Se­ri­ous knee in­jury did not stop wide­out

Caleb Smith tore his ACL and menis­cus 6 years ago

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Ed­ward Lee

By half­time of the Tow­son foot­ball team’s 31-24 win against Colo­nial Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion archri­val Delaware last Satur­day, Caleb Smith had al­ready caught five passes for 123 yards and a touch­down. At the break, team­mates be­gan to pre­dict that Smith might reach the 200-yard mark, but the red­shirt ju­nior wasn’t buy­ing it.

“I didn’t be­lieve it be­cause it felt like a reg­u­lar game,” he re­called. “I was just catch­ing the passes that were com­ing to me. I didn’t think it was that many yards. We do that in prac­tice all the time. It re­ally just felt like prac­tice. I was just get­ting reps.”

Six years af­ter suf­fer­ing a knee in­jury that nearly cost him his foot­ball ca­reer, Smith, 21, made his team­mates look like seers as he fin­ished the game with 200 yards and the lone score on nine re­cep­tions, be­com­ing the first Tigers player to ac­cu­mu­late that many yards in a game since Chris­tian Sum­mers caught six balls for 232 yards and two touch­downs in a 35-28 win against Saint Fran­cis (Pa.) on Sept. 10, 2016. In a span of 60 min­utes, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound wide re­ceiver nearly matched his sea­son to­tal of 288 yards, made his first trip to the end zone, and be­came the fourth player in the CAA to com­pile 200 re­ceiv­ing yards this sea­son.

But Smith’s out­burst — which earned him hon­or­able men­tion for the STATS Foot­ball Cham­pi­onship Sub­di­vi­sion Of­fen­sive Player of the Week award — was per­haps the least sur­pris­ing devel­op­ment to red­shirt se­nior quar­ter­back Tom Flacco.

“We all know what he’s ca­pa­ble of do­ing,” he said. “Our wide re­ceivers in gen­eral, they’re all ca­pa­ble of do­ing what he’s do­ing.”

Smith’s road to No. 21 Tow­son (5-4, 2-3 CAA) — which vis­its Stony Brook (5-4, 2-3)

on Satur­day at 2 p.m. — is not typ­i­cal.

The son of Tigers Hall of Fame de­fen­sive line­man, Baltimore na­tive and Poly grad­u­ate Rod­ney Smith, Caleb Smith be­gan play­ing foot­ball at age 5. He and older brother Gabriel, now 24, were so en­am­ored with foot­ball that they re­turned from bas­ket­ball and base­ball games and track and field meets to run foot­ball plays in the back­yard of their par­ents’ home in Al­bany, New York, even af­ter the sun had al­ready set.

“It’s kind of an iden­tity,” the younger Smith said of his pas­sion for foot­ball. “It’s fun. You get a lot of ag­gres­sion out. You can re­ally show who you are. It builds a lot of char­ac­ter.”

In the La Salle In­sti­tute’s ju­nior var­sity team’s third game of the 2013 sea­son, the then-sopho­more Smith caught a pass on a bub­ble screen and was tack­led. But when the scrum cleared, he could not get up.

Smith was taken to a nearby hos­pi­tal and learned that he had suf­fered a torn ACL and menis­cus in his right knee. Aset­back, but he was en­cour­aged by the ex­am­ples of thenMin­nesota Vik­ings run­ning back Adrian Peter­son and then-Wash­ing­ton Red­skins quar­ter­back Robert Grif­fin III bounc­ing back from their own ACL in­juries.

Re­cov­ery, how­ever, was slow, and fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion re­vealed that the dam­age to the menis­cus was so ex­ten­sive that Smith had to un­dergo a menis­cus trans­plant. Af­ter the op­er­a­tion, a doc­tor ad­vised Smith to aban­don any no­tion of play­ing foot­ball again.

Rod­ney Smith, who had played seven sea­sons in the Arena Foot­ball League, said the doc­tor’s words cut deep.

“To see that taken away from him, it was very dev­as­tat­ing, and it was tough to have con­ver­sa­tions with him that life would go on, that you may have to go on with a life with­out foot­ball, with­out ath­let­ics,” he said. “I was try­ing to have those con­ver­sa­tions with him, as a dad try­ing to pre­pare him.”

Caleb Smith did not play an­other down for La Salle, with­draw­ing from his friends, avoid­ing all ath­letic events, and rid­ing his bike through­out Al­bany to be alone. Look­ing back, he ac­knowl­edged that he was de­pressed, but he re­fused to give up his dream of play­ing foot­ball.

“I knew what I wanted, and I knew that I wasn’t go­ing to let some­body else make that de­ci­sion for me,” he said. “I be­lieve in mak­ing a choice, and once you make your choice, God gives you what your heart de­sires. I knew that if I was go­ing to do it, it wasn’t go­ing to be easy, but it was still go­ing to be pos­si­ble.”

Af­ter se­lect­ing Tow­son from a group of uni­ver­si­ties that in­cluded Delaware, Old Do­min­ion and Tem­ple, Smith asked Tigers coach Rob Am­brose if he could try out for the team. Am­brose promised him a try­out af­ter the 2016 sea­son if he worked for di­rec­tor of foot­ball op­er­a­tions Lance Yaniger.

Af­ter spot­ting balls and hold­ing first­down mark­ers at ev­ery prac­tice, Smith tried out in Feb­ru­ary 2017 and im­pressed the coaches enough to join the team as a walk-on. Am­brose ac­cepted the risk of adding Smith to the ros­ter.

“But he had some tremen­dous mea­sur­ables and a huge up­side, and his ge­net­ics aren’t too bad ei­ther when it comes to be­ing part of a foot­ball fam­ily,” said Am­brose, who played with Rod­ney Smith. “So when you’ve got a guy who comes from that fam­ily he comes from, he does have a chance. We would have been crazy to say no.”

An un­spec­i­fied ail­ment and ill­ness lim­ited his play­ing time last sea­son, but this fall, Smith has played in all but one game. He posted a ca­reer high in re­cep­tions (five) against Villanova and an­other best in re­ceiv­ing yards (69) at James Madi­son be­fore Satur­day’s game.

Smith, who has started three of the last five games, said he took a great deal of sat­is­fac­tion from his per­for­mance against Delaware.

“I put a lot of emo­tion out there and pas­sion,” he said. “So it was very grat­i­fy­ing, and it felt very good. But it also felt very good to get the win.”

Rod­ney Smith was un­able to at­tend Satur­day’s game, but he lis­tened to the game’s broad­cast, and his cousin was there.

“I can­not put it in words,” the el­der Smith said. “To see him get that and per­form that way, for him, I am happy be­cause he needed that. That’s the Caleb Smith that he grew up as. In ev­ery sport that he played, that’s the level that he per­formed at, and he fi­nally did it.”

Caleb Smith won’t pre­dict that he will be able to main­tain a 200-yard pace for the re­main­der of the year and said he sim­ply wants to help the Tigers reach the FCS play­offs. But he said he is look­ing for­ward to the chal­lenge.

“Ev­ery­body keeps telling me that I’m scratch­ing the sur­face,” he said. “So I don’t plan on set­tling.”

ENP PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

Tow­son re­ceiver Caleb Smith hauls in a pass in the Tigers’ game against Delaware on Satur­day at Johnny Uni­tas Sta­dium.

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