Army Vet And Rams WR On Meeting Cowboys TE Jason Witten
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten meets a lot of people, so forgive him if he forgets a name or face.
Thus, when St. Louis Rams receiver Daniel Rodriguez approached him with a photo before the teams’ joint practice Monday, Witten figured it was just an undrafted rookie seeking an autograph.
Instead, Rodriguez presented Witten with a photo of the two as a reminder of the time they spent together in Afghanistan.
It blew Witten away.
“I had no idea he was even in the NFL,” Witten said. “I was literally getting ready for practice, big scrimmage, kind of getting my mind right. I was in the zone, and he came over and [reintroduced himself]. It kind of threw me off at first. I just thought, ‘Wow! What a special guy. Look where he’s come from, and the opportunity he’s getting.’ It was special.”
Witten, who has missed only one game in his 12-year career, has come to be known for his big heart. Rodriguez, an Army vet, is known for his Purple Heart.
It’s what brought the two together in 2010.
Rodriguez, then a sergeant, was recovering from bullet and shrapnel wounds from one of the bloodiest battles in the Afghanistan conflict. Witten was traveling on an NFL-USO tour with fellow players Vernon Davis, Joe Thomas and Mario Williams.
“We were still fighting almost every day, and he came out there,” Rodriguez said. “So it was pretty incredible to see those guys walk in, risk their safety and their time to put a few smiles on our faces.”
Rodriguez, 27, reminded Witten of their meal together, and the mention of a joke jolted Witten’s memory of the meeting.
“It’s pretty funny,” Rodriguez said. “I grew up in Virginia, so I was a lifelong Redskins fan and obviously Washington-Dallas is a big rivalry. So when I met him in Afghanistan, I had my Redskins hat, and he signed it ‘Redskins Suck.’ I still have it. I chuckle about it. It was funny when I told him.”
It was part of a weeklong trip that changed Witten.
“I thought when I went that it was going to be maybe a little bit of a morale boost for those guys,” Witten said. “I had no idea that we were going to be in the real thick of it, and that maybe it’d do as much for us. We were so humbled by it. We were like, ‘Hey, what can we do for your guys?’
“It was really special. There weren’t a whole lot of cameras. There wasn’t a whole lot of anything other than just spending time with those guys. I learned a lot. Really, I learned how mentally tough they are. I have so much more respect seeing them and what they went through.”
Rodriguez shared his story with the NFL players in 2010. A lot of people since have heard it, with Rodriguez having written a best-selling autobiography Rise: A Soldier, a Dream and a Promise Kept, with plans for a movie after Sony TriStar Entertainment purchased the book rights.
While serving a 12-month tour in Afghanistan, Rodriguez was one of 60 Americans who fought in the Battle of Kamdesh on Oct. 3, 2009. Eight Americans died and 22 others were wounded, including Rodriguez, who took bullet fragments in his shoulder and shrapnel in his neck and legs.
He continued to fight 12 more hours and won a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
“To be honest with you, we call [the Purple Heart] the enemy marksman badge,” Rodriguez said. “I was unlucky to get it. It’s a very honorable award. I have friends without legs. So to be out here playing football, I take it with respect, but I know there’s a lot of other people suffering who have the same award as I do, so I try not to hold it high as if I’m better than anybody else, because I’m not.”
Rodriguez — who walked on at Clemson and signed with the Rams after a post-draft tryout — signed a copy of his book for Witten, thanking him for his visit to Afghanistan and for serving as inspiration. Witten promises to read the book and said he will cherish it.
“You don’t realize who you’re going to meet and the impression you’re going to have on them,” Witten said. “I remember the conversation we had in Afghanistan. I had no idea what had taken place prior to us coming. It really sends a message and reminds me that you don’t understand what you say and the time you can spend and how you can handle yourself, really how much of an impact you can have.”