By Harold Raker
The Daily Item
He didn’t know it at the time, but Brandon Smith came to realize that a back injury last year that threatened to end his outstanding high school football career was actually an opportunity.
And it had nothing to do with football.
At first, it was a bit annoying.
After a second medical opinion cleared Smith to play football rather than undergo season- and possibly career-ending back surgery, the questions kept coming.
After every game, someone from the media would want to talk about his injury.
“Everyone started out by talking about my back instead of talking about the game,” he recalled. “I was getting frustrated about that, but, about halfway through the season, I realized that it gave me an opportunity to talk about God, and to be thankful.”
The deeply religious teenager, who never misses a chance to give glory to God, was missing more chances to do just that.
“It wasn’t something I was intimidated about, it just never really crossed my mind,” he said.
His friends and teammates knew about his strong religious beliefs, but now, because of an injury, more people learned another side of this outstanding athlete.
“I thank God for every day I get out there. I know what it’s like to sit out and it’s not fun. I thank God for every practice I get, every game. I think I definitely pray a lot more in games than in practice, that the team would be safe and that we have calm nerves and able to honor God by our performance,” he said.
Over the years, he said, friends have joked with him about his beliefs, but never in a nasty way.
They would say things like “Oh, I can’t do that because Smith is watching me,” he said.
“But no one really tries to put me down,” he said.
Well, opposing defenses have tried, but Smith doesn’t go down without a fight.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior has played tight end, wide receiver and now fullback on offense, defensive end and now linebacker on defense, as well as special teams.
Every defensive coordinator has No. 42 on his radar, game-planning to do what little can be done to slow him down.
Finding a new fit
One of his most memorable plays came last season against Southern Columbia — a 99-yard catch-and-run touchdown on a pass from then senior quarterback Cam Cassels.
Even though the Tigers came back to win the game, Smith said, “That whole game will be a good memory even though we lost. It was one of the most fun games I’ve played in in my career.
“Cam and I made a handshake because of that play, that every time we see each other we will talk about that 99-yard pass. That will be a memory I have forever.”
His first-year head coach, Jeremy Winn, first saw Smith playing for Lewisburg while coaching against him as a member of the Bloomsburg staff.
“It was my first knowledge of him, watching him play, and then I heard a lot about him when I interviewed for the job (at Lewisburg) what a great kid he was,” Winn said.
”When I first got the job, I sat down and talked with him, assuring him that I was going to keep things familiar for him on offense and defense. As I evaluated personnel, we thought the best way to get him the ball in the wing-T offense was to put him at the fullback position,” he said.
Winn said they knew they could still move him around quite a bit and give him more scoring opportunities. “My belief has always been to try to get the ball into your best athlete’s hands as best as you can,” Winn said.
He sat down and talked with Smith about it and when he told him the plan, Smith was excited about it. “When I saw his excitement, I knew he would be comfortable with it and take it and run with it.”
Smith did just that. Through six games, he has rushed for 446 yards on 76 carries with six touchdowns and caught 23 passes for 286 yards and three scores, leading the Green Dragon in points with 54.
“I think he continues to get better. I think he was still feeling his way through the scrimmages the first couple of weeks, but we knew after he got through the scrimmages he had a chance to be pretty good. The more he has gotten the ball, the more comfortable he has felt.”
Linebacker at heart
Despite its toll on the body, Smith loves playing fullback, although his favorite position by far is linebacker.
That sometimes shows when he is running the ball.
“A few times this year, I could have had long touchdown runs, but instead I went right in the middle and hit somebody. The coaches always tease me about that,” he said.
Winn added, “You watch him on film and he always tries to make contact. It’s the linebacker mentality he has.”
But Smith likes fullback not only for his chances to run and catch the ball, but for the blocking.
He also understands more about what he saw from last year’s outstanding fullback at Lewisburg, current Susquehanna University player Merle Moscarello.
“I never understood when Merle would only play one side of the ball and when I stood next to him on the bus, he would be totally exhausted. While everyone else was real excited about winning. Now I see that a little more. This brings new meaning to sore after the game.”
Nevertheless, he added, “Fullback is a pretty fun position to play.”
Change is something that Smith, son of Jeff and Deb Smith of Winfield, encountered in a big way at the end of last school year.
That is when he heard (before it was announced) that the only high school head coach he had ever had, Todd Tilford, was likely leaving for his alma mater, Shikellamy, where his children are students and his sons play football.
“Initially it was definitely a bummer,” he said.
He recalled walking into Tilford’s classroom the week after Shikellamy parted ways with then coach Sam Stroh and told him he knew there was a job opening at Shikellamy.
“He asked, ‘How did you know?” and I said, “I know everything’ and walked away.
“A few weeks later, he brought the team into the auditorium and told us what was happening. The team was bummed out and I was pretty sad about it. I’ve been with Tilford since my freshman year, it was kind of a loss. He is a great man, definitely a great friend of mine, and he will always be.”
But, Smith said because he saw it coming, he was a little more prepared and he could not blame Tilford for doing what was best for his family.
Smith added that having coach Winn has been a blessing and it did not take long to connect with the new coaching staff.
“It’s not the greatest thing that could have happened before my senior year, but it ended up being a blessing.”
He said that Winn, even before he met him, had called four college coaches and told them about him, and sent them films.
‘He is a great guy. He will be a great coach at Lewisburg as long as he stays there,” he said.
Smith has won state medals in track & field as well as wrestling, but football is his favorite, and he plans to play that sport in college. Among the schools he has visited or plans to visit are Penn State, Princeton, Bucknell and Lehigh.
“I am looking at all the different options, trying to narrow it down and see where the Good Lord takes me after this season,” he said.
“I enjoy all three (sports), but football is unlike any other sport. You have to do your own job, elevate your own level of competition at the same time, and it takes the whole team to be great.
“I definitely like that aspect, getting to rely on the person beside you, the person behind you and the people in front of you, and any success anybody has, no matter how great they, are comes back to the team.”
And there is one more thing. “There is nothing like running out with over 2,000 fans in the crowd on a Friday night. Wrestling in a full gym gets pretty loud, but it’s not quite the same.”
One more time
In his final time around as a Green Dragon, Smith hopes to be able to experience that thrill several more times.
The Green Dragons are 5-1 and in a battle for a home game in the District 4 Class AA playoffs, as well as a shot at the Heartland Athletic Conference Division II championship.
“The biggest reason that I want to advance as far a we can is that I get that many more games. I don’t want to end my high school career just yet and I am going to be working hard to get a few more wins so that we can be solid as far as getting into the playoffs. After that we are just going to go as far as we can and have fun.”
He added that winning titles are great, but just playing the game is what he will remember most.
And sharing his beliefs.
New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow has grabbed a lot of headlines, along with plenty of ridicule, for sharing his beliefs.
Smith knows he does not have a stage that big, but, he said, “At this point in my life as far as I can deduce, that’s definitely a calling that I have and already my athletic career has given me a chance to share my faith and be open about it.”
He added, “It’s something I’ve been blessed with and I definitely want to continue doing that as long as my athletic career lasts.”