National Signing Day

Today marks national signing day for high school athletes throughout the country. As I change the channels on my TV, I keep seeing commercials of these kids reaching for the hat of whatever school they may be going to. For me, I think of where I was when 18 and the decisions I was making. I reflect on the life I had created for myself. I didn’t have much going for me coming out of high school. I graduated with a 1.8 GPA and constantly forged report cards to avoid the wrath of my parents. They never had a clue. I cheated the system in every way possible, and when graduation came around, had very few options. Could I go to community college? Nah, I felt like I was better than that. It seemed like an embarrassing route. All of my friends were pumped about attending their four-year universities and all I could do was look in the mirror with anger and disgust. What the hell am I going to do with my life? My dad had just died. I felt empty and broken. I was immature — just a lost teenager, clueless how to tackle the rigors of transitioning to an adult. Without my father, who could I bounce ideas off of about the direction of my future? Who could I lean on to gain the critical wisdom that only comes between the bond of a father and son? Who could I call when times got rough, or lean on when nobody else would listen? My dad was gone. With very few options available, I made the choice to walk into a military recruitment office. I went to the Air Force first, but there was nobody there. Must have been on a lunch break or something. I didn't care about the branch — I just needed to find a purpose. Down the hall, I found the Army office. I figured my dad served in the Army, so it seemed like a reasonable option. "Son sit down," the man said. "I can help you with that. Do you want to be full-time or part-time?" I said I want to be full-time. I told him listen, I want to be stationed in Europe and I want to jump out of airplanes. "Say no more, son. Sign right here and we will make that happen." I was never stationed in Europe and I never jumped out of a damn air plane. There was no way to forecast my future at that point. There was no way to predict I would one day watch my best friends, my brothers, die right in front of me. There was no way to predict that I would get ambushed by Taliban insurgents and literally fight for my life. There was no way to understand the feelings associated with taking another man's life. There was no way to know that I would come back, struggle with depression and thoughts of suicide, and feel worse than I did before I left, and while watching my friends take their lives and overdose on drugs because they couldn’t deal with the pain associated with war. There was no way to see that I would bounce back from all that adversity, walk on to the Clemson football team, play in every game while I was there and get a tryout for the now Los Angeles Rams. There was no way to know that would be the day that changed my life. I'll never regret a moment of it. It shaped me. It made me stronger. It taught me how to use adversity as a tool to push forward. That was my national signing day. Just like the thousands of kids that are committing to play college football at programs across the country today, my national signing day was instrumental in determining the path of my life. I would never want to take away from the excitement surrounding national signing day for these kids. It's a massive accomplishment and they should be filled with pride and optimism. There are so many kids who never get to go to college or continue their dreams. For these kids, possibilities are endless right now. I just think it's good to keep an open mind. What do the words "signing day" mean to me? There weren’t camera crews and flashy hats representing each branch of the military. There weren't crowds cheering and reporters talking to me about my excitement leading up to boot camp. There weren’t crowds cheering and well-wishes from fans of the Army that l was now joining their squad. Instead, I was alone and scared — embarking on a new chapter of my life. For me, national signing day will always have a double meaning. It’s a day I'll never forget. By Daniel Rodriguez