ST. LOUIS (AP) — Long after the rest of the St. Louis Rams have left the practice field, Daniel Rodriguez drips with sweat, running dozens of extra pass routes with backup quarterback Austin Davis. Rodriguez prides himself on being the first in line for the machine that spits out tight spirals before practice, too.
No one can tell the fearless 27-year-old rookie with Army stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and wounds to show for it, that he's nothing more than a training camp feel-good story. He's not afraid of cutdown day.
"It's grueling, it's a physical sport and I'm competing with physical specimens," Rodriguez said. "Not being the biggest guy, you've got to fight for everything out here. And you've got to believe in yourself."
The 5-foot-8, 180-pound Rodriguez is an undersized long shot to make the team, and he's five years older than the typical rookie, too. His name is buried on the depth chart. In last week's preseason loss at Tennessee, he didn't get punt return work until the second half, nor snaps at wide receiver until the fourth quarter.
His story, which has resulted in a successful book deal and competition for film biography rights, oozes with inspiration that's more than enough to earn the respect of any first-round draft pick.
"Rise: A Soldier, a Dream and a Promise Kept," earned five-star reviews on Amazon.com last fall and will be released in paperback next month after a successful run in hardcover.
Tri-Star pictures outbid Universal for the rights to the Rodriguez biography.
"It's in the works, but I try not to pay a lot of attention to it because I've got a lot going on right now," Rodriguez said. "I'll let future Daniel worry about that."
Conan O'Brien riffed off the Rodriguez story this week saying, "Watch your UPS guy almost make the Rams."
Rodriguez responded on his Twitter account @DanielRod_83: I can understand mistaking me for a kicker, but a #UPS delivery man @ConanOBrien ?? #comeonman
Simply making it to an NFL training camp has been an extraordinary accomplishment for a player who began his college career at Clemson as a walk-on on the GI Bill.
Rodriguez is highly decorated because of heroism in Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2009, when 38 U.S. troops faced 300 Taliban insurgents in the battle of Kamdesh — one of the bloodiest for U.S. troops in that country. Eight Americans were killed and he was among 22 wounded, taking shrapnel in his leg and neck and bullet fragments in a shoulder.
"For him to protect our country and to be in the NFL playing with us, we're definitely excited to have him," outside linebacker Alec Ogletree said. "I know he's happy to be here and I'm happy for him."
The Rams recognized talents beyond a modest track record at Clemson, where he played behind three future first-round picks at wide receiver with one career start, seeing his most action on special teams. If Rodriguez can carve out a niche with the Rams, that's where it'll happen.
"Obviously there's inspiration, but he belongs, he competes and he's here because he's good," special teams coach John Fassel said. "The bonus is he's a guy you respect the hell out of for what he's done."
A handful of teams were interested in Rodriguez, with the Redskins and Cardinals also making calls.
"I kind of hopped on the first one that gave me a ring, and that was the Rams," Rodriguez said. "I didn't think I was in any position to start picking and choosing. I said, 'When do you need me?'"
The Rams have plenty of depth at wide receiver and in the return game. Rodriguez recognizes it, and consistently refuses to make a fair catch.
"Oh, Daniel's had a blast," coach Jeff Fisher said. "He's going to return every possible kickoff he can out of the end zone and catch every punt."
He's faced much worse in life than a blown return. Last week against the Titans, he scooped up the ball on the 3. In the opener at Oakland, he ran out a kickoff from 9 yards in the end zone.
"When I look back, I'll say I left it all on the field," Rodriguez said. "And with a smile on my face. I don't know how long this is going to last, and I'm going to make the most of it."
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