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The Daniel Rodriguez Story

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Daniel Rodriguez, the 2011 Southern Pigskin Person of the Year, is a grown man embracing life with the passion of a child.

Struck by the news of his father's sudden death, Daniel Rodriguez closed his eyes in sorrow just a few days after graduating from high school. He later opened them in horror in the middle of a deadly battle with Taliban fighters. What happened in between was a blur.

There are now two Daniel Rodriguez's. One, a battle-hardened veteran with more memories than his mind can hold. The other, a young man eager to pick up where he once left off. A shell of what he has done, a silhouette of what he can be; Rodriguez is caught squarely between what was and what's next. As the names of eight inscribed on a bracelet suggest, he always will be.

At 20 years old, Rodriguez was making his second tour of duty overseas. He had first helped spearhead the Baghdad surge, surviving a welcome of IED blasts and random gunfire to his chosen occupation. He spent 12 months in Iraq, circling city streets in days that would demand 16-18 hours of armed patrol. The task was tedious and tense, unforgiving and unnerving. It was just the beginning of things to come.

After a little over a year back home in the states, Rodriguez's unit, Bravo troop 3/61, was again called to duty. The encore destination was Afghanistan, specifically the country's eastern mountain ranges along the Pakistan border. There, the circumstances were quite different. As the Army's northernmost Afghani extension, the unit operated outside of the parameters of traditional reach. These were troops dropped into obscurity, where survival tactics and keen senses were as critical as a rifle. Men were taken deep into the wilderness and even further back in time. The soldiers lived and functioned within the terrain. Basics like food, shelter and shower were fluid luxuries.

"The only things we received were water and ammo, that's it," Rodriguez recalled. "We were on our own for everything else."

A mere-classroom of people quite honestly overshadowed and overwhelmed by their surroundings, the unit would soon endure one of the most trying exchanges in modern U.S. history. A collection of boys from back home found their greatest fears brought to reality in the bloodiest battle of the Afghan engagement. Rodriguez was one of over 30 U.S. troops suddenly overrun by a Taliban force close to 400 strong in an area so far behind enemy lines that fixed-wing aircover was 30 minutes away. With communication hubs that were destroyed, vague logistical information and odds that would make any denominator tremble, the life of this Virginia-native would soon change forever.

The day of October 3rd, 2009, Daniel's sister Veronica woke up with horrible nightmares, covered in cold sweats. Rodriguez himself was the lone soldier up before dawn, waking and trekking 300 meters across camp to the lone computer within the base wire. There he planned to open his inbox and check email messages. Rodriguez, instead, opened the front door straight to hell.

Settled in a valley between mountain high ground, Rodriguez and his peers were hit with full-circle gunfire, rockets and mortars. The former high school football star at Stafford High School in Virginia, who was clocked at 4.55 in the forty yard dash, had to sprint back to position in the pitch black dark. Bullets hit around him like raindrops from above. Each splash was a cadre of lead ricochets into a million deadly shards. No strangers to fighting or surprise attacks, the unit dug in. Accustomed to short battles, though, just over two dozen troops aimed high and shot from the difficult position of surrounded-and-outmanned.

Rodriguez expected fierce fire. This, however, was different.

Bursts that normally subsided after a half-hour only continued and increased in rate of fire. As information was gathered piece by piece, it became clear that this was an invasion of hundreds, from all sides, to the isolated position. A world away from reinforcements, and cut off from communications, the situation quickly became dire. The only option was one that offered a clear line of demarcation: life or death.

The enemy was relentless as they advanced on the makeshift outpost. Gunfire spread through the camp along with a wave of grave concern as to what might be. The objective of the atypically large native force was to gain control over a critical supply route in the region. Rodriguez's unit had little protection from the onslaught, the cover of the night sky ultimately serving as one equalizer in the chaos.

"I thought at times that this was going to be it," he reflected.

As hours crept by and turned to days, footsteps replaced mortar fire as the enemy broached camp lines. The Taliban had overrun what meager boundary was in place and a unit one-tenth the size of its' attacker was under direct siege. Falling bodies blended into a whirlwind of sights that should never be seen, noises that shouldn't be heard. As Rodriguez scrambled for clarity, anything within reach was a resource.

"At one point I had to crawl to my buddy's body and get his weapon," he remembered of the fighting. "I went through so much ammo it was crazy."

The trauma mounted. Rodriguez was hit with shrapnel in his legs and neck and was pierced with a bullet fragment through the shoulder. From a psychological standpoint, he had seen his friends fall. Despite the wounds, he fought on. Throughout an 18-hour fight at the Battle of Kamdesh, Rodriguez served his country and those around him in the face of unspeakable adversity. Chronicled that day was a story of him sprinting across the camp after one of his peers had fallen.

