Tuesday night at 8 ET, Dan Rather Reports profiles Daniel Rodriguez on HDNet. Here, feature producer T. Sean Herbert tells Rodriguez's story in an exclusive preview for ThePostGame.com.
The nights are torturous for Daniel Rodriguez. Body twitching, mind racing, he's transported back in time long after the battle has ended. Once again he's surrounded by gunfire, a rocket-propelled-grenade flying past his helmet. He relives the devastating moment his best friend dropped to the ground, as a single bullet took his life. He can feel, smell, hear everything, until he is torn from his sleep, covered in a cold sweat.
The 24-year-old former Army infantryman calls them night terrors. They are brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury from an RPG attack in Iraq. And there's only one way he knows to cope every day.
"I just translate that into the gym," he says, "and into the weight room. And I force and funnel it all through when I play football. It just comes out."
The next battle for Rodriguez is nothing like the two wars he's been through. But he's motivated just the same. Every day is a grueling ritual of lifting weights, doing hundreds of push-ups, dips, sit-ups, pull-ups, running sprints and routes -- all in the memory of the band of brothers he lost. All in the hope to fulfill a promise to do something extraordinary with the rest of his life.
When the night terrors are over, the day begins at 6 a.m. in a quiet northern Virginia suburb, when Rodriguez wakes to a wailing rooster blaring from his cell phone.
His objectives for the day read like a well-disciplined shopping list you'd see hanging on the refrigerator.
06:00 Wake up
06:15 Shower & shave
07:30 Strength & conditioning @ East Coast Strength and Power
09:30 Speed & agility @ Fredericksburg Field House
Noon Chow, walk the dog, & homework
13:30 Classes @ Germanna Community College
16:30 Run routes, catch 150 balls @ Smith Lake Park
18:00 Chow & study
20:00 Basement workout
22:00 Lights out
"One of my fears is that ten years down the road," Rodriguez says, "I'm gonna look back in my life and say I didn't set out and try to achieve everything I wanted to. I see so many of my friends settle for the nine-to-five and talk about what they wanted to do. And I refuse."
Rodriguez was a football player before he went off to serve his country in two wars. He starred in two sports at Brooke Point High School in Stafford, Va., playing point guard on the basketball team and playing safety, receiver, and returner on the football team.
The football coach there, Jeff Berry, remembers Rodriquez as a player who brought more then just athleticism to the field.
"The other players were drawn to him," Berry says. "He was definitely the guy that rallied his teammates, and made them feel like they could win in any situation."
But toward the end of high school, Rodriguez's life started to come apart. In his junior year, his parents separated.
"My parents were going through a rough spot in their marriage and I just didn't care to be around and see the arguing," he says. "So I moved down to Florida with my sister, where she was living for the summer."
When Rodriguez returned home, he had already missed camp. Berry kept him off the football team. Then, right after graduation from Brooke Point in June 2006, his future was shattered.
"Four days after I graduated, my father passed away of a heart attack," Rodriguez says. "So it wasn't so much that I wanted to join the military. I had to pay my own way, and the military was a choice that I felt that would better me -- that would pave the path -- where I am today, to make me a man, to show me discipline."
Rodriguez joined the military just three weeks after he and his family buried his father. His father served so he wanted to honor him. But Daniel's time would be extraordinary, and he knew it on the first flight into Iraq.
"On the helicopter into Iraq, we were getting shot at coming in," he says. "So that was an eye-opener -- 'What the hell have I done?'"
Rodriguez served a 12-month stint in what he calls the "concrete jungle" of Baghdad during the surge of 2007.
A year later he was stationed at Ft. Carson, Colo., training for a much different kind of combat. In the spring of 2008, Rodriguez, then a Sergeant, left for Afghanistan. Once again, it was a shock.
"We knew we were gonna have a toe-to-toe fight out there," he says. "But we just didn't know how bad it was gonna be, or what we were getting ourselves into."
Stationed at the remote American Combat Outpost (COP) Keating in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, Rodriguez was engaging the enemy almost daily, but nothing would compare to the encounter on October 3, 2009.
"The first rocket hit and I was just, like, 'OK. Here we go. Just another day in Afghanistan,'" he says. "And then the second rocket hit and a third rocket hit. And -- then I knew it was bad. I knew it wasn't an average firefight."
Rodriguez ran 300 meters under heavy fire to his post, where he manned a M-240 machine gun. As soon as he reached his location, his good friend, Pfc. Kevin Thomson, walked in front of him to point out the enemy positions in the hills above the base. He was shot in the head and died instantly. Thomson was among the first U.S. casualties of what would become known as the Battle of Kamdesh -- one of the bloodiest battles of the war in Afghanistan.
