Early this summer, Steven Rhodes sent video of himself playing football to college coaches around the country, hoping to be invited to join their practices. The video included action from some games Rhodes participated in while at Air Station Miramar, the Marine Corps base in San Diego.
Those games included referees and players wearing numbered uniforms.
But Rhodes, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound former Marine sergeant, said the recreational league was nothing close to organized.
“Man, it was like intramurals for us,” the 24-year-old told The (Murfreesboro) Daily News Journal. “There were guys out there anywhere from 18 to 40-something years old. The games were spread out. We once went six weeks between games.”
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One coach who responded to Rhodes’ inquiry was Rick Stockstill of Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro, near Rhodes’ hometown of Antioch. Stockstill invited Rhodes to camp as a walk-on tight end and it began to look as if the freshman would make the team.
But the NCAA momentarily halted the process, pointing to bylaw 126.96.36.199.1, its regulations regarding delayed eligibility. Rhodes’ participation in an organized league — with publicized schedules, official scoring and predetermined rosters — would be an infraction. Thus last week, Rhodes was declared ineligible to play for the Blue Raiders.
Public reaction was swift and vitriolic, with opponents lining up to condemn the NCAA for taking away playing rights from a Marine. The news screeched around social media platforms Monday, with even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., writing on Twitter that Rhodes should be allowed to play.
Sidney A. McPhee, the president of Middle Tennessee State, called the NCAA to address the matter. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., wrote a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert about his belief Rhodes should play.
As the groundswell rose, the NCAA reversed course Monday afternoon when its vice president for academic and membership affairs, Kevin Lennon, issued a statement announcing Rhodes could play immediately and would maintain four years of eligibility.
Lennon added there would be a review of guidelines regarding organized competition for those serving in the military, the sticking point in what became an embarrassment for the NCAA.
McPhee and athletic director Chris Massaro informed Rhodes of the NCAA’s reversal.
“He was extremely happy, as you’d imagine,” Massaro said. “It’s always fun to be there when dreams start to come true.”