Steven Rhodes, a 24-year-old former Marine sergeant and current Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) freshman, is perhaps the most famous walk-on in college football since Notre Dame’s Rudy Ruettiger. A week ago, however, Rhodes was practically unknown–his story untold. In an exclusive interview with Breitbart Sports, Rhodes discussed his NCAA ordeal, reflected on his newfound fame, and shared his story of how a third strike against an Air Force recruiter ultimately led him to the U. S. Marines.
“It was a blessing all around,” Rhodes told Breitbart Sports of the hoopla surrounding the NCAA’s initial decision to not allow him to play college football this season–due to an oversight in its bylaws–because of intramural football games he played on his military base. The NCAA ultimately ruled last week that Rhodes would be allowed to play this season.
Rhodes, still blown away by the intense reaction to his story and its favorable outcome, is no doubt in rare company. How many freshmen student-athletes can say they stared down the NCAA and made it blink?
Last Sunday, the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal reported on the NCAA’s ruling that would have forced Rhodes to sit out this season and forfeit two years of eligibility because of his 2012 participation in a military recreational football league. Soon after, the Daily News story went viral. As word spread, the public was quick to weigh in, expressing both sympathy and support for Rhodes.
At the same time, the public blasted the NCAA and its perceived indifference to and treatment of the young veteran. For many, the NCAA’s heavy-handedness served as yet another example of a desensitized, detached, and arbitrary bureaucracy.
By Monday afternoon–after Rhodes had appeared on various networks such as CNN, ESPN, NBC, and CBS, after his story had been reported by media outlets like USA Today and Breitbart Sports, and after an active social media campaign had been waged to petition the ruling–the NCAA reversed its decision and ruled that not only was Rhodes cleared to play this season, but also that he would be able to maintain all four years of his eligibility.
“A lot of people rallied behind me to make the process quicker,” remarked the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Antioch, Tennessee native. “On Sunday morning nobody knew me, but by Sunday night, Monday morning, everybody knew my name.”
When asked if he ever could have imagined such widespread interest in his story, Rhodes responded, ‘Not at all.”
Although Rhodes admits he never expected nor prepared for the media’s attention, he certainly had the resolve to help him deal with the disappointment surrounding the NCAA’s initial rulings. Referring to his five years in the U.S. Marine Corps, Rhodes remarked, “I’ve been in much bigger and much more difficult situations.”
For example, he was quick to note that the NCAA ordeal was far less trying than what he had to endure at one point during his military service. “I spent the first two years of my marriage apart from my wife,” said Rhodes.
Rhodes largely credits the Marines for his healthy perspective and mental toughness. But as he tells it, the decision to enlist in the “world’s most elite fighting force” was not entirely by his design.
“That is what the Lord wanted,” remarked Rhodes.
Initially, Rhodes sought to join the Air Force. On three separate occasions, he was scheduled to meet with the local Air Force recruiter. And all three times, he was stood up.
“The lights were out and no one was home,” recalled Rhodes.
On his final attempt, Rhodes went to the Marines next door to ask if anyone had seen the Air Force recruiter. That question led to a conversation–and that conversation led to an unexpected resolution. Thirty days later, Rhodes was off to boot camp.
Rhodes, reflecting on that impromptu visit, recalls how he was immediately impressed by the Marines.
“You could just tell–the pride in wearing the uniform and how they carry themselves,” Rhodes said. “What the [Marines] do and what they stand for–Honor, Courage, Commitment–it stands for every aspect of my life.”
Looking back, Rhodes always had the goal to play college football. However, in the spring of his senior year at Antioch High School, he realized that his path to becoming a student-athlete would not be without obstacles. “I messed up my shoulder and fell off track,” said Rhodes.
Following graduation in 2007, he stayed close to home and worked full-time before enlisting in the Marines. At no point, though, did Rhodes give up. Instead, he persevered.
This past June–six years later–Rhodes arrived on the MTSU campus hungry and ready to play. After impressing the coaching staff in try outs, he earned a jersey. Shortly thereafter, though, Rhodes was informed of the NCAA’s initial decision.
“I thought it would be a clean cut transition to college football,” said Rhodes, pointing out that the ruling was punitive and had immediate consequences: “I wasn’t able to practice, and I wasn’t able to use the weight room.”
Fortunately, Rhodes’s setback was temporary. At this point, he is back practicing with the team and is looking forward to the August 29 season opener against Western Carolina.
According to Rhodes, he wakes up everyday motivated by a singular purpose: family. His wife and two sons inspire him to excel not just on the football field, but more importantly, in the classroom. Having been an Air Traffic Controller in the Marines, Rhodes wants to continue in that career track as a civilian and is pursuing a degree in MTSU’s Aerospace program.
“I’m a little nervous but also excited,” said Rhodes. “It’s been six or seven years since I’ve been in the classroom.” The former Marine, nevertheless, is committed to achieving academic excellence and has set lofty goal for the classroom.
“The plan is to be top of the class,” said Rhodes.