Nov. 18, 2006

By Tim Stried

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Years from now they will still be asking just how he did it. How Troy Smith arrived at this moment in time with all the momentum of an 18-wheel tractor trailer going 75 miles per hour and the Ohio State football team loaded atop his shoulders.

Today, in his final game in Ohio Stadium, Smith leads the Buckeyes against Michigan. He has done it twice before with stunning success. The anticipation for this game is enormous every year, but never before has it featured the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the country. Today, the word anticipation is woefully inadequate.

What is on the line is almost as significant as the long, windy road Smith has traveled to be a part of it. He knows what is at stake and does not mind talking about it. An outright Big Ten championship and a trip to the national championship game await the winner. Personally, Smith also could punch his ticket for a business trip to New York City, Dec. 9, for the Heisman Trophy presentation.

The road was one Smith had to learn to stay on. When he did, the results spoke for themselves.

“I’ve kind of done a 180 since I got here,” Smith said. “I can’t really pinpoint one thing. If anything, I’d like to credit it to gradual growth, both as a man and as a player. It’s been a continuous and gradual process of becoming a better player and a better person. My team helped me through that time. The coaches did, too. It was kind of mutual. They gained my respect and I gained theirs.” Smith only added to his coaches’ confidence in him with huge performances in the biggest games. Against Michigan in 2004 he rushed for 145 yards and passed for 241 in Ohio State’s 37-21 win. Last year, he passed for 300 yards and ran for 37 in the Buckeyes’ 25-21 win in Ann Arbor, then posted totals of 342 yards passing and 66 yards rushing in a decisive 34-20 win over Notre Dame in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

Those performances against Michigan, in particular, have made Smith a prodigy in Columbus. In some locker rooms, such a player is disliked. Not so at Ohio State, where Smith’s teammates repeatedly give him credit, like former Buckeye Rob Sims did last November when he was able to walk out of Michigan Stadium with his second win in the Big House.

“After last year (2004) and especially after this year (2005) – he kept fighting, kept us going,” Sims said. “He’ll go down as an Ohio State legend. Some guys were hanging their heads, but thanks to him and the dramatic way it ended, this game will live forever.”

This season, Smith has produced highlight-tape performances every game. His passing efficiency and touchdowns passes lead the Big Ten and are among the Top 6 in the nation. Each week, he adds stock to his run toward winning Ohio State’s seventh Heisman Trophy.

“I think we have seen Troy really grow as a player, as a quarterback, and as a leader of this offense and this team,” Doug Datish, senior center and co-captain, said. “And he took the team with him. As he got better and better and more confident, so did everyone else.”

When he hears that, Smith quickly turns the focus back to his teammates. His statistics, which will lead to individual honors, are only the table dressing for what he means to Ohio State. Same goes for the Heisman.

“As far as that trophy goes, I try not to think about it,” Smith said. “I just try to stay wrapped up in my team and everything that is going on around me within our football family. Without these guys, I wouldn’t be in this situation. Your play will take care of everything itself. As long as you worry about what’s going on within your team, that’s enough.”

That sentiment is exactly what head coach Jim Tressel wants to hear. When last spring turned to summer and the Heisman talk started heating up, Smith was on every list, but the veteran Buckeye mentor wanted to make sure his signal caller had his priorities straight.

“They’ve got to make sure it doesn’t overtake their thinking,” Tressel said about his two Heisman Trophy candidates – Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. “When people say you have the potential to produce, that should fuel your fire to work more, not make you relax and start daydreaming about what you might say at the Downtown Athletic Club. So I think that’s something you want to watch out for.”

Clearly Smith took that to heart. In fact, as the team suits up in its final regular season game of the season, Tressel has pointed out recent history says the Heisman Trophy has been given to the best player on the best team.

“I think the one thing is that Troy’s team is undefeated,” Tressel said. “The evolution the Heisman Trophy has taken over the last couple years is that the focus seems to be on guys on teams who are doing the best and I think that’s wonderful because that’s what it’s about. And I think one thing that has kept him in the limelight, if you will, is that his team has done well. Now, he’s been a big part of that and he does a whole bunch of things like his consistency, but I think it starts with your team.”

No doubt Smith and Ginn get the headlines, which is not the only thing they have in common. The two have been friends since childhood and grew up in the same neighborhood in Cleveland. Both went to Glenville High School and both have been talked about for the most revered piece of bronze in college football.

When the media asked Smith what adding another Heisman Trophy would mean for already one of the most storied programs in all of college football, he noted what something bigger would mean. His goal to make sure the Buckeyes stay No. 1.

“I think more about what a national championship can do for the program than I do winning the Heisman,” Smith said. “The Heisman doesn’t affect my state of mind because I know it’s a team game first. Three of the last four guys who won the Heisman were part of teams that played in the national championship game. Without my team, that award can’t be won.”

His team took note of Smith’s attitude and elected him a captain before the season. In fact, they have done more Heisman talking than Smith. With every jaw-dropping highlight, his teammates speculate the odds of the clip being a part of his highlight reel that goes along with the Heisman ceremony in December.

