In the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 3, 2009 an estimated 300 Taliban insurgents approached a remote American base perched on a mountain near the town of Kamdesh in rugged northeastern Afghanistan. The following hours marked one of the bloodiest days of fighting for American troops in the Afghan war.
At 6 a.m., fighters surrounded the base and opened up fire with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Air-support was urgently requested. Insurgents overran the base in three locations and hand-to-hand combat occurred, according to reports. Of the 60 Americans at the base eight were killed and 22 were wounded.
Daniel Rodriguez was one of the wounded. He had taken shrapnel in his legs and neck and a bullet fragment pierced shoulder. He was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his bravery in the firefight which ended with an American evacuation three days later.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hopes Rodriguez’s example of courage and perseverance will influence the Clemson football team. It is playing football Rodriguez hopes will inspire those veterans also suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when he begins his college football career Friday when the Tigers open training camp.
Rodriguez, 24, was cleared to join the Clemson football program Tuesday as a walk-on by the Atlantic Coast Conference. He was cleared by the NCAA last month.
“If you are my teammate, you didn’t see a bullet go through (my) shoulder,” Rodriguez said. “You don’t have blood on your boots. You don’t have brains still on your clothing. … You weren’t there to see the color. … But if I can show that (perseverance) through my work ethic, in the belief I have that it’s never enough not to accomplish what you have your mind set on, I hope that rubs off on someone. I don’t ever believe in quitting.
“Now that I am in this position to have the spotlight on me I hope it can help veterans with PTSD, and show kids with (poor) grades that it’s not too late, you can overcome.”
After leaving the Army, Rodriguez vowed to fulfill a promise he had made to a friend, Kevin Thompson, who was killed in the battle in Afghanistan: if he made it back he promised Thompson he would pursue his dream of playing college football.
Rodriguez had played high school football in Virginia but his grades were poor. Four days after graduating high school in 2006, his father, Ray Rodriguez, died and Rodriguez went to an Army recruiter.
“I said: ‘Get me out of here,’” Rodriguez recalled.
He served in the Iraq theatre before his perilous days on a mountain in eastern Afghanistan.
After being discharged and returning to health, he began six-hour-a-day workouts to prepare for football. He enrolled in a community college to begin working toward qualify at a four-year school.
A friend suggested he make his own recruiting video and send it out to Division I college coaches. Once the video hit YouTube it went viral.
“The first time I was contacted by Dan Rather I knew this was something was big,” Rodriguez said.
Fifty college coaches reached out to Rodriguez, including Swinney, with whom he immediately felt a bond due to both having overcome difficult circumstances in their youth and young adulthood.
Virginia Tech was Rodriguez’s first choice but said the Hokies were not interested in filing a waiver with the NCAA to clear academic hurdles. Clemson was. Swinney was fascinated with the video and was interested in bringing aboard a war veteran who could offer his team perspective and the value of perseverance.
“I’ve overcome the odds once,” Rodriguez said. “I was out-numbered 10 to 1 and did my share to get here. If that generates some kind of fuel in the locker room that anything’s possible …. it’s so cliché but, that’s how I live my life. I don’t sell myself short in anything I do and I don’t think anyone who is around me will.”