SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE -- At the intersection of his old job and his new one, war hero turned football player Daniel Rodriguez stood before 22 airmen and women at Scott Air Force Base re-telling his story and offering his appreciation.
"I just kind of told them thank you for their service," Rodriguez said. "I told them in all reality if it wasn't for the Air Force I probably wouldn't be alive today. During the battle, we had to have a lot of gun runs and we had two what's called 'going Winchester' which is when a B-52 bomber dumps its entire payload. At the time it had only happened one time in the war in Afghanistan in '01 and when I was there on one day we had two ... . So [I wanted] to let them know that I was very appreciative of what they do, especially for me being here."
The former Army Sergeant was one of 75 St. Louis Rams attending the team's annual walkthrough here Wednesday night, taking part in a team tradition intended to show respect and admiration for what the people on the base do every day. It was the second military visit for the Rams this preseason after they stopped by Point Mugu Naval Base in California before returning from joint practices with the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard, California.
When Rodriguez refers to the potentially life saving work of the Air Force on "one day," he's talking about the Battle of Kamdesh on Oct. 3, 2009 in Afghanistan. It was one of the bloodiest firefights in that war as 300 Taliban insurgents battled 38 Americans for more than half a day. Eight Americans died and 22 were injured.
Rodriguez, who fought for more than 12 hours that day, earned a Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart after continuing to fight despite having bullet fragments in his shoulder and shrapnel in his neck and legs.
It's a day that Rodriguez has re-lived more times than he cares to count but he never backs away from the opportunity to tell it. There was, perhaps, no better time since Rodriguez signed as an undrafted free agent in May to re-tell it than Wednesday night.
"He got to introduce himself to the guys which was cool," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "I let the soldiers know that we had one of their own on our team. It was a special moment for them."
Soon after Fisher moved to Nashville as the coach of the Tennessee Titans, he quickly developed a bond with the leaders at Fort Campbell in nearby Clarksville, Tennessee. He made it a tradition to close the preseason practices with a walkthrough there. It was something he wanted to continue when he arrived in St. Louis.
The Rams have now adopted Scott Air Force Base as their annual end-of-preseason home. In just a few years, the event has grown with the leaders on base selecting 22 airmen and women to participate in the walkthrough. Those selected receive an authentic Rams practice jersey and actually serve as the scout team on offense and defense for the practice. Fisher shows the airmen and women the plays and they run them as though they are the next opponent, in Wednesday's case the Kansas City Chiefs.
When it's over, the Rams take about 30 minutes to sign autographs and take pictures with the airmen and women and their families. It's one of Fisher's favorite nights of the year.
"As we told our guys, on Sundays we defend our goal line. And day after day after day, they defend our country," Fisher said. "And there's just such a respect factor from a players standpoint for those that are serving our country."
On the field, tight end Jared Cook couldn't help but notice that the 22 airmen and women viewed the walk part of walkthrough as more of a suggestion than a rule. No matter, Cook said, the chance to close camp in such a setting is something he cherishes.
"I think they understand how hard it is in our shoes but not even remotely as hard as it is being in their shoes so it's just a mutual respect we have for each other," Cook said. "At the end of the day, we can all relate in some form or fashion."
As for Rodriguez, he said there was no temptation to switch sides and join his fellow military against his current team. But when it was over, Rodriguez got the chance to talk to all of his teammates, those who play football and those who defend the country.
"At the end of the day for me if I can benefit somebody else's life in a positive way, I feel like I'm doing something positive with mine," Rodriguez said. "I don't feel like I ever get tired of it. All I want to do is make sure I live a life that honors my friends that were killed for our freedom. So whatever that may be, I hope that's how I come off."