Virginia’s Daniel Rodriguez: From Football Hero to War Hero . . . and Back?

After serving bloody combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the 23-year-old Stafford native and Bronze Star recipient is trying to fulfill his dream of playing college football.

By: Brett Haber

Maybe you had a guy like Daniel Rodriguez on your high school football team. He wasn’t much to speak of physically (five-foot-six, 140 pounds his senior year), but what he lacked in size, he made up for with a set of intangibles that makes guys like him coaches’ pets wherever they materialize: uncanny football instincts, an indomitable will to win, and a motor that could power a Mack truck. Second and third strings across America are littered with guys like Daniel—good teammates, valuable practice players, occasional subs, but most often relegated to the bench to cheer for players with more prolific physical tools. 

But not Daniel.

Despite his diminutive size, he became a three-year starter at Brooke Pointe High School in Stafford, Virginia, and he did it all: He played safety and cornerback on defense, and slot receiver and backup quarterback on offense; he returned kicks and punts on special teams. In 2006, his senior season, he was named a captain and helped lead the Blackhawks to a 6–4 record, a share of the district championship, and the school’s first state playoff game in nearly a decade. Daniel was becoming well known in Virginia football circles, and it got him thinking—if he could just bulk up a little, he might legitimately have a shot at playing college ball.

But just as Daniel's future was taking shape in his mind, fate, as often happens, authored a rewrite.

During his junior year, Daniel endured the heart-wrenching separation of his parents. This included his mother moving away from their home in Virginia to live with relatives in Texas. Then a year later, with the wounds from that ordeal still raw, his father, Ray, suffered a heart attack and died, just four days after Daniel’s high school graduation. This series of devastating events understandably took a deep emotional toll on Daniel. He found himself unable to finish his college applications, and spent the summer after high school sorting through his grief and devoting his energy to his relationship with his mother.

If I told you that’s where Daniel’s story ended, I’m guessing you would be sad, but at the same time understanding and unwilling to pass judgment. The kid went through a tough time, after all. Perhaps he would regroup at some point down the road.

Daniel regrouped exactly two months later.

“At the end of the summer, when my friends went off to college, I said to myself, ‘Okay, am I going to sit around here and be a deadbeat, or am I going to go do something with my life and, you know, build on it?’ And that’s when I joined the military,” Daniel says.

He joined the army, to be specific. He went through basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and less than a month later was deployed to Iraq. Private Rodriguez was part of the Bush surge of 2007. He was an infantryman stationed at the Joint Security Site (JSS) in Sadr City on the outskirts of Baghdad. As such, he spent five days a week living in an Iraqi police station side-by-side with local officers. Together they would make rounds of the city for 12 to 16 hours each day, “kicking down doors for high-value targets, patrolling our sectors, making sure nobody was setting out IEDs or any other roadside bombs, stuff like that,” he explains.

He says his small unit “got hit daily.” He estimates they suffered 20 casualties during his 12-month tour—some by sniper fire, and others when those very IEDs his unit was trying to identify and destroy achieved their designed intent.

“We were on a road down south in Baghdad called Route Sparrow, and we got hit by a daisy chain IED,” Daniel says. “A daisy chain is where they set up multiple IEDs spaced out, and they wait for the entire convoy to drive within the proximity of where each bomb is set. Then they blow it, so each truck gets hit.”

Daniel survived his 12-month tour in Iraq—or as some in the military have cynically come to label it, war number one. Daniel would star in the sequel, as well.

After just 13 months back home, his unit was once again deployed overseas—this time to Afghanistan. He again served in the infantry, but when asked if his duties were similar to those he carried out in Iraq, he answers with a chuckle. “Hell no. We were up in the mountains fighting daily. We lived in huts carved out of the side of the mountains. We were on the Pakistan border, farther north than any US troops in the war. We were eating one meal a day—completely different lifestyle. I mean, we’d never shower out there. It was just mountain men fighting.”

