Originally published Sept. 20
Middle Tennessee defensive end Steven Rhodes celebrated his 25th birthday knowing he was exactly where he was supposed to be in life. A husband, a father of two sons and a former Marine, Rhodes had just helped the Blue Raiders become bowl eligible with a 35-34 comeback win over Florida Atlantic on Nov. 22, 2014.
“My wife and I were kind of on the fence about me not playing another year,” Rhodes said. “With that game, that intense finish and her just seeing how much I progressed through the years — and it was my birthday — she was like, ‘You can’t stop. You’ve got to continue to follow your dreams.’ We both cried on the sideline.”
After an injury wiped out his senior season at Antioch High School, near MTSU, Rhodes figured his playing days were behind him. But after watching him play while in the Marines in 2012, Sgt. Anthony Matthews pushed Rhodes to get back into playing shape again and try to play college football.
“He stayed on me and kept telling me I should push forward and see what I could do with it,” Rhodes said. “My coach in the Marine Corps, Master Gunnery Sgt. Ross Blain — he took me to a whole other level of leadership. He pushed me to be the man I am today and a good leader on the team. I was extremely lazy before I went into the Marine Corps. It gave me that work ethic, the leadership abilities, discipline — the whole nine yards.”
Now nearly 28, Rhodes (6-3, 268) is in his senior season with the Blue Raiders. And Rhodes has had an impact this year with 29 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one fumble recovery. He is hoping to extend his playing career even further once he’s done at MTSU. On Friday, Rhodes was named the fifth recipient of the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America.
“I consider it a blessing to still be able to do this — play ball and pursue my dreams of going to the NFL,” Rhodes said. “This senior season means a lot. We have an excellent team on both sides of the ball and have a great chance of winning a championship this year. I definitely want to go out on top and do great things for this program.”
Rhodes met his wife, Adrienne, while he was in the Marines and she was in the Navy. Together, they make the hectic schedule with Rhodes going to school, playing college football and being a father to their sons Kameron, 5, and Devon, 4, work.
“It’s definitely tough,” Rhodes said. “It’s like having several full-time jobs. I’m a husband first, then a father, then a football player. My freshman year was the worst — just trying to make that adjustment. My wife and I have gotten on the same page. She’s made it as seamless and worry-free for me as possible. We’re moving toward a common goal. It was a tough ride, but I wouldn’t change any of it. It’s molded me into the man I am today.”
MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill said Rhodes had leadership qualities as soon as he arrived in Murfreesboro, but that it took a while for him to have a big effect on the team because he was only around his new teammates at practice.
“Just because you’re a leader in some other capacity, until you get to know people and people get to know you on a personal level, I think it takes a little bit of time,” Stockstill said. “When he was a freshman, everybody on the outside assumed he was going to be a great leader and all of that, which he was. But it didn’t impact the team because the team didn’t know him. Now, going into his senior year, where he’s established himself not only as a player but as a person, he’s one of our better leaders.”
Once Rhodes decided to play college football, he sent film to MTSU, Vanderbilt, and San Diego State. He was elated to get the call to play for the Blue Raiders.
“Right after I got off work, I went to my phone and saw a couple of voicemails,” Rhodes said. “They welcomed me with open arms from the very beginning and made me feel loved and wanted. It’s been an excellent experience here (at MTSU).”
Rhodes also had to get past a pretty big roadblock to once again play football. The NCAA initially ruled he would have to forfeit two years of eligibility and take a mandatory redshirt as a freshman because of his participation in football while in the Marines. But MTSU appealed and fought to get the decision overturned.
“To be honest, I’m surprised it went as far as it did,” Stockstill said. “Really, all he had done amounted to playing intramural football. It was like, ‘We don’t have any military operations right now, we’re going to go out and play some ball.’ It wasn’t like he was getting paid or playing intercollegiate ball. We were fighting it because it was the right thing to do for him. We just tried to help him pursue his dream of playing college football.”
Rhodes, who Stockstill said is always smiling and positive and gives relentless effort, was impressed to see his new team treat him like he was family.
“It’s a blessing,” Rhodes said. “When God has plan for you, nothing can derail you. He linked me up with this wonderful coaching staff and this wonderful team that was ready to go to bat for me and ready to fight for me. If I had gone to another institution, they would have said, ‘OK, you’ve got to do what they say.’ God always knows what he’s doing. I’m just blessed to be here.”