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Combat survivor sets sights on football future

PASSION: ‘I DON’T THINK THIS GAME EVER LEFT ME’

By ADAM HIMMELSBACH

Sgt. Daniel Rodriguez and Pfc. Kevin Thomson used to sit at their combat outpost on a mountain in Afghanistan and talk about their dreams. About what life would be like when they returned home.

Sometimes Rodriguez talked about becoming a college football player.

He had tempered his hopes, because he hadn’t been recruited as a senior at Brooke Point High School. And he knew there weren’t many spots for freshmen in their early 20s.

But Thomson wouldn’t hear it. He made Rodriguez promise that whenever they returned home, whenever they were done fighting the Taliban, he would do whatever it took to play college football.

“All right, man,” Rodriguez told Thomson. “I’ll go for it.”

Not long after that conversation, early on the morning of Oct. 3, 2009, 300 Taliban insurgents stormed the Army combat outpost near the Pakistani border where Thomson and Rodriguez were stationed.

After Rodriguez reached his post, the mortar pit, to engage in one of the bloodiest battles of this war, Thomson was killed in front of him.

Rodriguez vowed to fulfill his promise to his friend. He also wanted to do this for himself.

He is 23 now, back home in Stafford County, still getting over the emotional and physical scars of war.

Each morning he wakes up and goes through a vigorous training session as he works to become a Division I college football player.

“When I look back in 10 years, I don’t want to have any regrets,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t think this game ever left me.”

A CHANGE IN PLANS

At Brooke Point, Rodriguez was a cornerback, wide receiver, backup quarterback and kick returner packed into a 5-foot-8-inch bundle.

“He was quick, he had a nose for the ball and he had real good instincts,” Black–Hawks coach Jeff Berry said. “He could do so many different things.”

As a senior in 2005, Rodriguez helped Brooke Point to a 7–3 record and a regional playoff berth. He was not recruited by college teams, but he thought he could walk on somewhere.

Then, four days after graduation, his world was turned upside down. While he was in South Carolina for Beach Week, his father, Ray, died of a heart attack.

Ray Rodriguez had served as a staff sergeant in the Army for seven years. When he died, he was the high school athletic director at Marine Corps Base Quantico.

Ray and his wife, Cecilia, had recently separated, and she had moved to New Mexico.

“I didn’t have my dad’s paycheck to support me with college, or his guidance,” Daniel said. “And I didn’t want to be some guy who stayed home and worked a deadbeat job. I knew I had to get out of here.”

Two weeks after his father’s death, Rodriguez went to an Army recruiting station. Eight days later he was in Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training.

“His dad’s death made him grow up really quickly,” said Rodriguez’s close friend Stephan Batt. “He became the man of the family overnight.”

A QUICK DEPLOYMENT

Rodriguez quickly established himself as one of the most capable men in his unit.

His statistics in physical training tests—more than 100 sit-ups and more than 100 push-ups in two-minute intervals—were rarely matched.

He was also an accurate marksman, a skill he developed while hunting deer and wild turkey with his father in Shenandoah County.

After six months, Rodriguez was promoted to private first class. And on Jan. 26, 2007, he was deployed to Iraq.

He got his first taste of war before he even set foot on the ground. As he entered the country, the helicopter he was in came under fire.

“You see right away that it’s real,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez’s platoon sought high-value targets believed to be responsible for orchestrating roadside and suicide bombings. The U.S. troops would kick down doors, often in the wee hours of the morning, and take suspects from their homes.

“Kids are screaming and wives are crying,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes you’d stand there like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”

He and the other troops lived with Iraqi police on a security site in Baghdad six days a week.

It would have been too risky to travel the bomb-littered roads in and out of the city each day. And if U.S. troops left at night, there would be more opportunities for insurgents to plant explosives.

The troops lived 20 to a room, sleeping on three-level bunk beds. Their toilet was a hole in the ground, they were rarely able to shower, and they slaughtered goats and chickens for food.

For Rodriguez, Iraq was a war mostly without battle. The most dangerous moments, he said, came while traveling roads that were dotted with hidden bombs.

But 12 of Rodriguez’s friends were killed in Iraq, most by roadside explosions.

“One was so bad we couldn’t identify them,” Rodriguez said. “There was nothing to pull out.”

Rodriguez can run through his friends’ last names as easily as most people recite the alphabet.

He suffered a concussion and took some shrapnel in his leg, but was mostly unscathed during his tour.

“I just came into each day with the mindset that if it was my time, it was my time,” he said. “I knew what I was getting myself into.”

Rodriguez returned to the United States in January 2008, but his relief was temporary.

He had already received orders to deploy to Afghanistan in early 2009. His unit trained in the high altitude of Fort Carson, Colo., to prepare for the mountainous terrain overseas.

A BLOODY BATTLE

Rodriguez was usually in good spirits when he called home from Iraq. He never asked for anything; he was just glad to hear familiar voices.

The moment Vanessa Rodriguez heard her baby brother’s voice when he called from Afghanistan, she knew the situation was far different. His voice was chilling.

“It was a night-and-day difference from when he was in Iraq,” she said. “I’d worry about him all day. There was always anxiety, wondering if he was OK.”

