A standout graduate of Fayetteville-Manlius High School (he was the Central New York Player of the Year, First-Team Class AA All-State, a Prep Star Dream Team selection, and a SuperPrep All-American in his senior year), Rhodes was recruited by many colleges. He chose Syracuse in order to stay close to home, and followed his dream. Setting a freshman record for total yards with 1,268, and being named to the Sporting News Big East All-Freshman Team, was an auspicious beginning. However, his sophomore year was hindered by an ankle injury which forced him to miss the final seven games of the season.
Rhodes was frustrated, but he got through the rehab and made it back onto the field for two more years. Durability was not a concern thereafter, as he played in every game of the 2004 and 2005 seasons. As a junior, he was named Second Team All-Big East as he rushed for 870 yards and 10 touchdowns on 153 carries. Rhodes displayed an impressive versatility by catching 18 passes out of the backfield for 246 yards and another touchdown.
His 2005 may have been the most impressive season of all, as the 6'0", 211-pound Rhodes rushed for 900 yards and 7 touchdowns on 219 carries, despite facing seven- and eight-man fronts almost exclusively due to a lack of vertical playmakers on his team – Rice Moss III led the Orangemen with 27 receptions for 359 yards and no touchdowns. Syracuse was undergoing the first year of rebuilding under a new head coach - former Chiefs, Broncos and Jets defensive coordinator Greg Robinson – but Rhodes looked every bit the finished product in his senior season. He rose above a dismal 1-10 team record and became the center of the offense, adding 23 more catches for 270 yards to his resume.
Rhodes finished his time at Syracuse ranked third in career all-purpose plays (643), fifth in career all-purpose yards (3,972), seventh in career rushing touchdowns (24), ninth in career rushing yards (2,461), ninth in kick return yards (810), and eighth in kickoff returns (39).
What do the experts think of his chances at the NFL level? Tony Pauline of TFY Draft Preview and CNN/SI told us that Rhodes is “very underrated by scouts – he dances around too much (behind the line) but he has good skill and potential as a situational/#3 back.”
NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Rob Rang added that “ He's a versatile back, who runs downhill, has ability as a receiver out of the backfield, and experience as a kick returner. Certainly, the lack of a passing game allowed the defense to stack the line of scrimmage (against him).”
As the draft approaches, Damien Rhodes will look for that one chance in the NFL – that one chance to prove wrong the people who didn’t invite him to the Combine, the people who overlooked his talents on a bad team, the people who have left him under the radar.
Damien Rhodes has a legacy to extend. When he talked to our Seattle Seahawks
affiliate on April 21, his determination and humble nature were obvious and impressive.
Q: Can you start off by telling us a little about your childhood, your family, and when it was that you discovered football?
A: Football is something that’s been a part of me since I can remember. My parents, when I was in the crib, they gave me a football and I never let go of it. I can remember always watching the Super Bowl XX tape of the Bears and Patriots, and watching Walter Payton over and over in my early childhood and in grade school. I started playing at an early age, since kindergarten, and just continued ever since.
Q: As a kid, who had the biggest influence on you as a football player?
A: That had to be my father. I just tried to do everything I could, because he knew so much about the game. He knew everything that football brought me so whatever he said I tried to emulate - just trying to please him so much when I played.
Q: Was he a player?
A: Yeah - he played in high school and some college.
Q: Did he coach you at all when you were growing up?
A: He never actually coached me formally, but every time I got done playing a game he had always taped it so we could watch it. I started getting critiqued at an early age. We’ve been doing it for a long time, so he’s like my coach at home.
Q: You mentioned Walter Payton, what other NFL players have you watched most closely?
A: There were a lot of them. Obviously, the old Bears 1985 team; the Bears are my favorite team. I liked the old-school players like Gale Sayers and O.J. Simpson. Barry Sanders is a great player to watch, and I loved watching Deion Sanders. Present day, I would have to say I love watching LaDainian Tomlinson. I think he’s one of the best backs. Shaun Alexander - I think he should get more respect for what he does. This year I think he did because he broke all those records, but he’s been doing that for over five years.
Q: In your high school years, you collected a lot of honors. You were central New York player-of-the-year; first team All-State; Prep Star Dream Team; SuperPrep All-American. How many schools recruited you and why did you choose Syracuse?
A: The whole Big East, Big Ten, some ACC some SEC and schools like that. Choosing Syracuse was just, like I said earlier, my family had been a very important part of my life and they’ve always been there for me. I knew it would be a big financial burden on them if I went down south or something like that so they (would have to travel to) see me play.
Having them see me play every week was very important for me - staying home so they could see my play and all my games were close to home, so traveling and driving wouldn’t be a problem for them. That kind of made my decision easier.
Then of course, me and Coach “P” (former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni) had a great relationship so staying home was a pretty simple choice.
Q: In your first year at Syracuse, you set a freshman record with 1,268 all-purpose yards – but in the next season, you injured your ankle after four games and missed the rest of the year. What did your injury and the recovery teach you about yourself? What do you think you came away with that maybe you didn’t have before?
A: When it first happened, it was really devastating to me emotionally and spiritually. Mentally. I was kind of hurt and down for a couple weeks, but once I realized it’s football and everybody gets hurt. It’s part of the game, and it made me appreciate playing and appreciate the ability I had to wake up and go play the game every day and never take a day for granted.
Working out harder and harder every day to get yourself better - you know that old saying, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”. When football was taken away from me for that season, it really hurt - since then, I’ve never taken it for granted.
Q: No lasting effects from your injury the following season?
A: The ankle was healed before we even got into offseason workouts.
Q: In your senior year, you led the Orangemen in rushing with 900 yards, but I’ve read that you were hindered by defenses crowding the line - you faced a lot more eight-and nine-man fronts than a lot of backs did. Is this something you were frustrated by or are you comfortable being the center of a defense’s attention and facing that all the time?
A: It doesn’t bother me. It’s part of football. If you’re a defense you gameplan, just like we gameplan to attack a defense, they do the same thing trying to stop the offense.
In a way, I take it as a compliment in the sense that it’s my ability that they’re going to focus eight or nine guys in the box just to stop me. That shows that they’re worried about me and keying on me so that means I must be doing something right on the field.
I tried not to get down - I tried to be a leader and I didn’t want to get frustrated around my teammates so they’d always be upbeat and positive. Obviously this past season was frustrating for everybody, but I tried not to let it show around them. When I was by myself it bothered me, but I tried to always stay positive so everybody would work hard every day.
Q: Do you consider yourself an underrated player?
A: That’s a strange conversation, because I’m a man of the Lord and I try to be humble and I don’t try to boast about myself, but at the same time I believe I’m a better player than I get credit for. The only way I can prove it is like if I have a chance to go and prove it, I guess. I don’t like to talk about, “I’m better than him or him” - I just don’t like to do that.
Q: As far as national recognition, why do you think you maybe haven’t received as much of that as maybe you deserved?
A: When you’re 1-10, it’s kind of hard because people don’t really pay attention.
OBR Subscribers can click here to read Part Two of our exclusive interview with Syracuse's Damien Rhodes - Damien talks about his special teams abilities, his Pro Day, which NFL teams have contacted him, and what he loves most about the game.