MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- Steven Rhodes felt a duty to serve his country and had a dream to play football.
But now, to his surprise, one is hindering the other in the peculiar case of the U.S. Marine and 24-year-old Middle Tennessee State University freshman football player vs. the NCAA.
"This is extremely frustrating. I think it's unfair, highly unfair," Rhodes said. "I just got out of the Marine Corps, and I wanted to play. For (the NCAA) to say, 'No, you can't play right now,' I just don't understand the logic in that."
Rhodes, from Antioch, Tenn., finished his five years of active service in the Marines this summer. He then called MTSU coaches in hopes of landing a spot as a walk-on player for the Blue Raiders. They happily granted the request of the athletic 6-3, 240-pound Marine sergeant. He has played tight end and defensive end in preseason camp.
But not long after arriving on campus, Rhodes was told that his participation in a military-only recreational football league in 2012 would hinder his immediate eligibility for Division I football, per an NCAA rule.
Despite his age, military service and complete lack of college football experience, Rhodes must take a mandatory redshirt and not play for MTSU this season.
Rhodes was shocked by the news. He knew what that recreational league was. It was not pay-for-play. It was not highly competitive. It was not even well-organized.
"Man, it was like intramurals for us. There were guys out there anywhere from 18 to 40-something years old," said Rhodes, chuckling and shaking his head. "The games were spread out. We once went six weeks between games."
Rhodes had no sense that his immediate eligibility would be in question. He even sent a amateur video to MTSU's coaches of his games at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, where he was stationed as an air traffic controller alongside his wife, Adrienne, who is finishing her service in the U.S. Navy.
"I was super excited when he got the chance to play football (at MTSU), but then I was shocked to find out there was a problem with him playing," said Adrienne. "Those games were something they did in their spare time on the same base. They were games against different shops - you know, like the air traffic controllers against the mechanics. It was so disorganized. I couldn't believe that was an issue."
Letter of the law
The official rule keeping Rhodes from playing this season is NCAA bylaw 188.8.131.52.1. Steeped in layers of legal jargon, the rule essentially says student-athletes who do not enroll in college within a year of their high school graduation will be charged a year of intercollegiate eligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition.
By NCAA standards, Rhodes' recreational league games at the Marine base counted as "organized competition" because there were game officials, team uniforms and the score was kept.
If Rhodes had enrolled in college for at least one semester before he joined the military, he would be eligible this season. The spirit of that rule is akin to the exception that allows members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pause their eligibility clock to go on two-year mission trips after they have already begun college.
Needless to say, Rhodes had no knowledge of such NCAA bylaws when he graduated from Antioch High in 2007, worked at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., for a year and then joined the Marine Corps in August 2008 "to get a sense of responsibility and be part of the most elite fighting force known to man."
By current NCAA rule, Rhodes would have to sit out this season and forfeit two years of eligibility because his recreational league season spanned two academic years (two games were played in the winter and as many as 10 more in the summer and fall of 2012).
Last week, MTSU won a partial appeal to the NCAA to recoup those two years of eligibility, giving Rhodes four total seasons of eligibility. But he still must sit out this season. MTSU's athletics compliance office is now reloading its argument in hopes of also gaining Rhodes' immediate eligibility because of his unique situation.
Making the case
Daryl Simpson, MTSU's assistant athletics director/compliance, said there is no culprit in Rhodes' case. The NCAA never intended to penalize military service members. The current rule is simply an oversight after many revisions of bylaws over the past four decades.
"All this is strictly because of how the bylaw is worded," Simpson said. "In my opinion, there is no intent of anyone to not allow protection to our U.S. service members."
The aforementioned NCAA rule first took shape in 1980, when "participation in organized competition during times spent in the armed services, on official church missions or with recognized foreign aid services of the U.S. government" were exempt from limiting eligibility.
The 1986 revision of the rule further clarified student-athlete's right to participate in recreational sports during military service.
But through several revisions and branches of the rule - all for reasons unrelated to military exceptions - the clause allowing competition during military service was lost and not carried over into the current bylaws.
