It was more than just another public relations opportunity Wednesday when the St. Louis Rams made their third annual visit to Scott Air Force Base.
It was time to say thank you.
“As I told our guys, on Sundays we defend our goal line and day after day after day they defend our country,” said Rams coach Jeff Fisher, whose team made the trip from Rams Park in Earth City, Mo., across the river in buses to visit the base. “There’s just such a respect factor from a players’ standpoint for those that are serving our country.”
A Rams player that falls into both categories is wide receiver Daniel Rodriguez, who did tours of Iraq and Afghanistan after enlisting in the Army after graduating from high school. During the 2009 Battle of Kandesh in Afghanistan, eight soldiers died and Rodriguez was among the 22 wounded when he took shrapnel in his neck and legs and a bullet to his shoulder.
After the workout Wednesday, the 27-year-old Rodriguez was honored to speak with the 22 military personnel chosen to be on the field to practice against the Rams.
“I just told them thank you for your service,” said Rodriguez, who played in 37 games at Clemson as a walk-on receiver after his military duty ended and signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent. “I told them in all reality if it wasn’t for the Air Force I probably wouldn’t be alive today. During the battle we had to have a lot of gun runs and we had two (of) what’s called ‘Going Winchester,’ when a B-52 bomber dumps its entire payload.
“At the time it had only happened one time in the war in Afghanistan in ’01; when I was there on one day we had two. I’ve had danger-close bombs within 600 meters, I’ve had Apache gun runs, A-10s, so (I wanted to) let them know I was very appreciative of what they do — especially for me being here.”
Rodriguez is the ultimate long-shot when it comes to making an NFL roster, but he survived a much bigger battle and was honored by receiving a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his heroic service to his country.
He has won many friends on the Rams and even has written a book called “Rise” about his inspirational story. He made a few more friends Wednesday at Scott AFB.
“I thought it was just very humbling for me to go up there and say thank you to them,” he said. “I’m glad we had a great time and interacted with them.”
The Rams used the military players, including one female, as stand-ins for the Kansas City Chiefs, their final preseason opponent at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Edward Jones Dome.
“It’s a lot of fun, man,” Rams tight end Jared Cook said. “Those guys get pretty competitive. They try and knock us down, intercept balls, all kinds of stuff. Somebody shot the gap on me a couple times, almost had a sack but Nick (quarterback Nick Foles) got the ball off.”
Cook has been with Fisher since both were with the Tennessee Titans. The Titans would make annual treks to nearby Fort Campbell on the Tennessee-Kentucky border.
“I think they understand how hard it is in our shoes, but not even remotely as hard as it is in their shoes,” said Cook, who has many friends and family still on active duty or retired military. “It’s just a mutual respect that we have for each other. We understand how tough it is in their occupation and they sacrifice a lot to do their jobs.”
As an Army veteran, Rodriguez didn’t have to be reminded he was on an Air Force base.
“I was Army, so we’ve got to hold a grudge in all services of duty,” he said. “But it was pretty cool to be out there and see them running around. It felt really good to be able to do that for those guys.”
The military players were prepped in some of the Chiefs’ offensive and defensive schemes.
“They had plays drawn up, they had defensive calls up, defensive alignments, everything,” joked Cook. “Everything that we’re going to be seeing (Thursday) night those guys were out there running. I guess it was a bit of an NFL practice for them and a bit of a run through for us.”
Weren’t the military players nervous?
“I don’t think so,” Cook said. “A few of them tried to take our heads off. You think I’m joking but really...they’re coming for us like we’ve got a target on our back. They have a good time doing it and we enjoy it as well.”
Stadium task force rally
St. Louis NFL stadium task force leaders Dave Peacock and Bob Blitz will speak to fans, provide updates and thank them for their support of the new stadium project plan at 6:15 p.m. Thursday during a rally at the Missouri Athletic Club.
The event is scheduled before the Rams and Chiefs kick things off in the final preseason game at 7 p.m. Thursday at the nearby Edward Jones Dome. The Missouri Athletic Club is located at the corner of Broadway and Lucas in downtown St. Louis.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is also scheduled to speak.