BANGOR, Maine — Few back in John Smith’s hometown of Fayetteville, Ga., would have imagined that he one day would become one of the most prolific running backs in NCAA Division III history.
That’s particularly true given that his football career nearly came to end just as it was getting untracked, when Smith suffered a broken right femur during the first day of practice before his junior year at Starr’s Mill High School.
Not only did Smith not play football that season, he was told he would never walk the same again let alone star again on the gridiron.
Nearly all the college coaches who took notice of him before the injury bought into that prognosis, even after Smith returned to action for what he described as a “productive” senior year of high school football.
“I guess that injury scared a lot of people away, but I knew I still wanted to play football and I knew I still had a lot left in me,” said Smith. “It was a tough time but my family kept me in good spirits. They told me to handle everything I had to handle in the classroom and the rest of it would take care of itself.”
Graduation passed quietly with no college coaches calling, and Smith was well into a summer of uncertainty before his phone finally rang.
It was Husson College from faraway Bangor, Maine, offering a glimmer of hope, and in a matter of days Smith was on his way north to continue his education and rekindle his passion for football.
“I still wanted to play football and luckily the Husson coaches contacted me and said they’d love to have me up so I took a gamble and it turned out to be great for me,” he said. “I had no other places to go but here.”
Smith arrived on the Bangor campus, one travel bag in hand, just in time for the Eagles’ first 2014 preseason practice.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I got on that plane to come to Maine because the farthest north I’d ever been was Chicago,” said Smith. “I didn’t know anything about Maine, but as soon as I walked into the gym I noticed coach (Gabby) Price and the rest of the coaches knew everybody’s name and hometown and school and I thought to myself, ‘I’m really in a good place. I’m in good hands.’”
Football at Husson and around New England Division III circles hasn’t been the same since Smith’s arrival, a testament not only to his ability but his durability.
Seen as a medical risk as a recruit, Smith has not missed any of the 40 contests Husson has played since he arrived on campus heading into the final regular-season game of his college career Saturday against Mount Ida of Newton, Mass.
“Football means a great deal to him,” said Price. “He practices exactly like he plays. We practice very hard and John practices very hard. He’s very honorable in that respect.”
Smith credits his durability to a work ethic that began as he was rehabilitating from his high school leg injury and has continued ever since, whether at Husson or back home at his high school or a local gym.
“I haven’t had many soft-tissue injuries and that comes from stretching a lot, taking care of your body, getting in cold tubs and the warm baths, he said. “Our trainers here at Husson also do a great job of keeping us on the field and ready to go out and play.
“I’ve been lucky to stay healthy for the last four years.”
Smith has rushed for 6,593 yards over four seasons to set Maine college and NCAA New England Division III career marks — though a 283-yard game against Dean College in 2016 doesn’t count toward NCAA rankings because Dean was not yet an NCAA Division III program. He ranks fourth all time among NCAA Division III career rushers nationally.
Smith has reached those milestones in remarkably consistent fashion — 1,408 yards as a freshman, 1,733 as a sophomore, 1,822 as a junior and 1,630 through Husson’s 8-1 start this fall.
Smith has averaged 164.8 yards per game while leading the Eagles to a 32-8 record during his career, with two NCAA Division III Tournament berths and a third coming Nov. 18 along with a 2015 ECAC Bowl appearance. He’s scored 73 touchdowns and averaged 6.2 yards per carry while losing just seven fumbles in 1,057 career carries.
“He’s such a strong back, he’s tough to bring down,” said Husson junior quarterback Cory Brandon. “Just one guy usually can’t bring him down. He’s fast, and he’s got excellent vision. He really knows when to take the cutback lane, and the offensive line’s been good for him, too.
“He’s just an exceptional player.”
Smith, who models his game after former University of Georgia and current Los Angeles Rams star Todd Gurley, is on track to peak at Husson as a senior with at least two games remaining.
The 6-foot, 218-pound psychology major has career-best averages of 181.1 rushing yards per game and 7.2 yards per carry along with 23 touchdowns scored, with his rushing yards per game, yards gained and touchdowns all ranking Smith third in NCAA Division III.
“This has been John’s best year,” said Price. “Pass blocking, run blocking, his hands have improved, and as far as his running ability he just sees something the rest of us don’t see. He has great vision, and his toughness has always been there.”
Good health and offensive consistency has earned Smith 30 different Husson records and a bevy of postseason honors, including Eastern Collegiate Football Conference offensive player of the year (twice), All-New England Division III (three times) and D3football.com All-East Region (twice).
“Any accolade John receives he’s earned through hard work,” said Price. “He’s been a tremendous leader for us. He just loves to do what he does, and I don’t think he’ll have any regrets because he’s had fun, he works hard, and he’s had a great approach about football.
“To have someone love football like he does and to be around him, we grow each day from John. I’m not sure we influence him as much as he influences us.”
While Smith and his teammates are focused on Saturday’s game against Mount Ida, he ultimately hopes to continue his football career beyond the upcoming NCAA playoffs.
“Anything is possible,” he said. “If you’re good enough people will come and find you. Even if you go to a small school the scouts will find you if they want you.”
Smith knows that to be true because that’s exactly how he found his way to Husson.
“God puts you in certain situations for a reason,” he said. “He placed me here and it’s been just wonderful.”
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