Video by Tyler Lamb / Sports Editor
Clad in Raider Blue and White, number 49’s journey to Murfreesboro was not an easy one by any stretch of the imagination. But on Friday, Veterans Day, Rhodes is finally being recognized not only for his dedication on the field, but most importantly, in life, where the Marine sergeant comes home to a Navy veteran wife and two boys every night.
The defensive end was excited Friday morning with the honor of being named the 2016 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Merit Award Recipient presented by the Football Writers Association of America.
“I’m happy that I’m able to represent my family, my President, the Armed Forces, specifically the Marine Corps, my branch of service, and also my school,” said Rhodes.
By receiving this year’s award, Rhodes exemplifies the key attributes a winner of the award must have:
Authentic, Reliable, Motivating, Enthusiastic, Determined
Fair, Organized, Respectful, Committed, Effective, Selfless
Coming out of Antioch High School in 2007, after having not played football his senior year, Rhodes decided to put off college and get a job at the Nissan plant in Smyrna. The lanky, 180-pound factory operator decided to join the Marines in 2008, a service he would hold for the next five years.
With football in his rear view mirror, Rhodes decided his new future would be to pursue a position as an air traffic controller, a job he had come to love while in the Marines.
During the latter part of his time in the service, however, Rhodes began to pick up his love for football again while participating in a recreational football league on his home military base. Seeing obvious talent and passion for the game, friends and coaches encouraged him to get back into football shape and make a run at chasing another long-forgotten dream, the NFL. As ludicrous as it may have seemed, Rhodes set his sights on accomplishing the task one step at a time.
Rhodes started the journey by sending tapes of his team’s games, as well as making multiple calls to universities. None of them offered a scholarship.
Rhodes, along with his wife and two young boys, moved to Plan B, going home to Middle Tennessee to be near Rhodes’ family and allowing him the opportunity to walk-on to the Blue Raider team and pursue a college degree.
While MTSU was excited about the prospect of him playing, they would soon discover an NCAA ruling that they feared would cause him to have to sit out his first year year due to his “recreational league” play while in the service. Within a few days, however, the NCAA notified that he was cleared to play and would still have all four years of eligibility.
Fast forward four years to his senior season, where he has played in every game of his career, amassing a total of 98 tackles, 63 unassisted, 14 tackles for loss, including 7.5 sacks. The now 280-pound fierce linemen has currently started 24 games in a row, dating back to his sophomore season, and will likely surpass the 100-tackle mark in Saturday’s game against Marshall.
Even though his journey to Floyd Stadium was a lengthy one, Rhodes said he wouldn’t trade his past experiences for anything and is blessed to be a part of this program here.
“Everything worked out the way it needed to work out and it’s really been a blessing to be able to be here, to be a part of this brotherhood,” Rhodes said. “It’s been both a blessing and a surprise from the very beginning, not looking like it would be favorable for me.”
The veteran said throughout the time wondering if he would be eligible to play, he clung to his faith for guidance.
“I just kept my faith strong in what I wanted, to get all my years of eligibility and to play immediately, especially considering my age,” Rhodes said. “But I never let anything waiver my faith, regardless of anything the NCAA said.”
Rhodes, now 27, has also exemplified leadership in every facet throughout his four years with MTSU, serving as a father figure for his teammates.
“They ask me a number of questions, they really do,” Rhodes said. “But I’m glad that I’m able to instill knowledge in them in any way that I can.”
Head coach Rick Stockstill said Rhodes’ ability to lead off the field hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I think his leadership off the field has had as big of an impact as it has on the field,” said Stockstill.
“His wife and kids come to practice a couple times a week. I think just the players getting to see how they interact; how he treats his wife, how he treats his kids. He’s showing himself as a role just in the sense of how you become a husband and how you treat people.”
Rhodes has also been named a candidate for the 2016 Burlsworth Trophy, an award presented annually to the nation’s most outstanding football player who began their career as a walk-on, having received no financial aid of any kind his first season.
But with all the awards and accolades Rhodes can receive, none will be sweeter than getting to fulfill his long-time dream: to be an NFL athlete.
“I’m getting ready for the combine, pro day, whatever it may be. However it may come, I see myself on an NFL team this time next year,” Rhodes said. “I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but my job is just to work as hard as I can and continue to have the same work ethic that got me here.”
“Steven is exemplary as a leader, as a football player, as a teammate, as a member of this community,” said Stockstill. “I’m honored to coach him and I’m proud that he’s on this team.”
Rhodes will be officially presented with the Armed Forces Merit Award on Jan. 9 in Tampa, Florida on the morning of the National Championship game.
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