How often did Daniel encounter the enemy in Afghanistan? He says he and his buddies kept a rough estimate of 86 TICs (troops in contact) over the first six months of his tour. After that, they lost count. When I asked him to estimate how many times he fired his weapon in battle, he initially tried to do some math in his head, then laughed and gave up.

On October 3, 2009, Daniel and his unit were at the center of one of the bloodiest showdowns of the entire war. The Battle of Kamdesh unfolded in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan and saw a force of roughly 300 Taliban soldiers ambush an American force one-fifth its size. The US suffered eight deaths that day; the Taliban lost 150. Daniel caught shrapnel in his legs and neck and took a bullet fragment through his shoulder. He received the Bronze Star for valor for his acts during that battle, which, according to accounts, include running 300 meters under heavy fire to take the place of a fallen soldier. He was treated for his wounds in-country and completed his 12-month tour.

Eighteen months ago, after earning three promotions, Sergeant Rodriguez was discharged from the military, and he wasted no time fulfilling some of the promise he abdicated during his summer of grief four years earlier. He took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled immediately at Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg. The focus and determination he showed on the high school football field and honed in the army was now carrying over to his civilian life.

But one thing had changed since the last time Daniel was a student: his body. He’s now 23, and estimates he’s grown two inches and put on 35 pounds of muscle since his senior year of high school. He’s now five-foot-eight and 174 pounds, and credits his time in the army with helping him develop and keep his body in its best shape ever. He would like to now use that body to fulfill the dream he suspended shortly after his father’s death.

“The dream is to play college football. I would like to stay in Virginia. UVA or Virginia Tech would be my top two. But, I mean, I’m willing to go wherever I get an opportunity,” he says.

How’s that for moxie? Virginia Tech is ranked 17th in the country, and is set to meet Michigan in the Sugar Bowl a week from Saturday. One might argue Daniel would be better served setting his sights on a slightly more realistic trajectory. Don’t waste your time with that argument. “Coming from hell and seeing men die in their teens and early twenties kind of puts things in perspective and makes me not want to live my life from a mediocre standpoint,” he says.

Daniel has completed his first full year at Germanna, successfully accruing credits that will make him eligible to transfer to a four-year school in 2012. He hopes the school in question has a football program, and that the coach will give him a look.

Given a choice, Daniel says he would like to play receiver, but explains, “I’ve come to the realization that beggars can’t be choosers. . . . I have the capabilities, the fire, the passion, the speed to play anywhere they need to put me. I just want to be able to showcase my ability and, quite frankly—excuse my language—my just-not-give-a-shit attitude about my well-being because I’m willing to lay it all out there on the field one more time.”

Daniel has posted a seven-minute biographical video of himself on YouTube. It takes highlights from his high school football days and weaves them together with photos and clips from his service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Daniel provides voiceover narration throughout, explaining the genesis of his college football dream. (The video is extremely polished and appears to have been produced by a company called Wanderers Hat. You can see it here). In addition to the video receiving more than 11,000 hits, Daniel has gotten some interesting feedback. Dozens of grateful citizens have sent notes thanking him for his service, and a few college athletic directors from small schools around the country have sent letters of inquiry, but no concrete offers so far.

So if Daniel somehow managed to get a meeting with Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, how would he sell himself? How would he convince the coach to take a chance on an undersized, over-age army veteran?

“Oh, man. I’d look him in the eye. I wouldn’t look away, first off. I’d thank him for even giving me the opportunity to sit in front of him, and then I’d tell him there’s not going to be a second that I’m going to slack or that I’m going to give you any doubt I was a risk worth taking. I think I can bring a lot of traits and experience and leadership skills and loyalty to brothers in the locker room. And I think a coach giving me a shot would definitely, definitely see that.”

Hey, Coach Beamer. Got a minute?

*Author’s note: Special thanks to Jake Tapper of ABC News, whose tweet a few weeks ago made many people, me included, aware of Rodriguez’s video.

UPDATE: Coach Frank Beamer says he hopes to work something out with Daniel. Click here to read our update on the story.