CLEMSON, S.C. — Daniel Rodriguez wants to be known for football, and he is ready to work for it.
The Clemson junior receiver's road to college football is a fascinating, heartfelt story. But Rodriguez wants to tell another story, one that involves him carving out a big role on the Tigers’ on-field roster in his final two seasons of collegiate eligibility.
“I think the coaches understand I’ve made a point that when we have one-on-ones, that I don’t want to be looked at as a feel-good story,” he said. “I want to be a football player. That’s what I want to do. For me, every day I work out, every day I go to become a better football player, a better teammate. Not just a story.”
Make no mistake: Rodriguez’s story is already impressive.
Rodriguez, 26, joined the Army in Jan. 2007 and served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan over 18 months. While in Afghanistan, he was involved in the Battle of Kamdesh, one of the bloodiest battles of the Afghan war, where 38 U.S. troops battled 300 Taliban insurgents. Eight U.S. soldiers died; 22 were wounded. Rodriguez had shrapnel wounds to his neck and right leg, and he earned the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his efforts.
He walked on at Clemson (the Army is paying for his education via the G.I. Bill) and became an immediate fan favorite, earning ovations every time he touched the ball—which has mostly come on special teams.
Now, though, Rodriguez wants more. That is why he gets up in the mornings for punishing workouts, sweating alongside the Tigers’ young, talented receiving corps.
His life story has been immortalized in a book: Rise: A Soldier, a Dream, and a Promise Kept, which is due out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Oct. 7.
When Rodriguez’s story is made into a movie (the film rights have been acquired by Sony’s TriStar Productions), it could end with his first career touchdown, scored Nov. 23, 2013 against The Citadel—on Military Appreciation Day, no less.
However, Rodriguez hopes that is only the beginning.
"I’ve really tried to establish and separate myself from the 'feel-good-story Daniel' to the 'football player Daniel,'" he said. "I think I have made a mark. I think I did open some eyes, having more skill than (coaches) probably thought I had. I think I am a playmaker. I think I have the ability to contribute on this team, down in and down out."
Last fall, he carved out a small role behind talented receivers such as high NFL draft picks Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, making seven catches for 20 yards and a touchdown on 73 offensive snaps. He also had five punt returns for 31 yards.
“I felt I could have made it last year, but you have a guy like Sammy Watkins, he's a horse,” Rodriguez said. “Playing behind him, seeing what he can do, you learn from the guys around you. And when it’s your time, your number gets called, you just make the most of it.”
Rodriguez doesn't dabble in delusions of grandeur. He has made a place for himself on Clemson’s roster as a backup receiver and someone who can play any special teams position, a dependable, solid tackler who can always be counted on.
“I don’t have all the intangibles of a Sammy Watkins, a 6’5” Martavis Bryant, that type of receiver, but at the same time my knowledge is there, my commitment is there, and I hope the trust is there with the coaches that if they need me I’ll be there,” he said.
Just being on the roster doesn’t satisfy Rodriguez.
“I think that’s been my biggest chip here,” he said. “At the beginning I was so appreciative of the opportunity, just to have a chance to play that I was making a note to the coaches that I didn’t want a charity case. I’ve tried very hard to establish myself as a role player, a leader, someone who is dependable.”
This summer, Rodriguez (who stands 5’8”, 175 pounds), has been working closely with senior receiver Adam Humphries, listed at 5’11”, 190 pounds.
Humphries is helping his fellow smaller receiver make the most of what he has.
“He’s not the biggest guy,” Humphries said. “He’s got to use what he’s blessed with to maximize his potential. And I’m not the biggest guy either, so I try to help him with speed and keeping your legs underneath you, being physical with your hands and using what you have the best you can. He’s been doing a good job this summer, he’s got to keep working. He can make a huge impact. He’s just got to continue to get confidence that we can throw him out on the field and get the job done.”
Make no mistake: Rodriguez is well aware of his place on the Tigers roster. Versatility, not 5-star talent or speed, is his calling card.
“I think that’s my niche,” he said. “Special teams, I know every single receiver position, the coaches can put me in any position at receiver, those are the details I have. Like I said, my attributes aren’t to throw the ball up for a corner jump ball at the 8-yard line.
“For me, it’s using what I have to my advantage. That’s my knowledge of the game, my quickness, just to have any edge I can. Just to make my mark on special teams, it’s worth it. Anytime I can go on the field, I’ll go on the field and give it my all. Wherever they want me, I’ll go.”
Coaches have taken notice of Rodriguez’s drive, too.
“Daniel is so much more mature coming in here,” Clemson head strength and conditioning coach Joey Batson said. “His life experience is a lot different than any of us. They look to him for leadership and maturity. His drive challenges guys. He doesn’t challenge them personally, but he’s out front being a role model.”
He’s already a role model, but this fall, Rodriguez wants more. So every day he works, sweats and strives, hoping to take the next step in an already amazing story.
“This year we’ll have some talented receivers coming in, but hopefully my seniority will give me the upper edge,” he said. “I think I’ll have the opportunity to get some snaps going into this year.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
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