them to go through the same experience I did," Leonard said. He was a drill sergeant when Rodney arrived. All day, Leonard saw goal-less enlistees. He vowed to not let his children turn out undisciplined and under-qualified academically. But he knew only one way to teach them.
"At first, I wanted them to fear me more than respect me," he said.
Dropping for 20 push-ups was the standard punishment in Rodney's early years.
"You didn't clean your room, you're getting down," Leonard Sr. said. "You didn't do the dishes, you're getting down. You didn't do something quick enough, you're getting down."
When the Paulks were stationed in Hawaii, the boys didn't want to eat Thanksgiving dinner. Leonard Sr. ordered them into the car and drove them around to see homeless people. Upon returning home, the boys "started eating fast," Leonard Sr. said.
He softened when Rodney was 14, after an older Army colleague talked to him about not bringing the military mindset home.
"You've got to learn to be more approachable to your kids," Leonard recalled the man saying.
The boys started opening up to Leonard, and not minding when he regularly used his lunch breaks or days off from work to sit with them in class, while wearing his Army uniform. He did this all the way through their high school years, because he wished his parents had paid closer attention to his academics. He required his sons to maintain As and Bs, or else he would make them sit out a sports season -- a punishment he never had to mete out.
Still, Rodney can hear his father's favorite saying to this day: "No grades, no glory."
Rodney had both as a high school football player. Rivals.com rated him the No. 19 inside linebacker in the country in the Class of 2006. At USC, he started as a freshman and sophomore. He figured NFL riches would soon be his.
Then he was shut down after four games in 2008 because of a dislocated left knee cap. In the 2009 opener, he made six tackles before tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament in the second quarter. Once a fixture on the defense, he became mostly anonymous for two years.
"All my so-called friends who were there in the midst of football, they tended to kind of go away," he said. "While everybody steered away, guess who remained the same? My family. That's why I'm so indebted to them to this day, and I'll always and forever be indebted to them."
His parents encouraged him while he rehabilitated, just like they did when he was a second-grader in Hawaii, where bullies targeted him because he and his brother Leonard were two of three black kids in the entire school.
"They used to pick at us, call us black," Rodney said. "It was bad. It was almost to the point that I actually wanted to be white at one point. I knew I could always go home and count on (my parents)."
The Paulks are such a close family that Leonard and Sonya always bring their sons along for their wedding anniversary dinner.
Every Sunday, Rodney drives across town and spends the day with his parents. He goes to church with them in the morning when he can, and they always eat dinner at Golden Corral or Eastern Buffet. And every single night, without out fail, Rodney calls his mom at 9 p.m.
But he is far from a boring wallflower.
He joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity last year. All new members give themselves "line names." He chose "Phenom." He volunteered to be the frat's strategist, the person responsible for mediating debates at meetings. His habits are already rubbing off on some of his brothers.
"I try to call my mother a lot more," said Miles Madden.
Paulk is also fascinated with reptiles and other critters, which is why he chose an odd major for a football player.
As a kid, he caught black widow spiders and kept them in the backyard. In high school, he nursed a turtle back from an eye infection. Now, he loves finding small frogs outside his apartment; feeding them to his seven-inch pet snapping turtle, Brandy; and taking video on his cell as Brandy gobbles the frog.
"It's interesting to know how animals think," he said. "It brings a whole 'nother outlook."
As his college career winds down with Saturday's Clemson game, then the bowl, Paulk still aims for the NFL as his primary goal. If that doesn't work out, he has a degree applicable in the real world, and he wants to become a game warden.
"Life isn't all about football," he said. "So yeah, I'm going to miss it. But I still have a life to enjoy. I still have a life to live outside of this."