The value of players like Clemson’s Daniel Rodriguez or North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams is about more than what they do on the field.
They’re the kind of players coaches want for their maturity and leadership regardless of whether they start every game or play sparingly.
Rodriguez served in Iraq and Afghanistan before walking on for the Tigers. Williams worked a factory job after graduation before deciding to give college football a try and becoming a starter for the Tar Heels.
“They understand the real-life experiences,” North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien said. “Some of these guys right out of high school have no clue about what’s out there or what’s waiting for them if they don’t get their degree or do what they’re supposed to do. You have somebody that can say, ‘Hey, listen, you don’t know how lucky you have it being here.’”
O’Brien has one in reserve defensive end McKay Frandsen, a married 24-year-old who went on a 2-year Mormon mission to Alaska before walking on at BYU then going to junior college to earn his way to N.C. State.
Wake Forest’s Alex Kinal, a 22-year-old redshirt freshman, spent three years working a construction job in his native Australia before getting a shot to play for the Demon Deacons. He’s now their starting punter.
At Florida State, there’s offensive lineman Menelik Watson. The 23-year-old junior graduated from high school in England in 2006, played basketball in Spain and played a year of basketball at Marist. But with his 6-foot-7 frame, he grew interested in football, played at Saddleback College (Calif.) and transferred to be a starting lineman for the Seminoles.
Boston College reserve quarterback Dave Shinskie, 28, spent seven seasons playing minor-league baseball. He started as a 25-year-old freshman and led the Eagles to eight wins, but lost his job the following year to current starter Chase Rettig.
“That probably wouldn’t sit well with a lot of people, but Dave is a great teammate and a great asset to our program,” BC coach Frank Spaziani said. “We’re very fortunate that he contributed to those wins and he’s still helping to contribute in a different way. ... I attribute that to some of his maturity and what he’s been through.”
Rodriguez, 24, spent 18 months in Iraq and a year in Afghanistan, where he was shot in the shoulder and wounded by shrapnel in a battle in October 2009.
Rodriguez, who earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, had promised a friend who was killed in the attack that he would find a way to play college football if he made it home. He enrolled in a community college, then filmed his workout regimen in a video posted on YouTube that generated inquiries from about 50 schools — including Clemson.
“I wasn’t, obviously, brought here on my five-star capabilities,” Rodriguez said. “But what I’ve been through as a man and what I can relate and pass to these guys that are younger than I, having my experience and the hardships I’ve gone through and overcome, it’s definitely something that the guys look up to me for.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Rodriguez, who has one catch and has played primarily on special teams for the reigning ACC champions, is “inspirational.”
“He’s been a sergeant of 20 or 40 men in real life and now he’s in the locker room with a bunch of 18- to 22-year-old guys who don’t really have life figured out yet,” Swinney said.
At North Carolina, Williams said he struggled in high school and did enough to graduate with his class. He then worked in a factory making radiator parts for large trucks before deciding it wasn’t for him and that he would try to play football.
There weren’t many options — he had played only one year of high school football — and he ended up walking on at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College armed only with his work ethic and the belief that “there was something more out there for me in life than there was at that factory.”
He thrived, became an all-conference pick and ended up at North Carolina as a starting defensive tackle with a team-high five sacks.
Kareem Martin, one of Williams’ line mates, said watching Williams has taught him a clear lesson: “You don’t want to lose this opportunity.”
“I just kind of tell guys, a lot of guys got here, it was easy for them to get here because they went to the big-time high schools,” Williams said. “... Everybody’s not going to play in the NFL, just like not everybody’s going to play Division I. But you’re able to get a free education from the University of North Carolina. Just take advantage of it.”
Williams, who turns 24 next month, even recently pulled the UNC walk-ons aside, telling them he had been in their shoes and they could set themselves apart by working hard every day.
First-year coach Larry Fedora hopes it’s a message that sticks with them beyond college.
“I’ve never been on a team where everybody has the same background, either economically or socially or anything,” Fedora said. “And so that’s the great thing about being part of a team or a football family: learning from others, learning from the mistakes of others, learning from the positive things of others. ... That’s what the real world is all about.”