TAMPA, FLORIDA -- MTSU's Steven Rhodes was presented the Armed Forces Merit Award Monday at the annual Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) breakfast.
Dr. Sidney A. McPhee, the president of MTSU, introduced Rhodes at the FWAA gathering where Jason Kersey was honored at the Steve Ellis/FWAA beat writer of the year, Buddy Davis received the FWAA lifetime achievement award and Charlie Fiss was named the FWAA Bert McGrane Award recipient.
Coordinated by the staff at the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the FWAA was created in June 2012 "to honor an individual and/or a group within the realm of the sport of college football."
Rhodes was named the fifth recipient of the AFMA Nov. 11 and received the award "officially" on Monday from Dr. McPhee.
Also in attendance at Monday breakfast was MTSU Athletic Director Chris Massaro, Russ Anderson from Conference USA and Rhodes' wife Adrienne, who is a Navy veteran. Also speaking at the FWAA breakfast were FWAA Executive Director Steve Richardson, outgoing FWAA president Mark Anderson (Las Vegas Review-Journal) and incoming association president Dave Jones (PA Media Group).
A 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end and fourth oldest player in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Rhodes was the Blue Raiders' 10th leading tackler this past season with 41 total stops (26 unassisted) with 8.0 tackles for losses, 4.5 sacks, two pass deflections, seven quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. For his 51-game MTSU career, Rhodes has 110 total tackles (71 unassisted) with 17.5 tackles for losses and 9.5 quarterback sacks.
The Antioch native isn't your normal collegiate student-athlete. Before becoming a Blue Raider, the 28-year-old recipient of the Armed Forces Merit Award served five years in the Marines and, with his wife, Adrienne, became a parent of two sons.
While in the Marines, the sergeant had all but given up on his dream to play football at the college level. That is until a friend convinced him otherwise.
"I actually completely gave up on football at the time," he said. "One of my friends at the time, Sgt. Anthony Matthews, kept begging me to play ball. It was the best decision I could have made."
When his service was complete and he was set to continue his football career, a big hurdle came out of nowhere in the form of an NCAA ruling that threatened to limit his college career.
The NCAA said he had to forfeit two years of eligibility and take a mandatory redshirt his freshman season because he participated in a recreational football league - compare it to a college intramural league - at a Marine base in 2012.
After an appeal and an outpouring of support for Rhodes, the NCAA eventually reinstated his two years of eligibility and said he could play immediately.
"It was an overwhelming joy," he said. "I was praying through the whole process with my family and friends ... and it was frustrating going through that whole period and thinking that I possibly couldn't play after all of that. When they told me I was just thanking God."
Back on the field, he got the chance to play with the Blue Raiders in the 2013 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl against Navy at the end of his freshman campaign.
"That was something I'll never forget," Rhodes said. "After spending five years in the Marines then my first bowl being that one ... it was definitely special."
A work ethic he learned in the Marines has fueled his improvement.
"The thing that really prepared me from a military standpoint was the discipline," he said. "Mental toughness is the biggest thing I got from boot camp and being a Marine, period. That work ethic and desire to be the best at whatever I do really prepared me and propelled me throughout my career."
Not only has Rhodes become an icon on the field, but he helps fellow military personnel off of it, giving advice of how to make dreams a reality.
"I've had several people reach out to me who are in the military," he said. "I had a gunnery sergeant tell me I could maybe be an athletic trainer or something else, basically saying 'you can't do that - you can't be successful at a college or NFL level.'
"Whatever someone wants to do, whatever they set their mind to, don't let anything stop you. The only person who can stop you is you."