How strange has the layering of the NCAA rule become over the years? If Rhodes participated in ice hockey or skiing, his eligibility would not be in question - likely because those sports must adhere to unique cases of international athletes playing collegiately in the USA.
"It's nobody's fault," Simpson said. "There were unintended consequences of forgetting that clause over time."
And there lies the foundation of MTSU's argument for the NCAA to grant Rhodes' immediate eligibility. If the clause of the original rule had been carried over through each revision of the bylaws, there would be no issue.
"We're just saying (to the NCAA), 'Hey, you forgot this clause,' " Simpson said.
Changing an NCAA rule is a large undertaking. MTSU is simply trying to get relief from the rule in Rhodes' case so he can play this season and then focus on the legislative red tape to update the rule.
MTSU's argument also cites Rhodes' age, financial status and U.S. Code.
Rhodes is married with two sons, 3-year-old Kameron and 1-year-old Devon. They live in Smyrna near his parents, who help take care of the children until Rhodes' wife is discharged from the Navy in September. Rhodes is not under scholarship, so a redshirt year would ultimately cost him an extra year of tuition costs.
And then U.S. Code 10 USC 717 - which sits atop a pile of papers on Simpson's desk - essentially says military sports programs are encouraged to help morale of troops, build teamwork and help with stress relief.
"And this is stressful enough already, with us being apart and him going from (Marines) to school," said Rhodes' wife. "Now the eligibility thing just adds to the stress. It's a bite in the butt and it's sad. But we are keeping faith that it will all work out."
Simpson and his staff have worked around the clock to compile Rhodes' case, which could be presented to the NCAA office and ultimately the organization's subcommittee for legislative relief.
Simpson said he has been told the basic facts of only one other similar case, but he does not know the school involved. But he said in that case, the student-athlete gained his four years of eligibility but did not appeal a second time for immediate eligibility.
An NCAA representative could not be reached when called for comment by The Daily News Journal.
Simpson now faces a balancing act. He wants Rhodes' to be eligible to play as soon as possible, but he also must make his attempt at a final appeal count.
MTSU's first game is Aug. 29 vs. Western Carolina, when Rhodes' wife will arrive in Murfreesboro on temporary leave from the Navy. For now, it appears unlikely Rhodes will be allowed to suit up for that game.
On the field
Aside from that scattered season in the military recreational league, Rhodes had not played football since he was a lanky 180-pound wide receiver at Antioch High nearly seven years ago.
"He was a good kid, but he came back a man," said Mike Woodward, Rhodes' high school coach who is now at Brentwood (Tenn.) High. "He made the choice to serve his country. I hope they do the right thing and choose to let him play this year."
Rhodes began MTSU's preseason camp at tight end. After injuries piled up, Rhodes moved to defensive end, a position he had never played. MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said Rhodes, if eligible, will play for the Blue Raiders in some role.
"There's no doubt he can help us on special teams, and then we can find a place for him," Stockstill said. "He is learning defensive end, and he looks like he can come off the edge. We could always move him back to offense and develop him there, maybe do that next spring. But hopefully he gets eligible this season.
"For a guy to go serve our country, you'd think there would be some compassion and understanding so this guy is not prevented from playing college football. He's going to be almost 30 years old when his (eligibility) clock runs out. He needs to be allowed to play right now. Hopefully, they let him."
Rhodes earned a certificate of accommodation from the Marines for his exceptional work in air traffic control. That will be his concentration of study in MTSU's acclaimed aerospace program when he begins his first college semester next week.
Despite his adversity in football, Rhodes' work ethic has impressed coaches, support staff and teammates - many of whom are just now learning his background.
"I played at Antioch years after him, and I didn't even know he played there until he introduced himself to me the other day," MTSU sophomore defensive end Alexandro Antoine said. "I don't know all about his situation, but it's kind of crazy. The man already did his service, so the least you could do is reward the man by letting him play right now.
"Those (military) guys are good to have around the team. They are mentally tougher than the rest of us, and so you want them playing beside you. We are all football players. But that man is a Marine."
Adam Sparks also writes for The (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) Daily News Journal, a Gannett property.