Before joining the Marines, Eddie Rodriguez was a 19-year old from Long Island, N.Y., hoping to earn a scholarship in football as a wide receiver.
After high school, he worked a few odd jobs and kept his college dream going by playing football at a local community college. Rodriguez was looking forward to pending visits from collegiate scouts, but blew his knee out a week before they arrived.
"I got hurt," said Rodriguez, the Elk & Elk Military Salutes honoree prior to the Blue Jackets' game Oct. 21 against the Los Angeles Kings. "Scouts were coming the following week, and I blew out my ACL the week before. Instead, the Marine recruiter came up to me. He said, 'Hey, we'll fix your knee.'"
His plans took a sudden, sharp turn that day. Rodriguez enlisted with the Marines, and spent eight years active duty after his knee healed.
He started out as a field technician/rifleman, and rose to the rank of sergeant. Rodriguez had plans to become a staff sergeant, but was medically separated from the Marines instead in 2015, the result of injuries he'd gotten while being wounded in combat on two separate occasions.
After being deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Kuwait and Oman - conducting anti-terrorism and anti-piracy operations - it was time for Rodriguez to rejoin civilian life. He and his wife, Rachel, decided to move to her home state of Ohio, and that's where they both discovered the Blue Jackets.
Rodriguez was a New York Islanders fan as a kid, but had stopped watching hockey during his time in the military. Rachel Rodriguez was more of a Cleveland Browns fan. Then, they decided to attend the Jackets' final game of the 2015-16 season, a 5-4 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationwide Arena.
Their tickets were through the Wounded Warrior Project, which Rodriguez became involved with after serving.
"They got us tickets, and put us up in a catered box," he said. "It was me, my wife and like six other vets with their spouses. They catered it with food the whole night, and the coolest thing was right before the game, they put us down in the tunnel for when players came out for introductions."
That was the first time they saw Rachel's now-favorite player, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, leading the team onto the ice.
"That was my first experience going to a Blue Jackets game," Rodriguez said. "I didn't know about anybody on the team, but they come down the line, and Bob is the first one. He's fist-bumping everybody, and I was like, 'This is awesome.' I've gone to sporting events all over, and I've never experienced anything like that. The very first night we went to that game with the Wounded Warrior Project, we fell in love with the team."
They're season-ticket holders now, after buying single-game tickets to nearly 20 games last season and attending the Jackets' 5-4 win in Game 4 of a first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Rather than going game-to-game again, they decided to take the plunge and purchase a season-ticket package - along with authentic Blue Jackets jerseys (Bobrovsky for her, captain Nick Foligno for him).
That's not the extent of their Blue Jackets' experience, though.
There was also Rodriguez's honoree night, when he stood at center ice for Leo Welsh's rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner and met the legendary Willie O'Ree, the man who broke hockey's color barrier.
Photos of that night, plus a video sent by the Blue Jackets, are always at his fingertips - just a couple touches away on his phone. There was also a surprise as Rodriguez left the ice.
"I got a fist bump from everybody on the team and a hug from Torts.'" Rodriguez said, referring to Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, who son is active duty in the Army. "That was probably the coolest thing. I get the fist-bumps walking past the bench, they open up the bench so we can walk through, and as we do, Torts shakes Willie's hand, then gives me a hug and he's like, 'I appreciate everything you do, Eddie.' That was big with me. The fact that he came up, gave me a hug, knew my name and thanked me like that, that means the world to me."
Looking back on it, that experience ranks right at the top of his favorite sports experiences - even higher than holding the American flag prior to the 2016 World Cup Qualifier between USA and Mexico.
"I walked over, and every single person on that bench took the time to sit forward, and give me a fist-bump," said Rodriguez, who lives in Chillicothe and works in security. "I've done some cool stuff with Wounded Warrior before, but that was awesome. That was probably one of the coolest things I've done. Nothing holds a torch to that."