Military Sports

Army combat vet, Clemson grad Daniel Rodriguez embraces life after football

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Concussions, among other symptoms, can cause sensitivity to light. Daniel Rodriguez credits a blow to the head with helping him see the light.

During a Sept. 3, 2015, preseason game with the St. Louis Rams, Rodriguez absorbed a seismic hit while returning a kickoff. He was still woozy when the team released him two days later during final roster cuts.

“That really opened up my eyes,” Rodriguez said Monday, during his “Stay Driven” football camp at the Fredericksburg Field House. “I felt, in that moment, that my friends were taking hits for the rest of their lives. The game of football changed for me, where I wanted to coach more than I did [want to] play.”

[Related: Combat vet-turned-Clemson star will soon get his own movie]

The epiphany didn’t happen overnight. Rodriguez entertained an opportunity to play professional football in Canada. Later, and even though he hadn’t played soccer in 13 years, his performance at a multisport combine yielded a contract offer from a third-division Swedish club.

Facing an impasse, he called his college football coach, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney.

Swinney, who’d given the Army combat veteran an opportunity to play 37 straight games based on a viral YouTube video, likened life to a book.

Combat vet turned football star takes on mentoring role

Former NFL player and Army veteran Daniel Rodriguez is teaching kids football skills using his own experience in the field and in the service. (Daniel Woolfolk/Staff)

“You can’t be afraid to write a new chapter and close up on another chapter,” Rodriguez recalled Swinney saying. “It was one of those things where I wasn’t necessarily chasing, but any athlete doesn’t want to give up and say they’re not good enough.”

Now 29, Rodriguez said he’s at peace with how his NFL journey ended, especially since it started with a U-Haul hitched to the back of his Ford Taurus. He entirely self-financed a combine-style training regimen in San Diego.

“It was something I dreamed of as a kid, having an NFL locker, a helmet, just returning kicks in the NFL,” he said. “Regardless, preseason or not I was fighting for a spot and had a chance to play in the NFL. It was amazing.”

[Related: Bronze Star recipient Daniel Rodriguez pumps up Clemson]

A brief stint as an undrafted free-agent sold Rodriguez on the West Coast. He lives in Hermosa Beach, California, a small city in the shadow of Los Angeles International Airport, but spends most of his time traveling as a paid motivational speaker.

Rodriguez’s penchant for oration took root while he was still playing at Clemson, where he was the beneficiary of a rare NCAA waiver allowing him to profit off his name and obtain representation. He started small, delivering his first address at a men’s rotary club.

But no sooner was his first book, “Rise: A Soldier, a Dream and a Promise Kept,” published in 2014 than bookings came in from sports franchises (Arizona Cardinals) and Fortune 500 companies (Google, Cisco Systems) alike.

While themes from Rodriguez’s military and football career figure in every speech, he’s constantly refining his message.

“It’s not the same story,” Rodriguez said. “Every day I evolve as a person, and every day I have the same perspective and appreciation. It’s been a great time.”

He’s also working on a second book, which will center on the parallel between soldiers and athletes, and specifically their shared struggle to re-acclimate to society following their careers.

“We treat these soldiers and athletes with the same mentality that they don’t need help, or that they can overcome any mission or fight through the pain,” Rodriguez said. “When you leave your spot or your career, you have this downfall of your purpose. Like all your training was for nothing. Either on the field or on the battlefield.

“You lose that spotlight, you lose that honor. Yes, you’re a veteran, but you’re not in uniform anymore. Yeah, you had a cool time in the NFL, but you’re not playing anymore. That’s a lost world, that’s a world people don’t really understand.”

This week’s camp is a soft opening of sorts. Rodriguez’s ultimate aim is to travel to military bases around the country, teaching military discipline and football technique. One day, he’ll teaching route-running; the next, let campers loose on an obstacle course.

Just because Rodriguez has moved on, both from football and the trauma from fighting overseas, doesn’t mean he’s forgotten either realm.

“I’ve got friends that have kids on bases who don’t have a dad to coach them anymore,” he said. “So, if I can give back to a kid in that position, that would be worthwhile for me.”


Information from: The Free Lance-Star 

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