Daniel Rodriguez battles to keep his dream alive

St. Louis wide receiver Daniel Rodriguez (3) runs past Oakland linebacker Jimmy Hall (43) during a recent preseason game. Rodriguez, a former Clemson receiver, is putting in extra time trying to keep his NFL dream alive.   TONY AVELAR / The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- Long after the rest of the St. Louis Rams have left the practice field, Daniel Rodriguez drips with sweat, running dozens of extra pass routes with backup quarterback Austin Davis.

Rodriguez prides himself on being the first in line for the machine that spits out tight spirals before practice, too.

No one can tell the fearless 27-year-old rookie with Army stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and wounds to show for it, that he's nothing more than a training camp feel-good story. He's not afraid of cutdown day.

"It's grueling, it's a physical sport and I'm competing with physical specimens," Rodriguez said. "Not being the biggest guy, you've got to fight for everything out here. And you've got to believe in yourself."

The 5-foot-8, 180-pound Rodriguez is an undersized long shot to make the team, and he's five years older than the typical rookie, too. His name is buried on the depth chart. In last week's preseason loss at Tennessee, he didn't get punt return work until the second half, nor snaps at wide receiver until the fourth quarter.

His story, which has resulted in a successful book deal and competition for film biography rights, oozes with inspiration that's more than enough to earn the respect of any first-round draft pick.

"Rise: A Soldier, a Dream and a Promise Kept," earned five-star reviews on Amazon.com last fall and will be released in paperback next month after a successful run in hardcover.

Tri-Star pictures outbid Universal for the rights to the Rodriguez biography.

"It's in the works, but I try not to pay a lot of attention to it because I've got a lot going on right now," Rodriguez said. "I'll let future Daniel worry about that."

Conan O'Brien riffed off the Rodriguez story this week saying, "Watch your UPS guy almost make the Rams."

Rodriguez responded on his Twitter account (at)DanielRod83: I can understand mistaking me for a kicker, but a (hash)UPS delivery man (at)ConanOBrien ?? (hash)comeonman

Simply making it to an NFL training camp has been an extraordinary accomplishment for a player who began his college career at Clemson as a walk-on on the GI Bill.

Rodriguez is highly decorated because of heroism in Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2009, when 38 U.S. troops faced 300 Taliban insurgents in the battle of Kamdesh one of the bloodiest for U.S. troops in that country. Eight Americans were killed and he was among 22 wounded, taking shrapnel in his leg and neck and bullet fragments in a shoulder.

"For him to protect our country and to be in the NFL playing with us, we're definitely excited to have him," outside linebacker Alec Ogletree said. "I know he's happy to be here and I'm happy for him."

The Rams recognized talents beyond a modest track record at Clemson, where he played behind three future first-round picks at wide receiver with one career start, seeing his most action on special teams. If Rodriguez can carve out a niche with the Rams, that's where it'll happen.

"Obviously there's inspiration, but he belongs, he competes and he's here because he's good," special teams coach John Fassel said. "The bonus is he's a guy you respect the hell out of for what he's done."

A handful of teams were interested in Rodriguez, with the Redskins and Cardinals also making calls.

"I kind of hopped on the first one that gave me a ring, and that was the Rams," Rodriguez said. "I didn't think I was in any position to start picking and choosing. I said, `When do you need me?"'

The Rams have plenty of depth at wide receiver and in the return game. Rodriguez recognizes it, and consistently refuses to make a fair catch.

"Oh, Daniel's had a blast," coach Jeff Fisher said. "He's going to return every possible kickoff he can out of the end zone and catch every punt."

He's faced much worse in life than a blown return. Last week against the Titans, he scooped up the ball on the 3. In the opener at Oakland, he ran out a kickoff from 9 yards in the end zone.

"When I look back, I'll say I left it all on the field," Rodriguez said. "And with a smile on my face. I don't know how long this is going to last, and I'm going to make the most of it."

R.B. FALLSTROMAP
The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, August 29, 2015

     *****

Daniel Rodriguez completes journey from combat to Clemson

Daniel Rodriguez took the long way to his roster spot on the Clemson University football team. He went to Iraq and Afghanistan first. His four years in the U.S. Army left him with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and PTSD. He eventually decided that part of his recovery should include playing college football. He tells his story in a new book titled, “Rise: A Soldier, A Dream, and A Promise Kept.”

The unforgettable story of a young soldier who survived one of the bloodiest battles in Afghanistan and lived to pursue his dream of playing Division I college football 

At 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, Daniel Rodriguez was an unlikely recruit for the gridiron. But on the battlefield, under the daily rain of sniper fire, he made a promise to his best friend. “When I get out of this s******e, I’m going to play college football.”

Daniel had joined the army just weeks after graduating from high school, having recently suffered a devastating loss. At age nineteen he had no idea what war really was; he just wanted to get out of town. Almost immediately, he was deployed to Iraq (and would later serve in Afghanistan). And he grew up fast — stopped sleeping, started smoking. Killing became second nature. He fought in the infamous Battle of Kamdesh and for his bravery he was awarded a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. But his best friend was not so lucky. 

Against all odds, Daniel returned home — broken, but still alive. Stuck in the clutches of PTSD, Daniel remembered that fateful promise to his friend and knew he had to make good on it. He embarked on a grueling training regimen and when he posted a video of his efforts, it went viral overnight. By some mix of grit, determination, and the power of the Internet, he earned a spot on the Clemson University football team. 

A powerfully delivered narrative of a young soldier, his unlikely dream, and how he found his way out of darkness, Rise is inspiring, quintessentially American, and will resonate with anyone who has ever fought for what they what they wanted.