The NCAA ruled Monday that Middle Tennessee State freshman Steven Rhodes can "play immediately" after serving five years in the Marines.
"Additionally," NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs Kevin Lennon said in a release, "he will maintain all four years of his eligibility."
It's a reversal from the NCAA's earlier decision to rule Rhodes ineligible because he played in a recreational league during his military service. School officials had said earlier Monday that they were working with NCAA officials to come up with a solution.
"It's nothing but a blessing," Rhodes said after Monday's practice.
An NCAA rule states that student-athletes who don't enroll in college within a year of graduating high school will be charged one year of eligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition.
"We were informed this afternoon that the NCAA has granted full approval to Steven Rhodes' waiver," MTSU president Dr. Sidney McPhee said in a statement. "This is exciting news for Steven and Middle Tennessee State University. We express our gratitude to the NCAA for reviewing this situation and granting Steven the ability to play this fall. We are hopeful that the NCAA will look at the bylaws regarding all individuals who serve in the military before becoming a student-athlete."
Middle Tennessee athletic director Chris Massaro said he and McPhee went to the practice field Monday afternoon to inform Rhodes of the NCAA's decision.
"It was really a neat moment to be there for that," Massaro said. "He was extremely happy, as you'd imagine. It's always fun to be there when dreams start to come true."
By NCAA standards, Rhodes' play at the Marine base counted as "organized competition" because there were game officials, team uniforms and the score was kept.
But the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Marine sergeant said the recreational league was nothing close to organized.
"Man, it was like intramurals for us," the 24-year-old told The Daily News Journal. "There were guys out there anywhere from 18 to 40-something years old. The games were spread out. We once went six weeks between games."
The rule first took shape in 1980, when "participation in organized competition during times spent in the armed services, on official church missions or with recognized foreign aid services of the U.S. government" were exempt from limiting eligibility.
But through several revisions and branches of the rule, the clause allowing competition during military service was lost and not carried over into the current bylaws.
"As a part of the ongoing review of NCAA rules, our members will examine the organized competition rules, especially as it impacts those returning from military service," Lennon said. "We thank Steven for his service to our country and wish him the best as he begins college."
Daryl Simpson, MTSU's assistant athletic director/compliance, said he doesn't believe the NCAA ever intended to penalize military service members.
"All this is strictly because of how the bylaw is worded," Simpson told The Daily News Journal. "In my opinion, there is no intent of anyone to not allow protection to our U.S. service members."
The Blue Raiders open the season Aug. 29 by hosting Western Carolina.
"He has a long way to go," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said. "He hasn't played in six years obviously. His reps had diminished the last three or four days because we were under the impression that he was not going to play. With only nine days left now before we play, we've got to get him caught up to speed.
"There is no doubt that he'll be able to help us eventually. He's a phenomenal man. He works hard. He has a great attitude out there."
Rhodes has even more determination now that the NCAA has given him the go-ahead to continue working toward this goal.
"It gives you a whole different mindset," Rhodes said. "You feel like you have new life."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.