MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — The NCAA has ruled that a Middle Tennessee football player who spent five years in the Marines will be allowed to compete this fall and that he will have four years of eligibility remaining.
It's a reversal from the NCAA's earlier decision to rule Steven Rhodes was ineligible because he played in a recreational league during his military service. School officials had said earlier Monday that they were working with NCAA officials to come up with a solution.
"It's nothing but a blessing," Rhodes said after Monday's practice.
Late Monday afternoon, the NCAA issued a news release saying Rhodes could play immediately and member schools would continue to re-examine the competition rules, especially as it impacts those returning from military service. Rhodes has been practicing at tight end and defensive end.
"We thank Steven for his service to our country and wish him the best as he begins college," NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs Kevin Lennon said.
Before the ruling came down, Middle Tennessee President Sidney McPhee said it was a "no brainer" to allow Rhodes to play. After learning of the decision, McPhee thanked the NCAA.
"This is exciting news for Steven and Middle Tennessee State University," McPhee said in a statement. "We express our gratitude to the NCAA for reviewing this situation and granting Steven the ability to play this fall. We are hopeful that the NCAA will look at the bylaws regarding all individuals who serve in the military before becoming a student-athlete."
Middle Tennessee athletic director Chris Massaro said he and McPhee went to the practice field Monday afternoon to inform Rhodes of the NCAA's decision.
"It was really a neat moment to be there for that," Massaro said. "He was extremely happy, as you'd imagine. It's always fun to be there when dreams start to come true."
Rhodes' eligibility was in question because he played in a recreational league during his military service. An NCAA rule states that student-athletes who don't enroll in college within a year of graduating high school will be charged one year of eligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition.
By NCAA standards, Rhodes' play at the Marine base counted as "organized competition" because there were game officials, team uniforms and the score was kept.
But the 6-foot-3, 240-pound 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, which first reported the story. "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."
The rule first took shape in 1980, when "participation in organized competition during times spent in the armed services, on official church missions or with recognized foreign aid services of the U.S. government" was exempt from limiting eligibility.
But through several revisions and branches of the rule, the clause allowing competition during military service was lost and not carried over into the current bylaws.
Massaro said earlier Monday before the NCAA's latest ruling that he was cautiously optimistic things would go in Rhodes' favor, particularly as the case began to draw national attention. U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Republican whose district includes Murfreesboro, had sent a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert in support of Rhodes.
"This is such a no-brainer, frankly," McPhee said Monday before the NCAA ruled Rhodes could play. "Even though the rule is very clear on this, I think there is a sense that a wrong needs to be made right in this particular case."
Massaro said McPhee and Emmert communicated with each other a couple of times Monday and that those conversations "appeared to go very well."
"It was very apparent that Dr. Emmert's positon was, 'Let's see if we can find a way to make this work,' " Massaro said.
Now that he's been declared eligible, Rhodes will try to work his way up the depth chart. He faces quite a challenge after such a long layoff.
Middle Tennessee opens its season Aug. 29 against Western Carolina.
"He has a long way to go," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said. "He hasn't played in six years obviously. His reps had diminished the last three or four days because we were under the impression that he was not going to play. With only nine days left now before we play, we've got to get him caught up to speed.
"There is no doubt that he'll be able to help us eventually. He's a phenomenal man. He works hard. He has a great attitude out there."
Rhodes has even more determination now that the NCAA has given him the go-ahead to continue working toward this goal.
"It gives you a whole different mindset," Rhodes said. "You feel like you have new life."
AP Sports Writer Mike Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.