By Mealand Ragland-Hudgins, USA TODAY Sports
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Adrienne Rhodes hasn't always been afootball fan.
"I became one when I met Steven," she said, donning a custom shirt that read "Mrs. Rhodes."
She took a flight from San Diego on Thursday to watch her husband, Steven Rhodes, a defensive end for Middle Tennessee's Blue Raiders, suit up for the season opener against Western Carolina at Floyd Stadium.
Steven Rhodes, an Antioch, Tenn., native, finished five years of active service in the Marines this summer and walked on to the football team, but not without overcoming some obstacles.
NCAA rules stipulated he would have to sit out this season and forfeit two years of eligibility because the military recreational league he played in spanned two academic years. MTSU appealed and got a partial victory, which allowed him to recoup those two years, but forced him to sit out this season.
An article about Rhodes' situation resulted in national attention, and the next day, the NCAA granted him full, immediate eligibility.
It had been a little more than a month since the husband and wife had seen each other.
"I saw him looking in the stands for us, and they wouldn't let me down on the field. I worked my magic to get close," said Adrienne Rhodes, whose final military leave from the Navy began Thursday. "He came over to kiss me. It was great to see him."
A native of Philadelphia, Adrienne Rhodes met her husband in the military. They have two sons, 3-year-old Kameron and 1-year-old Devon. She said Steven has exceeded her expectations "to the max" of what a father and husband should be.
"He's very humble, a godly man. He's a phenomenal father, husband, all of that," she said, bubbling over with excitement while waiting for the team to take the field.
Once Rhodes' story broke, it was picked up by a host of national media outlets. Though the couple were stationed at the same Marine base in San Diego, things were less hectic for her than for her husband.
"I talked to my master chief about it. I was in the gym once, and someone said 'You're his wife,' " Adrienne Rhodes recalled. "It wasn't something I went around talking about, but if people asked, I'd tell them."
More than a dozen of the couple's family members gathered at the stadium, shouting loudly when Steven Rhodes took the field for the opening kickoff. Among them were his parents, Narkita and Reginald Rhodes, and aunt and uncle, Angela and Johnny Butler.
Narkita Rhodes said football is her son's passion.
"When he played in the service, it was something to do. These last two weeks have exerted so much energy from us. The whole process has been overwhelming, but it's been God-blessed. We're very proud of him," she said.
Angela Butler said she and her husband were traveling the day the story broke.
"We prayed. That was really all we could do. But we were rooting for him the whole time,"
Narkita Rhodes said Steven's clearance was the victory they'd waited for for weeks.
"Some have gone before him and gave up," she said. "They didn't fight, but Steven did."
Rhodes quickly made his presence known on special teams during the Blue Raiders' 45-24 victory Thursday. He also played at defensive end in the fourth quarter. In total, he was in on four tackles, two of them solo, and had half a sack.
Mealand Ragland-Hudgins also writes for The (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) Daily News Journal, a Gannett property. Contributing: Adam Sparks of The Daily News Journal.