CLEMSON, SC - Today, for the first time in six years, Daniel Rodriguez put on a football helmet. Though that does not sound like a big deal to most, it is for Rodriguez, a 24-year old Army Veteran who was approved to join the Clemson football team on July 31.
This time three years ago, Rodriguez was in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound suffered in the battle of Kamdesh. On October 3, 2009, more than 300 Taliban forces assaulted Rodriguez and his 29 fellow solders at the American Combat Outpost Keating, near the town of Kamdesh in eastern Afghanistan.
The attack was one of the bloodiest battles for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, resulting in the death of eight Americans soldiers, while 22 others were wounded. It also was one of the driving forces as to why Rodriguez was being fitted for a football helmet.
Keeping a promise he made to himself and his friend Kevin Thompson, one of the eight soldiers who gave his life in the battle of Kamdesh, Rodriguez will join the rest of the defending ACC Champion Clemson Tigers on Friday when they hit the practice fields for the first time-the first official day of football camp.
"When I got out of the military, I made a promise to a friend that I was going to play college football," he said. "I did not want my life to amount to just military. I went in with the idea that it was just going to be a (stepping stone) for my future.
"What I did not do out of high school was follow my heart and play football. I made that pact with my friend that I was going to play college football when I got out, and then he was killed during that battle."
Once Rodriguez was discharged from the Army, he quickly started fulfilling his promise. He started attending classes near his hometown of Stafford, VA. He also got back into football.
"I got back in the swing of things and started training about six hours a day," he said.
Soon, with the encouragement of friends, Rodriguez produced a workout video that he sent to college coaches around the country in hopes of getting a tryout or two. With the request of college recruiters to put the workout on YouTube, Rodriguez's story went viral and so did his life story.
This got the attention of many schools, including his home state schools of Virginia and Virginia Tech. But it also caught the eye of Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney, who sent Rodriguez this message.
"I saw your video and would love to talk with you about an opportunity to come to Clemson."
Clemson used a waiver called the 24-transfer waiver, which waives the Associates Degree and allows an athlete to come in and play who is not a qualifier out of high school. Rodriguez was only one credit shy of an Associates Degree, so Clemson put in a request to the NCAA under the 24-transfer rule to see what would happen.
"I wanted to see what (Clemson) was all about," he said. "When I came down, that sealed the deal. I didn't care how long it took me to come here. I knew I was going to play here.
"(Clemson going to bat for me) was the ultimate factor because Coach Dabo wanted to take that risk. He wanted to take that leap."
That leap of faith was awarded Tuesday when the NCAA and the ACC officially approved his waiver, allowing him to be a full-time student-athlete on the football team.
"You always dream of that second chance to play football again," Rodriguez said. "I'm in that position. I have that second opportunity that so many people have said, 'I wish I could get one more shot.'
"Well, now it is my shot. I have that opportunity, thanks to the NCAA, the ACC and Clemson. That helmet is on my head. I have a school that I'm proud to be a part of, and now I'm going to let it all loose."