One Chance Is All Smith Needs
ANWAR S. RICHARDSONTAMPA - Before Tampa Bay running back Clifton Smith steps onto the field to face New Orleans on Sunday, he will write a reflective phrase on each sneaker, one he scribbles before every game.
Published: November 29, 2008
Published: November 29, 2008
"That's all anybody ever has in this world is that one chance, that one opportunity to really make an impact on people," Smith said.
Doctors gave Smith one chance to play football again after he tore the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments and the iliotibial band in his left knee, plus his hamstring for good measure, while at Fresno State in 2005. Tampa Bay gave Smith one chance to play football after signing him as an undrafted free agent this year. The Bucs later gave Smith one chance to return kicks after second-round pick Dexter Jackson struggled.
Smith has yet to fail.
"It's been like cracking the Da Vinci Code," Smith said. "It's been a long journey. I'm proud of where I'm at. From where I came from to where I am now, it's been a long, hard road."
Smith's road led him to become one of the best NFL returners this season.
He has returned 16 kickoffs for 484 yards and one touchdown, and his 30.3-yard average is tied for first in the NFL. He has returned 11 punts for 199 yards (18.1 average) and one touchdown.
"He's building confidence in the unit around him, and I think they are building confidence in him," Bucs special teams coach Richard Bisaccia said. "It goes both ways, but we all know you've got to hang onto the football.
"You do see guys finishing blocks a little bit more, or getting to the point of attack a little bit more, thinking that he can make something happen."
Smith, nicknamed "Peanut" by Bisaccia because the coach is taller than the 5-foot-8, 190-pound rookie, has fumbled at least once in each of his four NFL games. Each miscue occurred in the third quarter.
"If I just stop fumbling, that would be a great accomplishment. My main objective right now is to hold onto the ball," Smith said. "Getting through that third quarter would be great. That's why I call it the third-quarter curse.
"I'm drinking the Gatorade and eating the oranges at halftime and I come out in the third quarter and I'm dropping every ball. It's a curse."
Smith's fumbling problems might be irritating, but there was a time when it seemed he would never have a football miscue again.
After Smith's devastating knee injury and subsequent surgery, doctors told him he might never play again. It took Smith months before he was able to walk. It took him a year before he could run.
"For months, I didn't know what to do with myself, what kind of direction I was headed in anymore," Smith said. "Football was what I knew how to do, playing on the street with my boys on the block. After hearing that, it crushed all my hopes and dreams, but I had my little cousins looking up to me, and I could never let them see me fail."
Smith succeeded in his rehabilitation and played toward the end of 2006, primarily as a punt and kick returner. As a senior, Smith rushed 100 times for 625 yards and five touchdowns, and he had 33 receptions for 352 yards.
He also registered 47 career punt returns for 782 yards and five touchdowns, plus 10 kickoff returns for 182 yards. But every NFL team passed on Smith in this year's draft.
In fact, it took three days before Smith received a call from an NFL team inviting him to try out. The only team interested was Tampa Bay.
"It's a good credit to our scouts, who beat the bushes to find players," said Mark Dominik, Tampa Bay's director of pro personnel. "It's a credit to Coach Bisaccia for realizing right away that this kid has something. And it's a credit to Clifton, because he's had a big mountain to climb. Thankfully he's still climbing it. He really wants it."
Smith only wanted one chance to succeed.
Now, those limitations are being squashed under Smith's feet every Sunday.
"You can't let anything stand in your way of what you want to accomplish in life," Smith said.
Reporter Anwar S. Richardson can be reached at (813) 259-8425.