Rodriguez said that in Iraq, he was mostly focused on not stepping on a bomb. In Afghanistan, it felt more like war, with direct combat with a visible enemy.

Rodriguez was stationed at a combat outpost near the Pakistani border, along an active weapons supply route. Taliban troops would attack the base, but were usually turned away quickly.

That was not the case on Oct. 3, 2009.

Rodriguez was in the bowels of the outpost early that morning emailing a friend when he heard several explosions.

Three hundred Taliban had launched an assault. Most were on foot. Some fired from the windows of a nearby mosque.

Rodriguez hadn’t brought his rifle with him. He had a pistol with 16 bullets, and he needed to make a steep 300-meter climb to his post.

“I remember looking up the side of the mountain and just seeing flashes everywhere,” he said. “My first thought was, ‘Why the hell didn’t I go to college?’ I thought I was going to die.”

Rodriguez fired shots into the darkness as he maneuvered up the mountain. Rocks that had been hit by errant bullets pelted his legs as he ran.

By the time Rodriguez reached his post, he had just one bullet left. Then he saw Thomson killed in front of him.

Eight U.S. soldiers were killed and 22 were wounded in the Battle of Kamdesh. The U.S. military estimated that 150 insurgents were killed.

Rodriguez, who had been promoted to sergeant by that time, took shrapnel in his legs and neck, and a bullet fragment in his shoulder. He received a Bronze Star Medal for valor.

“No medal is going to bring back eight friends, though,” he said quietly.

A HARD TRANSITION

Rodriguez returned to Fort Carson, Colo., in the summer of 2010. His mental and physical health were monitored; he talked to counselors and received financial advice. But he really just wanted to go home.

On Oct. 5, 2010, he returned to Stafford County, where he moved into a house with his sister and her husband.

The initial adjustment was difficult.

“I lived places where you pointed a gun at someone to make them stop doing something,” Rodriguez said. “You do that day in and day out, and then you come home, and it’s tough.”

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and he suffered mild headaches and hearing loss.

When he ran errands, he always took a different route home, because he learned in Iraq never to travel the same road twice.

He sometimes ran red lights, partly because he had become accustomed to a life without traffic signals and partly because sitting still made him feel vulnerable.

He was unsettled by the regular sounds of training explosions at nearby Marine Corps Base Quantico.

And he acted distant toward friends and relatives. He’d seen things, he’d done things, that they would never understand.

“He was kind of in a dark place with PTSD and all that,” Vanessa Rodriguez said. “I felt like a little bit of who he was had been taken away.”

But Rodriguez slowly regained comfort. He bought Washington Redskins season tickets and got a Chesapeake Bay retriever puppy named Valor. He began taking classes at Germanna Community College.

And he is able to visit his father’s grave at Quantico National Cemetery whenever he wants.

He started feeling like himself again. His mind began to clear. And he started training to play football.

CHASING A DREAM

Rodriguez is standing on the cold concrete floor in his basement. He is wearing a 35-pound weight vest, and he is strapped to a harness that is attached to a metal pole in the middle of the room.

A basketball and a football are on the floor, sitting next to 35-pound dumbbells.

A punching bag hangs from the ceiling, and there are other makeshift workout tools nearby. Wooden planks are used for step exercises. Blocks are used to do elevated pushups.

Rodriguez starts each morning in this room.

After completing an unorthodox regimen, his personal take on cross-fit training, he heads to a gym for up to four more hours of work with a physical trainer.

Some of that time is spent on a field, running routes and catching passes. It brings back memories from high school.

Rodriguez played flag football for a team in the Army, and he joined a team in Stafford when he returned.

But he knows there is no substitute for putting on shoulder pads and hitting someone. He’s looking forward to how that feels.

“I’ve never thought of a life without football,” he said. “It’s something I still think I’m capable of doing.”

OPPORTUNITIES ABOUND

College football prospects are evaluated during their high school seasons, then overwhelmed with letters, phone calls and invitations to visit campuses.

But Rodriguez is at a disadvantage, because he is 23 and more than five years have passed since his last high school football game.

So he decided to get the word out on his own. A friend’s cousin created a video that shows his football skills, workout routine and military background. It was filmed the day after Thanksgiving and uploaded to YouTube soon after.

Rodriguez hoped a coach or an athletic director or anyone with a connection to a college program might notice him. He was unprepared for what happened next.

Over the past six weeks, the video was viewed nearly 43,000 times. Rodriguez’s cellphone has not stopped buzzing.

Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia have expressed interest in bringing him onto their teams as a non-scholarship walk-on, as have numerous other smaller schools.

Some current college football players who saw the video have even sent Rodriguez text messages, asking him to join them.

And it has not stopped there. Rodriguez has been contacted about making workout videos and giving motivational speeches, and he has even received inquiries about the movie rights to his story.

Rodriguez is hesitant to sign or agree to anything right now, however, because his focus is football.

He will continue training, and he will continue gathering options. He would love to play for Virginia Tech, but he is not ready to close any other doors right now.

He just knows that next fall, he wants to be on a football field somewhere.

Just as he promised Pfc. Kevin Thomson. Just as he promised himself.

Adam Himmelsbach: 540/374-5442

ahimmelsbach@freelancestar.com

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