Running To Daylight

From Cleveland to Ohio State to Ravens, Troy Smith's resolve has carried him through

October 31, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

In the beginning, and for a long time, his lack of height was what was going to hold back Troy Smith. At other times, it was his attitude, a hard shell cast on the mean streets of Cleveland. More recently, it was his fragile health.

But by now, you know there is no holding back Troy Smith, of course.

The gritty neighborhood where he grew up in Ohio couldn't do it. Physical stature wasn't enough to keep him down, and neither could a severe bacterial infection in his throat this summer.

The No. 2 quarterback on the Ravens' depth chart knocks down obstacles like dominoes. Told as a teenager he wasn't a college quarterback, he not only started at Ohio State, but he also won the Heisman Trophy. Bounced out of a starting job by a tonsil infection in August, he resurfaced last week as a valuable weapon in the retooled Ravens offense.

This weekend, he goes back to the city he loves, to face the team of his dreams. What Smith's role will be when the Ravens clash with the Browns in Cleveland is uncertain, but the prospects are tantalizing.

Smith not only keeps reinventing himself, but he also climbs to new heights with each challenge. It is as if he has a blueprint to life that only he can see. And he follows it devoutly.

"The guy's a natural-born leader," said Hue Jackson, the Ravens' quarterbacks coach. "The skills he possesses as a young man, a lot of people don't have that. That part of Troy is special. And people gravitate to him."

Haruki Nakamura, a rookie safety with the Ravens, gravitated to Smith as a freshman at St. Edward High in Cleveland, where he was a reserve quarterback behind Smith, a junior, and Shaun Carney, a sophomore.

Nakamura remembers an extremely talented, very capable player who succeeded at everything.

"He's a winner," Nakamura said. "That's one thing he's done everywhere he's gone. And he's overcome a lot. He's not the tallest quarterback in the world. There are a ton of things that have been told to his face, saying that he would never play quarterback in college. And the next thing you know, he's a Heisman Trophy winner. Now he's a quarterback in the NFL. When you've got a guy who perseveres through anything, you can tell what kind of attitude he has."

Smith, at 6 feet, 215 pounds, is relentless, proud, intelligent, engaging and introspective. He needed all these traits and more to get on the right path in Cleveland.

His life reads like a road map through rough terrain. He spent four years with foster parents while his mother battled drugs. He was kicked off the basketball team at St. Ed's as a junior after he threw an elbow that knocked out an opponent. He wound up at Glenville High in the inner city, where his mentor, father figure and coach called him a cancer.

He was signed by Ohio State as an "athlete," not as a quarterback. In 2003, he had a conviction on disorderly conduct for a fight outside a dormitory. In 2004, he took $500 from an OSU booster at the time the Buckeyes were trying to clean up the Maurice Clarett mess. That cost him a two-game suspension, including the Alamo Bowl.

None of it could keep Smith down, though.

"Troy is a kid that loves hard," said Ted Ginn Sr., the Glenville coach who took Smith into his home for a period and helped him through the trouble spots in his life.

"When he loves hard, he falls hard. Troy always had a problem of trust in men. I was one of the guys that never, ever gave up on him. ... He had to learn how to navigate his way through life."

Ginn thought Glenville was better-suited for Smith than the prestigious St. Ed's. Smith's mother, Tracy Smith, who was reunited with Troy when he was 13, wanted him to attend St. Ed's for the education.

"In the end, [Glenville] was a better place for me," Smith said, "but I think everything in life happens for a reason. Some of my best friends in the world right now, I met at St. Edward High School. Things happen for a reason."

Ginn gave Smith tough love, like the time he called him a cancer to himself and the team. Not surprisingly, Smith straightened up and led the team to the state playoffs.

"I was teaching the core values of life," Ginn said. "That saved his life."

Ginn also helped Smith through his travails at Ohio State, and the two formed a father-son relationship that still exists.

Ask Smith whether he can trust people now and the scars from old wounds appear.

"I trust people just as far as I can throw them," he said. "You never know what people are capable of. I've been through situations with the media, I've been through situations with people in general, and I don't put anything past anyone.

"I try not to get too overwhelmed by any situations because it can be taken away from you at the snap of a finger, and that's pretty much the way I approach it."

It wasn't the snap of a finger that cost Smith, 24, the starting quarterback job over the summer, but an illness that sent him to the hospital. Once again, Smith coped because he believed a divine plan shaped his future.

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