For Steven Rhodes, any game is a big game. After all, the Middle Tennessee defensive end came close to sitting out the entire season.
This one, though, beats them all. A matchup with Navy on Monday in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth makes the former Marine sergeant's eyes open wide with anticipation.
"It's a privilege and an honor to play in the Armed Forces Bowl, especially playing against the Navy," Rhodes said at Burleson Centennial High School, where his team is practicing. "Granted, there are Marines on the Navy team, but that's a long rivalry right there between the Navy and the Marine Corps. I'm going to enjoy it."
The chance to smack around a few Midshipmen in a game meant honor the military was far more than Rhodes could have hoped just four months ago.
When Rhodes reported to Middle Tennessee for practice this summer as a 24-year-old freshman walk-on fresh off a five-year stint in the Marines, he was met with jarring news. The NCAA ruled that because he had played in a recreational military football league while working as an air traffic controller at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego, Rhodes would have to forfeit two seasons of eligibility and miss the 2013 season.
By the letter of the law, the ruling was correct. NCAA rules say athletes who don't enroll in college within a year of graduating high school lose one year of eligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition. While that rule originally included an exemption for those serving in the military, the exemption was dropped in one of the many rules revisions over the years.
Middle Tennessee immediately appealed, calling unjust that a young man was being penalized for serving his country. The appeal was quickly denied.
"We did everything we could," Rhodes said. "It was really frustrating, but I just kept my faith and the Lord worked everything out."
Indeed, everything worked out thanks to an assist from the media. In mid-August, about the time a second appeal was filed, the Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro, Tenn., reported on Rhodes' situation. Almost instantly, the story went viral, and columnists from national outlets such as USA Today and ESPN.com took up his cause.
Within days of the first report, the NCAA relented. Rhodes was given four years of eligibility, beginning immediately.
"It got out nationally what we were trying to do," Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill said. "We were at church that day and by the time we came out, the thing just blew up — everybody knew about it."
That, though, was merely the beginning of Rhodes' story. Given the chance, had to do something with it. And, given his tortuous path to college football, that would not be easy.
Rhodes was not recruited after missing his senior season at Antioch (Tenn.) High School with an injury. He worked for a year on the assembly line at the Nissan plant in nearby Smyrna, then decided to join the Marines because, he said, "I just wanted a change, wanted to do something different. I felt like I wanted to serve my country."
Having done so with honor, he suddenly found himself having to learn football all over again. And it didn't help that because of injuries on the defensive side, the coaches moved the 6-3, 240-pound Rhodes from tight end to defensive end, a position he had never played before.
"He has come a long way," senior defensive tackle Jimmy Staten said. "When he first came in, I don't think he was too football knowledgeable. He was just running around. He didn't know how to practice. We 'thud' in practice — we just wrap up but don't tackle — but every play, he'd have someone on the ground.
"He's progressed so much throughout the season and has gotten better. He knows what he's doing now, and has been able to help us a lot on defense."
It didn't happen overnight. Rhodes began the season as strictly a special teams player. But he gradually worked his way into the defensive rotation and now plays 10 to 12 snaps a game at end. He has 10 total tackles and a half-sack this season.
"We felt on defense he could use a little more of his natural athletic ability to just line up and go rush the passer, as opposed to thinking, having to block and all that," Stockstill said. "If you think about it, when he came out in August, that was the first time he had really played football in six years. We had to teach him what to do. But he gave great effort, played hard and was a good player on special teams, and we just eased him into defensive snaps."
With a regular role in the defense, Rhodes said he is eager to make an impact. But he knows it will take time.
"It's a position I'd never played, so it took a while to get used to it and get the technique down for it," he said. "I feel a lot more comfortable than I did at the beginning of the season. I haven't reached my potential yet, but I'm working toward it a little bit at a time. One step at a time."
The next step is Monday's Armed Forces Bowl, when the former Marine will be licking his chops at the thought of butting heads with Navy, a rivalry so intense it even overrides family.
Rhodes, wife, Adrienne was in the Navy when they met at aviation school in Pensacola, Fla., But that doesn't mean he's softened his stance.
"Still a rivalry," he said, smiling. "We go at it, too."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun