Fueled by a dream to play college football after serving his country, 24-year-old former Marine Sgt. Steven Rhodes walked onto Middle Tennessee State University’s football team - only to discover his five years of military service essentially prevented him from taking the field.
“I was upset with the situation, confused,” Rhodes told ABC News’ Steve Osunsami in an interview for “This Week.”
At issue - an NCAA eligibility requirement designed to discourage high school athletes from skipping college and going straight to the pros. That requirement says college players who fail to enroll within one year of graduation have to give up one year of eligibility for each year they participated in any organized competition.
Rhodes said he was frustrated when he found out that his time playing in a recreational football league while serving at Marine Air Station Miramar in San Diego would bar him from taking the field as an MTSU Blue Raider this season.
“I’m 24 years old, I don’t have that much time… A lot of guys [are already] in their 3rd veteran season in the NFL at this age,” Rhodes said.
While the military league did include uniforms, officials, and score-keeping, Rhodes called the league “intramural” rather anything close to professional. “I had no contract. An Uncle Sam contract,” Rhodes joked.
Rhodes’ predicament did not sit quietly in the Murfreesboro, Tenn. community. Soon, local news stories drew national attention, including from Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., who tweeted out a link to a USA Today story about Rhodes, saying, “NCAA should allow Steven Rhodes to play - don’t penalize him for serving his country.”
Through social media, Rhodes received support from all corners of the country.
“I reached out to people on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, thanking everyone for all the support because it made a difference,” Rhodes said.
The biggest breakthrough, however, came from his own back yard. The president of MTSU, Sidney McPhee, happened to be a former NCAA executive committee member. Upon hearing Rhodes’ story, he decided to act.
“I picked up the phone and called a few other folks, and said, ‘You really want to take a second hard look at this issue,’” McPhee said.
The calls worked. Just one day after Rhodes’ story broke nationally, the NCAA said on Aug. 19 it would allow Rhodes to play this season, revealing that military men and women are normally excused from the eligibility requirement, but over time the exemption was forgotten.
Rhodes’ team won its first game of the season on Thursday, with Rhodes recording a tackle. The former Marine says now he’s just going to keep the faith as he pursues his college football dream.
“I was determined to finish out my dream,” Rhodes said. “I just kept my faith, kept praying and believing and here I am.”
“Never give up, never give in, don’t listen to anybody’s negativity, don’t let anybody tell you what you can’t do, you are the only person that can control what you can do, so don’t limit yourself,” Rhodes added.
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