Beacon of Light: Former NFL player, war hero Rodriguez delivers Veterans Day speech at CMU
Daniel Rodriguez found himself in one of the worst attacks of the War in Afghanistan at only 19 years old. When he was 22, he grabbed a gun and wrote a suicide note. As he wrote the letter, he glanced out his kitchen window, noticing his lawn was a mess. Rodriguez found himself working on it for the next three hours.
It began to rain halfway through his mission, and he began to cry.
Rodriguez was just two months out of high school when he was deployed to Afghanistan. Only four days after graduating in 2006, his father died. Searching for guidance, he joined the military. Three days later, he was deployed.
Surviving attacks in Afghanistan, the suicides of close friends and his own suicidal intentions, Rodriguez said a promise he made to his friend and deceased soldier Kevin Thompson made him pause — a promise to pursue a football career.
After playing in 37 consecutive games at Clemson and four preseason games in the NFL, Rodriguez is now traveling the country sharing his story. The veteran spent Veterans Day Eve at Central Michigan University on Thursday, speaking to a crowd at Plachta Auditorium. The event was put on by Program Board.
“You're going through the streets of Baghdad wondering who you are becoming… it was hard to kill my first person at only 19 years old.”
Rodriguez was first stationed in the infantry in Fort Benning, Georgia where he spent 14 weeks in basic training before graduating at the top of his class. After graduating, he went to Fort Collins, Colorado as a replacement soldier. Just 24 days out of basic training he was sent to Iraq.
When he came home, he didn't know what to do, except to be angry. He was called a hero while losing friends to suicide, all while unable to buy a beer.
“I pulled my gun out on people for looking at me wrong. I didn't think I should apply to the law when I just spent a year making my own,” he said.
He was deployed to Afghanistan in May of 2009. He said he'd have been happy to never shoot his rifle there.
He didn't get his wish. He was in over 50 firefights in five months.
On Oct. 3, 2009, Rodriguez was caught up in an firefight in which eight people were killed in more than 12 hours. He had been emailing his mother when the rockets began to fall.
When he ran around the first corner, he asked himself why it was raining. It wasn't — he found himself in "the point of no return." It dawned on him that he was being shot at. He began to shoot blindly, zig-zagging in attempts to dodge the bullet. He said he felt like he had been in the line of fire for hours. In reality, it had only been two minutes.
Rodriguez himself broke his little finger, had bullets in his arms and some rocks in his shin. Combat Outpost Keating, where he was stationed, was completely overrun before apaches came to help Rodriguez escape. He earned a purple heart and bronze star for his efforts.
“It always keeps me in perspective as far as ‘Ok, I’m having a bad day’ or something’s not going my way and I find myself getting into a bad mentality or bad attitude, I always have Oct. 3 to fall back on," Rodriguez said. "That was a low point of my life and I’m not going back there.”
Still, eight fellow soldiers were gone, and Rodriguez lost 24 friends in two conflicts. Their losses inspired Rodriguez to move on from the military. He returned home, but again turned to drugs and alcohol, and said he could not go to sleep sober.
Rodriguez was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In the midst of writing his suicide letter, Rodriguez remembered a promise he kept to his friend Thompson, who died in the Oct. 3. Rodriguez told Thompson he would play football.
Rodriguez enrolled in community college and trained for a college football career. He paid out of pocket nearly all the money he had to do a video shoot which showcased his skills and told his tale of his experience in the military.
Current CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who Rodriguez had been friends with while he was in the military, shared the video, which went viral. Soon, 150 schools asked Rodriguez for transcripts, and Rodriguez was receiving money from people.
Suiting up in 37 straight games, Rodriguez won an Atlantic Coastal Conference championship playing alongside players such as Tajh Boyd, Martavis Bryant, Sammy Watkins and DeShaun Watson.
What was even more rewarding for Rodriguez was his strides in the classroom. He amassed a cumulative grade point average of 3.6 and was a two-time All-ACC Academic football team member. He graduated in December 2014.
He went undrafted, but landed a tryout with the St. Louis Rams. He said a highlight in training camp a one-handed catch from quarterback Nick Foles against All-Pro cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
Rodriguez signed a deal with the Rams and played in four preseason games before a concussion forced the Rams to cut him. He said he plans to "turn the page" on a career in football.
Alma freshman Tyler Isanhart won an opportunity to meet Rodriguez after the speech. He brought along with him his friend, Westphalia freshman Drew Bengel.
“(He) has shown me that if you really try hard and believe in yourself, you can make anything possible," Isanhart said.
Bengel said Rodriguez's story was awesome to hear.
“I have great respect for the military," Bengel said. "Seeing this guy and everything that he went through is just awesome.
"It was definitely one of the best talks I have ever seen or ever heard.”
Now, Rodriguez is touring the country, sharing his story. He said he wants to continue writing after releasing an autobiography of his life titled Rise.
“To all veterans out there, former and current, I want to thank them for their service and for being a part of the brotherhood that we are in," he said."The message that I like to give on Veterans Day is to make sure that you’re thankful and appreciative - that you just take time.
"For me, every day is Veterans Day.”