The Buckeyes on the receiving end of Smith’s aerials give credit to their quarterback. Like in the win at Michigan State when Smith scrambled out of the pocket before firing a strike to Anthony Gonzalez in the back of the end zone.

“It was in a spot where only I could get it,” Gonzalez said. “And that’s what’s rewarding about playing with the best player in the country.”

Such praise comes at Smith from every direction, just like it has for superstar athletes for years. When that happens, those athletes can go one of two directions – they can let it consume them or they can deflect it back to the team. Smith has taken the high road.

“I hear it, but I don’t listen to it,” Smith said. “I try to have the understanding that all this could be taken away with one play. I just try to stay the course and understand that my team is first.”

When Smith says it could be taken away, he knows what he is talking about. A two-game suspension took away the Alamo Bowl of his sophomore season and caused him to miss the first game of his junior campaign. It was one of the most difficult times he has been through, but instead of letting it tear him down, he used it to become a stronger person.

Though it was painful, perhaps it was moments like that which opened Smith’s eyes to the world around him and took him to a higher level, both on the field and in his everyday life. In an era when star athletes believe they are above anything ordinary, Smith is the opposite.

He says thank you. He looks people in the eye. He does the things parents would want their children to emulate.

In August Ohio State held a night practice in Ohio Stadium and began the evening with an autograph session for all the players. A year or two ago, Smith would have tried to avoid the scene. This year, he smiled, he laughed, he held babies, he posed for pictures and he did not mind a minute of it.

A Sports Illustrated writer asked to spend a day with Smith in July to see a day in the life of one of the most well-known college football players in the country. No problem – Smith just had a new companion to go with him to pick up his dry cleaning and run to the bank. They talked about comic book heroes and went to a teammate’s apartment for a round of PlayStation.

A five-person camera crew from SI visited the Woody Hayes Athletic Center three days before preseason camp got underway to pose Smith with teammates Doug Datish and T.J. Downing for a cover shot. For an afternoon, Smith talked with the crew, joked with his teammates and nodded his head to the rap music coming out of the stereo in the corner.

All those are scenes in the life of No. 10, who will be remembered for escaping the clutches of opponents who seemingly had him tackled before he spun away to launch a tight spiral down the field for six points. Are all the scenes of his life as pretty? No, but they have led to the ones people will always remember.

“I think a lot of things throughout the course of my life, through anybody’s life, would put them in a situation where they understand just taking the pressure of pain is not going to cut it for you,” Smith said. “One of the biggest testaments to that would be my mother. She’s a warrior in every sense of the word. She’s been through a lot of adversity through her life and she channeled that strength to me and my sister.”

That strength has led to Smith’s maturity during his days at Ohio State. When he arrived in Columbus, he carried with him the “athlete” label recruiting analysts put on prospects who could play a number of different spots and Smith then settled for getting his first touch of the football on the Buckeyes’ kickoff return team.

Away from football, Smith is one of several current Buckeyes who have already received their bachelor’s degree. He received his in communications last spring. Today, all those experiences are blended together to give Tressel a coach on the field – literally.

“Troy cuts to the chase,” Tressel said. “He tells the players sometimes the way us coaches would like to tell them but maybe we’re a little more sensitive. It’s kind of neat to see the way he’s grabbed a hold of this football team. Troy is more mature. He knows this is the last go-round.”

With that maturity and strength deep inside, Smith suits up today at home for the final time. The emotions he will feel when he runs onto the field during Senior Day could be overwhelming, but he will keep them in check just like he has kept everything else that way.

Then it will be game time. His teammates will once again look to their leader to show them the way and Smith’s legacy will further develop, like after last season’s comeback win in Ann Arbor, when his teammates were already talking history.

“I don’t believe there’s anyone who has had two greater games than Troy Smith has just had against Michigan,” Gonzalez said in the locker room. “In two games, the kid’s been outstanding.”

This season, the OSU junior wide receiver expanded on his teammate.

“After this season ends, I believe Troy will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in Ohio State history,” Gonzalez said. “He is embracing the role as the guy that will take us to the next level.”

One could argue the Buckeyes have reached the next level already, but the task is to stay there. In this, the 2006 edition of “The Game,” the task is now at hand. As he has done so many times, Smith is about to do what he does best – be a leader.

“You have to be able to lead,” Smith said. “You’ve got 10 other guys looking at you in the huddle. The most family-oriented or team-oriented portion of a football game is when everybody’s in the huddle. Everybody’s attention is on one thing. There can be 105,000 screaming fans and everybody in the huddle is all centered and focused on one thing. That’s a beautiful thing.”

When that beautiful thing once again has come and gone, the question will remain – just how did he do it? Ask him and he will probably shrug his shoulders and smile. “It was them,” Smith would say, pointing to the others in the Ohio State locker room.

His teammates know the best answer to that question. All along they wanted to follow him. Now they know why.