Thanks to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, United States military veterans returning to civilian life have the option to return to school for free. Many have chosen to take the opportunity, but not too many of them choose to play college sports.
Steven Rhodes is not your typical college student, or your typical college football player. The Middle Tennessee State sophomore stands 6-foot-3 and weighs in at 253 pounds — about right for a defensive end. Yet the average college football player isn’t married, doesn’t have two young children, and hasn’t served five years in the United States Marine Corps. Rhodes has.
He first made headlines last year, when the NCAA initially ruled him ineligible to play because he participated in a military recreational football league during his time in the Marine Corps. The situation created a viral storm with a flurry of protests.
The initial ruling that went against Rhodes and Middle Tennessee cited NCAA bylaw 188.8.131.52.1, which stated student-athletes who do not enroll in college within a year of their high school graduation will be charged a year of eligibility for each academic year they participate in organized competition.
Clear enough, but a 1986 revision of the rule created exemptions for, “participation in organized competition during times spent in the armed services, on official church missions or with recognized foreign aid services of the U.S. government.”
So why did the NCAA initially rule as it did? In part because of some poor revisions, it seems the NCAA rulebook had gone through so many changes that somehow the exemption fell through the editing cracks.
Without the exemption, Rhodes would have had to sit the season out and forfeit two years of eligibility because his recreational league season spanned two academic years. Of course, MTSU appealed and first won on the eligibility issue, giving Rhodes his full four years of eligibility. Then the NCAA said he could play right away, thanks to continued protests from the like of U.S. Senator and decorated Navy vet John McCain. The Senator even took to Twitter on behalf of Rhodes:
NCAA should allow Steven Rhodes to play – don’t penalize him for serving his country http://t.co/IliA7OmJFX
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) August 19, 2013
Rhodes had been a 180-pound wide receiver in high school. He graduated from Antioch (Tenn.) High School in 2007 and joined the Marines straight away. He returned to the gridiron as an air traffic controller stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, part of their recreational league.
While there were game officials, team uniforms, and sometimes a working scoreboard, team rosters were filled with players from 18 years old up through their forties. At one point, there was a six-week gap between games. Still, Rhodes sent game film from his Miramar days to MTSU staff. They liked what they saw, and didn’t foresee any NCAA issues.
Now that all the rulings and unwanted attention are behind him, Rhodes has enjoyed some on-field success. After he was cleared to play, Rhodes became a regular on the Blue Raiders’ special teams unit, logging 166 special teams snaps and 237 snaps in total. He played in all 13 MTSU games last year, including an Armed Forces Bowl clash with Navy where he registered 10 tackles and a sack.
He started taking snaps as part of the defensive line rotation late last year. In nine games so far this season, Rhodes has recorded ten tackles, a sack, a team-high five quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Rhodes said, “I haven’t reached my potential yet, but I’m working toward it a little bit at a time. One step at a time.”
In another Veterans Day success story, Maryland running back Tehuti Miles returned from battle in Afghanistan only to enter a very different kind of battle, to play. Miles served in the infamous Kandahar province with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division from March 2010 to March 2011. Miles has endured PTSD, and overcame short-term memory loss, insomnia, nightmares and memories of combat to earn a spot on the Terrapins roster as a walk-on.
Initially the NCAA ruled him ineligible after he started practicing with Maryland, citing Miles’ lack of the necessary core classes in high school. Of course, back then he never believed he would play college football.
Maryland filed a successful waiver to the NCAA on Miles’ behalf. The university sent copies of his junior college transcripts and military certificates, like his Army achievement medal for “exceptionally meritorious service.”
The 5-10 205-pound Miles hasn’t seen any game action yet, but his hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. He was named scout team player of the week before the Terrapins clash with Virginia Tech last year.
Tuesday, November 11 is Veterans Day. It’s a time to thank those who served our nation in the armed forces at home and abroad, and a time to remember that those who return deserve to enjoy the freedom they helped protect.