For hours, Rodriguez and the three dozen soldiers in his unit were the last line of defense, holding back as many as 300 Taliban from breaching the perimeter and overrunning the compound.
"Came down to me throwing hand grenades, and killing at point blank range," Rodriguez says. "I had been wounded and I still fought. I just couldn't get over the fact that my buddy was dead, and that there were going to get away with it.
"I hit that point that I knew I was going to die, and I was just going to kill as many of them before they killed me. And it just wasn't my day to go. And I got a medal for it."
Rodriguez was actually awarded several medals, including a Bronze Star for Valor, and a Purple Heart. They now hang on a cork bulletin board in his bedroom in Virginia.
When asked why he fought so valiantly that day, Rodriguez calmly responds: "For the guy next to you. I don't give a damn who Tommy Taliban is, I don't know him. I had orders. But whenever you try and put my life in jeopardy, and the life of my men, I am going to kill you. And that's what I did."
Rodriguez lost eight friends that day and he was among the twenty-two wounded. An estimated 150 Taliban were killed. Rodriguez was treated and served out the remainder of his combat tour in Afghanistan.
A month later, he was back home for Thanksgiving, and a bunch of his high school friends threw him a surprise party. One of them, Alexis Zell, says it was "outrageous how many people came out to support him."
It was on this visit that Rodriguez and Zell went from being friends to being in a (very) long distance romantic relationship. They emailed back and forth between Virginia and Afghanistan.
In May 2010, Rodriguez finished out his commitment and left the Army. Ever since, with Zell by his side, he has been sculpting his mind and body to make good on a promise he made to Thomson not long before he was killed.
"Three weeks before the fight happened, we were seriously talking," Rodriguez says. "He wanted to go back and be a butcher. And I was like, 'Well, you better do it.' He's like, 'I'll do it.' He's like, 'You better play football.' I was like, 'Well, let's promise each other we're gonna get out and do it.'"
He would do it for his friend, for Zell, and for himself.
But in order to play football at the Division I level, Rodriguez has to attend college courses and make the grade. He's enrolled at Germanna Community College and is taking 18 credits this semester. He has a 3.4 grade point average.
He says he's now ready to tackle his biggest dream. And he wants to do it in Blacksburg, Va.
"I was born and raised a Hokie fan my whole life," he says, "so that would be the school I would want to play for."
To attract a school of that caliber, Rodriguez -- who is only 5-8, 175 -- made a bold move and hired a production company to make a video.
It worked. Rodriguez posted the clip on YouTube and it got nearly 50,000 views.
In early December, Rodriguez asked ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper, who is writing a book about the Battle of Kamdesh, if he would be willing to tweet the video. Soon Tapper's college roommate, Washington, D.C. Sports personality Brett Haber, was blogging about it.
Paul Rieckhoff, President of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, sent a message to all 4,700 of his Facebook friends and Twitter followers: "Here it is," he wrote, "your moment of hooah. Somebody, PLEASE, give this kid a scholarship."
Now Dan Rather Reports is airing a two-part feature on Rodriguez. "I played football in high school and a little bit in college, and I can remember every undersized player who with true grit made the team and became a starter against all odds," Rather says. "And I, like a lot of people, have a soft spot for stories that underscore that it is not the size of the man in the fight, but the size of the fight in the man."
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer has seen Rodriguez's recruiting tape, too.
"We see a lotta videos," he says, "and a lotta different type players, but you don't see many videos like that."
NCAA rules prohibit Beamer from talking about Rodriguez as a football player, and Beamer doesn't want to say anything to jeopardize the vet's chances.
"I think all Americans appreciate his service to the country, not only one time, but two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan," Beamer says. "You know he's got quite a story."
Beamer says he prides himself on recruiting players that aren't necessarily the biggest or fastest, but rely on intangibles like leadership and character and how you play the game.
"So with that in mind," he says, "I think it's likely that I'd give an under-sized, over-the-age, Army guy a chance.
Zell adds, "He's been through hell and back, and deserves this."
Rodriguez only wishes his Dad could see him now.
"Comin' from a man that never missed a high school game, coached me all my life, I think he'd be proud," he says of his father. "He would be just as ecstatic as I am. And he would be on the sideline like he was every other game."
But if he makes it onto a college football field, Rodriguez will be thinking first of the promise he made to a fallen friend.
"I won't ever say that I can put to rest what I went through," he says. "But I think overcoming it and doing it for him and my buddies that were killed, that would mean a lot more than anything. I think he would truly be proud of me. I think he'd be cheerin' me on."
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