CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson walk-on Daniel Rodriguez is ready for the biggest moment of his college career against the team he loved as a child.
The Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient will lead the Tigers down the hill at Memorial Stadium carrying the American flag before No. 14 Clemson faces Virginia Tech today.
Rodriguez, 24, is a Virginia native who grew up a Hokies fan and had hopes of playing for Virginia Tech upon his return from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clemson has designated this game as Military Appreciation Day.
Clemson (5-1, 2-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) won twice last year against Virginia Tech (4-3, 2-1), including a 38-10 victory in the league title game.
Rodriguez is a 5-foot-8 receiver who joined the Tigers this summer after coach Dabo Swinney saw his workout videos on YouTube and learned of his military service. Rodriguez has played sparingly on special teams and his one catch came near the end of a 52-27 victory over Ball State in September.
Swinney has said Rodriguez’s worth comes in the locker room, a living example of what it means to sacrifice. So Swinney was proud to let Rodriguez lead the team into Death Valley.
That it comes against Virginia Tech makes it even more special for Rodriguez.
“It’s kind of crazy how things align, how things fall into place,” he said. “It’s pretty well known I was a Virginia Tech fan my whole life. Sorry Clemson.”
Clemson had lost five in a row in the series since 1998, yet put on two of its most dominating performances to beat Virginia Tech last season. The Tigers held the Hokies without a TD at Lane Stadium in a 23-3 regular-season victory. Two months later, Clemson stifled the Hokies again in the ACC title game.
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer says last year’s losses won’t factor into this game.
“We don’t think in the past very much around here,” Beamer said. “We try look at what we’ve got this week and understand that this is a terrific football team and that we’ve got a tremendous challenge.”
Especially with the loss of starting center Andrew Miller, who had surgery on his left ankle to repair a fracture and ligament damage. Miller was the team’s only veteran for an offensive line that replaced four starters this year.
Clemson hopes the week off since it last played doesn’t slow down an offense that’s on track to surpass last year’s record-setting group in points scored and yards.
The Tigers have averaged better than 41 points and 525 yards halfway through the season. Quarterback Tajh Boyd leads the conference in passing, Andre Ellington leads the conference in rushing and DeAndre Hopkins leads the conference in receiving.
And it’s all happened without much help from last year’s star in Sammy Watkins. The sophomore has missed three games due to suspension and illness. He’s got just 16 catches for 118 yards and no touchdowns.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said Watkins had a strong showing during practice is ready to get back into the action. “He’s fully healthy, had a really good practice last week. He’s got his legs back under him,” Morris said. “Hey, we’re ready to go and we’re going to need Sammy at the right time.”
Rodriguez is grateful for his time at Clemson.
He was wounded in one of the deadliest battles in Kamdesh, Afghanistan in October 2009. He said nearly 400 Taliban fighters overwhelmed the U.S. outpost of fewer than 40 troops. Eight Americans were killed.
Rodriguez, who was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, was rattled earlier this month when he passed the third anniversary of the battle. He said while college classes and football have helped, he won’t ever fully purge the memories of that awful experience.
Today should help, he said.
Beamer remembered Rodriguez as an impressive young man. “I’m very glad to see him reach his goals,” he said.
Rodriguez has good-naturedly texted with a high-school friend from Virginia Tech, defensive end J.R. Collins, and can’t wait to lead the way for Clemson’s traditional football entrance.
“It’s awesome,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve come into my own here and been accepted by the team.”