The scene was so devastating that twice the unit called for a "full winchester" over the radio. The army's request for direct, extreme on-target bombing, such a move is considered a last-ditched effort in battle. Only three times during the entire Afghan tour was that call made. Bombs soon were dropped right on top of the madness, with American troops huddled in their barracks amidst hope and prayer.

"I thought the shockwaves were going to kill me," Rodriguez explained. "I just held on."

Nearly three full days after he got up a bit earlier than his peers so he could use the computer, the fighting ceased. Eight Americans laid dead. Over 20 were seriously wounded. This was a battered and bruised unit that wouldn't need to roll up their sleeves to reveal their battle scars. Rodriguez, in fact, would go onto wear his just beneath.

Once the adrenaline had dried out of his system, moments of deep reflection rushed in. Though barely old enough to buy a Budweiser, this feeling was nothing new for Rodriguez. The setting was one world away; the sickness, however, hit home.

Four days after his high school graduation, Daniel was shot right in the chest by a single telephone call that completely changed his life. His father Ray had suffered a heart attack and died. The news was a devastating blow for a young man with dreams of college and continuing his athletic career. Rodriguez was a standout football player, having starred as a receiver and defensive back in the Commonwealth's highest classification. A young man confused and full of questions, he opted instead for a different path. Seeking guidance, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

"I remember my dad telling me, 'don't go into the infantry' and of course I did," Rodriguez sighed with a grin.

Then came two tours of duty overseas, a Bronze Star with Valor and a Purple Heart. More than all, came the memories of eight brothers-in-arms; fallen heroes who now rest on a silver bracelet on Rodriguez's wrist. They live in his words. Stories of battle, tales of friendship, memories of life and all that comes with it. As he uses them for perspective, Rodriguez is now using them for direction.

Just a few short years ago his home base in Colorado had received tentative news of his death. The now 24-year old has instead remarkably overcome his wounds and is training six hours a day in order to realize a childhood dream of playing college football. Just 140 pounds as a senior in high school, Rodriguez now stands 180 pounds and carries the mental toughness no workout can provide. He craves the team unity, longs for the competition of the game. More so, he has a commitment to uphold.

"I told one of the guys over there," Rodriguez said looking at his wrist, "that I would go play college football."

Talking with the young man, you can tell the sport has a special place in his heart. Recollections of his high school career, speculation into his future, spark a change in his demeanor that should come with streamers and a birthday cake. A smile so wide bursts from within that his cheeks tug at the corners of his eyes. Ask him about playing college football and Rodriguez's face brightens and he starts shaking his head, as if he can't believe this second chance is his.

Rodriguez has been contacted by both Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech and Mike London at Virginia. Various other schools have taken notice including Clemson, Georgia Southern and Oklahoma State. Rodriguez is keeping his options open. He is excelling in his classes at community college and is eligible to transfer to a school of his choice. His tuition will be covered in full by the G.I. Bill.

The story, still unfinished, is one of a true American hero. Despite the medals and ribbons, Rodriguez doesn't see it that way.

"The guys who didn't come back are the heroes," Rodriguez insisted.

Moving forward, making a college football team is the next challenge in a life that has thrived at overcoming them. Rodriguez can now, at least on his good days, act his age. Hunting and fishing are two of his favorite pastimes. An outdoorsman with a true appreciation of all that he does, he is approaching his time with a strong vigor and zeal. Opportunity, consider yourself forewarned; Rodriguez will taking full advantage of any and all he can find.

"Daniel is an inspiration. He wears more than the tattoo and his heart on his sleeve. He's made up of courage, which comes from his faith," explained country music star Rodney Atkins, who saw Rodriguez's YouTube video and was immediately taken aback. "He's lived in the Lion's Den and now he is unstoppable. I believe God has an incredible plan for Daniel's life."

From the tragedy of his father through the calamity of war, this is a full-grown man embracing life with the passion of a child. The 2011 SouthernPigskin.com Person of the Year continues to work towards a roster spot at the college level, nine men train with him in his mind. Years after an unexpected detour, life is next on the schedule. Two different stories are finally meshing into one.

Four days after graduation, Daniel Rodriguez's world stopped. Consider this his day five.

 

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Matt Osborne and Kevin Thomas on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network and is the sports director for multiple ESPN Radio affiliates based throughout southeast Georgia. @BJBennettSports