Middle Tennessee defensive end Steven Rhodes, center, talks with the school's president, Dr. Sidney McPhee, right, during NCAA college football practice Aug. 19 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The NCAA says Rhodes has been cleared to play this season. (Bradley Lambert / Middle Tennessee State Universit)
MURFREESBORO, TENN. — Middle Tennessee State walk-on football player and former Marine Steven Rhodes did not quite grasp how public his battle with the NCAA had become.
Rhodes, a 24-year-old freshman who was initially denied eligibility by the NCAA, does not even have cable TV. But he needed no help interpreting the smile across his coach’s face at practice Monday afternoon.
“Coach (Rick Stockstill) was smiling real big. I was ecstatic when he told me. I’m going to play now,” said Rhodes, who was granted his immediate eligibility by an NCAA ruling Monday afternoon.
“This has all been crazy, but I feel like I got a whole new life now. Thank the Lord, I’m going to play football this year.”
The NCAA originally ruled that Rhodes, a Marine sergeant who recently finished his active enlistment, had to forfeit two years of eligibility and take a mandatory redshirt year this season because he participated in a military-only recreational football league at a Marine base in San Diego in 2012.
MTSU won a partial appeal last week, when the NCAA reinstated Rhodes’ two years of eligibility (for a total of four seasons) but upheld his mandatory redshirt year. But Monday, the NCAA granted Rhodes’ immediate eligibility after his plight went public in a big way.
Virtually every major news organization picked up Rhodes’ story Sunday. Social media pounded away at the NCAA for postponing a Marine’s dream of playing college football, and online petitions popped up in support of Rhodes.
Rhodes’ plight also drew support on Twitter from around the globe, including a supportive comment from Navy veteran and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and an open letter from U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., to NCAA President Mark Emmert.
“That’s the power of social media,” Stockstill said. “It’s amazing just how fast this thing got legs and took off.”
An appeals process that was expected to take weeks concluded in about 24 hours once Rhodes’ story hit nationally. The NCAA released a statement Monday afternoon announcing Rhodes’ waiver for full and immediate eligibility. The 6-3, 240-pound defensive end will be available to play in the season opener Aug. 29 vs. Western Carolina.
“Throughout this process, NCAA staff worked closely with Middle Tennessee State University, and we appreciate the school’s partnership,” said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs, in a statement. “As a part of the ongoing review of NCAA rules, our members will examine the organized competition rules, especially as it impacts those returning from military service. We thank Steven for his service to our country and wish him the best as he begins college.”
Rhodes’ early contribution will likely be limited to special teams. He has not played football since his senior season at Antioch (Tenn.) High in 2006 — aside from 12 games at his Marine base last year.
Rhodes, an Antioch native, currently lives in Smyrna, Tenn.,with his two sons, 3-year-old Kameron and 1-year-old Devon. His wife, Adrienne, is finishing up her final month in the Navy in San Diego. She is scheduled to be on leave in Murfreesboro for MTSU’s season opener.
Rhodes called his wife to tell her of his immediate eligibility following the Blue Raiders’ practice, but she had already heard the news.
Rhodes — dubbed “Superstar” by his teammates after suddenly stepping into the spotlight — said he will comfortably retreat from the national attention his story has drawn.
“And I’m still not getting cable,” Rhodes said. “I want to wait until the start of the month so the bill isn’t so big. And I don’t have time to watch TV. I’ve got work to do. I am going to play football this season.”