Smith brothers reach dream together
DeKALB – As Chris Smith ran out onto Brigham Field after Northern Illinois' 41-7 win against Western Illinois two Saturdays ago, he extended one arm – holding his helmet in the air – as a smile beamed across his face in celebration.
He immediately sought out the Leathernecks' Todd Speight, a childhood Pop Warner teammate of Smith's younger brother Bryan.
If anyone could understand what it took for Smith to reach that moment, winning his first game in front of the Huskies' home crowd, it was Speight. Or maybe the Leathernecks' Kieron James, Enock Presendieu or Marva Carley.
All four had grown up in the same neighborhoods in the football-hotbed of Manatee County, Fla., as the Smiths.
Even if they didn't fully know what it had taken, one person certainly could relate, because he had lived it too. Chris' twin brother, Donald, had vowed he would join Chris at whichever school he decided to attend.
And – true to his word – there Donald was, donning the No. 8 jersey for the Huskies as a walk-on defensive back who hadn't played football since the two were seniors at Palmetto High School in the fall of 2004.
Back then, Chris didn't even start for the Tigers his final year after having a falling out with his high school coach. That's where his whirlwind football career looked like it would come to an end.
Because that year, both Donald and Chris failed the reading portion of their FCAT proficiency tests, meaning they wouldn't be able to walk at high school graduation with their classmates. Two weeks before that graduation, the pair dropped out of school.
For the next year, they worked on earning their GEDs – which they did in June 2006 – while living at home with their single mother and sister. All the while, they kept their dreams of playing college athletics alive while they spent plenty of time playing basketball at their community recreation center. All the while, that dream looked more unrealistic by the day.
"It was rough," Donald said. "We just did whatever we could to get by."
The Smiths' big break, however, came sooner than expected. Their uncle, recently named Palmetto High football coach Raymond Woodie, made some calls to find Chris a college home.
At Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa, he found that home. But things wouldn't be easy there either.
"He just called the man, put in his word and I started to play the next year," Chris said.
When Chris arrived on campus, he was told he wouldn't play his first year over more experienced players. So he redshirted. And, after his first semester, Donald joined him at the school as he walked on to the Ellsworth basketball team. Donald went through two years of spring practice with the team but never compete in a game before earning his Associates Degree in Liberal Arts.
In his second season, Chris played wide receiver for the Panthers. But, after the year, a coaching staff change led him to another change of plans.
Chris left Ellsworth to become a walk-on defensive back at Highland Community College (Highland, Kan.).
"There wasn't a scholarship available, so I had to earn one," Chris said.
After not being recruited out of high school, Highland was where Chris started to make his mark, leading the Scotties with six interceptions to go with 42 tackles, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick.
That season, Chris was named one of the top 100 junior college players in the country. At that point, Donald knew what he would do.
"I always wanted to be with him," Donald said. "I wasn't playing football, but since I wasn't playing I was going to go wherever he was at and walk on."
NIU linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz got a call on Chris from an old coaching friend, the Huskies went to Highland to watch him play, and soon enough Chris and Donald headed to NIU to join the Huskies for the spring semester and spring practice.
"That first week we were here, we both wanted to go home because it was so cold," Donald said. "But we just stuck it out and got used to the weather."
They also started hitting the books, knowing they would have to work a little harder than everyone else to stay afloat academically. They went to class, got plenty of help from Francine St. Clair in Student-Athlete Support Services, and started to fit in.
"Miss Francine has done a good job, not only working with them academically but more importantly being a kind of mother to them now," NIU coach Jerry Kill said. "She's done a good job and they've adapted well and worked hard.
"They've gone to every tutoring session and go to every class. They do everything they are asked to do and they are appreciative of the opportunities they have and they're very thankful for it."
Last semester, Donald had a 3.0 grade-point average while Chris finished with a 3.125 – both as General Studies majors – numbers that Donald rattled off with a smile and a deserved sense of pride.
"We went to lots of different schools from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade," Donald said. "I wasn't a school person, I never made over a 3.0 until I came here and that was with a lot of help, tutoring and hard work."
This fall, that hard work has paid off on the playing field. Chris has made an immediate impact at cornerback with 16 tackles (tied for third on team) and a pass breakup. He also recovered a fumble against Western Illinois while Kill said that Donald, slowed by a knee injury, is progressing well in his first year of college football.
Those numbers, however, are beside the point. For the Smith brothers, playing Division I football is a dream come true.
"I've never played in front of 83,000 people before," Chris said about his first game at Wisconsin. "That was unbelievable."