(NEW YORK) — Sports fans may refer to the football field as a place of battle, but Army Sgt. Daniel Rodriguez knows better.
“When I go to school I think of it as such a blessing to be alive. I thought I was going to die,” said Rodriguez, 24, of Clemson, S.C. “If I die tomorrow, I’ll live life to the fullest. I don’t complain anymore. Sometimes I catch myself thinking something and then remind myself: hey, you’re not in Afghanistan.”
Rodriguez, a starter on the special teams for the Clemson Tigers this fall, spent four years in the Army and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He fought in a major battle in the mountains lining Pakistan, the Battle of Kamdesh, in October 2010.
“It was definitely an environment of combat,” he said. “I was furthest north on Pakistan border, rough terrain, we didn’t have showers, one meal a day, we washed ourselves with baby wipes, there was fighting constantly. We lived pretty much in a cave in the side of a mountain, and we ended up getting overrun, five months into our tour, during the Battle of Kamdesh.”
Rodriguez took a bullet in his shoulder and shrapnel in his leg, though he says now that he was lucky compared to some of his best friends. Eight soldiers died in the battle, and 21 were injured. Rodriguez was awarded 16 medals for his bravery and service in the Middle East, including the Bronze Star Medal with Valor, the Purple Heart, and the Army Commendation Medal with Valor.
It was his time in the Army that shifted his perspective on life in the United States, Rodriguez told ABC News. When he returned home, he began taking classes at a community college and playing football again, rising early each morning to train.
His friends encouraged him to make a highlight reel to impress college coaches, as high school athletes sometimes do, but Rodriguez felt that old highlights wouldn’t showcase who he had become.
“I hired a production company to kind of shoot me working out, doing drills, and then they had me putting in highlights, and me telling my story,” Rodriguez said.
He sent the video to schools, but they requested he make it easier to view and share, so he uploaded it to YouTube as well.
“The next morning I had 6,000 views. Within a month it had 300,000 views,” he said.
Clemson coaches, along with coaches from about 50 other college football programs, contacted Rodriguez. He also received dozens of emails, text messages, and letters from fans that had seen his YouTube video; he replied to almost all of those messages, he said.
This summer, he began playing first-string on the special teams for Clemson. He has played in two Atlantic Coast Conference games so far, helping the team score its first two victories.
“It’s what motivates me,” he said. “A lot of people come back from war with the factor of what they’ve seen and gone through and it cripples them, but I find it liberating and inspiring. I mean the horrors of war are real, I’ve lost over 20 friends to war. But we fought for our country and now I can come home and do what I always wanted to do.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Elizabeth Cohen, CNN
Wayne Covil, WTVR
Mohammed Tawfeeq and Gul Tuysuz, CNN
Sara Ashley O'Brien, CNN