– This is the fourth in a series of articles about nominees for the second annual Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA).  Also nominated were Kelly Davison of UCF, Michael Kelley of UTEP and Brandon McCoy of North Texas.

Steven Rhodes, a freshman defensive end at Middle Tennessee, is the third player from Conference USA to be nominated for the 2013 Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA).

Joining Rhodes as nominees for the 2013 Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the FWAA are two senior defensive linemen - UTEP's Michael Kelley and North Texas's Brandon McCoy.  Senior offensive lineman Kelly Davison of UCF was announced earlier in October as an Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the FWAA nominee.  This year's recipient will be announced November 11 on Veteran's Day 2013.

Coordinated by the staff at the Bell Helicopter 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 football.”  Bronze Star winning Green Beret solider Nate Boyer, a member of the University of Texas football team, was the first recipient last November of the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the FWAA.

The 25-year old Rhodes joined the Middle Tennessee football program after serving five years in the U.S. Marines.  Following his enrollment, the NCAA originally ruled that Rhodes only had two years of eligibility and would have to sit out the 2013 season since he played recreational football on base for a two-year period.

The story went national on August 18 and by late afternoon on August 19, the NCAA issued a statement saying Rhodes could play immediately and had four years of eligibility.  Since the mid-August ordeal, Rhodes has played in seven games this season with five total tackles.  In his first game with the Blue Raiders, Rhodes was named special team player of the game as Middle Tennessee defeated Western Carolina 45-24.

Following graduation in 2007 from Antioch (Tenn.) High School where he played football, Rhodes enlisted in the United States Marine Corps as a shoulder injury and financial issues initially kept him from attending college.  Rhodes' "road" back to college football started three years ago when he was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in New River, N.C.  When he was moved to MCAS Miramar, Calif., he started for the Miramar Falcons in 2012.

Even though he only played one season, his Miramar coaches saw the potential he displayed and helped to make sure he reached his goal.  A former Falcon coach helped Rhodes film his games so he could send them to colleges.  With the film from the games, Rhodes was recruited by Middle Tennessee, the school he had planned on attending before sustaining his shoulder injury.

Through all his adversity, Rhodes never lost sight of what he really wanted.  “Never give up on your dreams’ is what I would tell anyone who thinks they can’t do it,” said Rhodes.  “I had plenty of people laugh in my face.”

Despite the media attention this past August due to the NCAA rulings, Rhodes noted that he had been through "much bigger and much more difficult situations.  I spent the first two years of my marriage apart from my wife.”

Rhodes, who credits the Marines for "his healthy perspective and mental toughness.  What the [Marines] do and what they stand for - Honor, Courage, Commitment - it stands for every aspect of my life.”

Motivated by his family, Rhodes states that his wife (Adrienne, currently in the Navy) and two sons (Kameron and Devon) inspire him to excel not just on the football field and in the classroom.  Having been an Air Traffic Controller in the Marines, Rhodes wants to continue in that career track as a civilian and is pursuing a degree in MTSU's Aerospace program. 

“I’m a little nervous but also excited,” said Rhodes. “It’s been six or seven years since I’ve been in the classroom.”