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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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October 10th, 2014
12:31 PM ET

From combat field to college football - the story of Daniel Rodriguez

By chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper and Kim Berryman

(CNN) – Clemson Tiger wide receiver Daniel Rodriguez, 24, will go up against the Louisville Cardinals this Saturday.

The college football player is also an Army veteran, whose journey from the combat field to the football field wasn't so easy.

Five years ago, then-Spc. Rodriguez, was shooting for his life from a mortar pit in Afghanistan. When his outpost – COP Keating - was attacked, insurgents filmed a video of the Virginia native running to defend his position with his best friend Pvt. 1st Class Kevin Thomson.

"Next thing I know, I'm zig zagging because bullets were hitting by my ankles ... as soon as I get to the top to my 240, Thompson's coming out, and next thing I know he got hit right in front of me. And it was just that surreal moment when you realize you can't do anything for your friend," Rodriguez said in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper..

It was the deadliest battle of the war that year. When it was over, eight soldiers were dead, and dozens of others carried with them wounds, physical and otherwise – including Rodriguez.

"You come back home to a world that you, that expects you to be the same, and I'm questioning myself why I'm living," he said. "I would drive different routes to go to the store because I was afraid of getting blown up."

Rodriguez said at that time, he was very close to taking his own life, "a loaded handgun away, to my temple," he said.

But Rodriguez's story is ultimately an inspiring one. He had joined the Army to follow in the footsteps of his late father, and now he would find direction from his late friend and a memory of a conversation.

"Thompson and I were talking one day that we wanted to do something better for ourselves ... and I told him that I wanted to play college football, and he said 'Promise me that you'll play,'" he recalls.

That memory, and the memory of his comrades who had died protecting American freedom, was what helped Rodriguez get past his suicidal thoughts.

"There was a bigger purpose for my life of why I was still breathing, and it was because my friends had given their last breath, and that was kind of the flipping switch," he said.

So at age 22 – when most college athletes are graduating- Rodriguez started training. He spent his entire savings on a college recruitment video, and waited for a call. The 5'8" veteran was small, but determined.

"I like that on my resume. I like my features: too small, too slow, too old, but a hell of worker you know?" he says with a smile.

Clemson University liked it too. Rodriguez walked on the team in 2010, and has become one of the university's most celebrated athletes.

His new book "Rise" was published this month, and a movie version is already in the works.

Every parent tells their kids they can do anything they want, but Rodriquez really believed it, and took it to heart. His ambition is further fueled by the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield.

"I've seen lives taken at such a young age of ambitious kids that wanted to do so much that never got to do it. For me to put a funnel or a scope on what I want to do, it just isn't fair," says Rodriquez.

It's been a long journey "but it feels good to know that I did it" says Rodriquez.

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