Lions RB Smith making most of second chance

Associated Press  |  Last updated November 23, 2011
Less than four years removed from one of the most sensational seasons college football has seen, Kevin Smith was back home in Florida, waiting and hoping for a chance to revive what once looked like such a promising career. Let go by the Detroit Lions in March, the injury-plagued Smith was at a crossroads that seemed more like a dead end - at least as far as his football future was concerned. ''It's a humbling experience. I definitely have an appreciation for the game and know that the NFL is `Not For Long,''' Smith said. ''If you make it one year, two years, no matter what line you get picked, it's always a blessing.'' After a half-season out of the league, Smith was finally offered his second chance - by the same team that wouldn't give him a contract a few months earlier. With its banged-up backfield needing a boost, Detroit brought back Smith. Last weekend, in the second game of his new stint with the Lions, he scored three touchdowns in a 49-35 victory over Carolina. The next time Smith takes the field, it will be in front of a national television audience, when Detroit tries to end Green Bay's unbeaten run Thursday in a Thanksgiving showdown. And yes, this is one player who can certainly appreciate the symbolism of that holiday. ''The chance to be in the NFL, the chance that God blessed me with another opportunity, is what I'm thankful for,'' Smith said. Born in Miami, Smith played both running back and safety at Southridge High School, where he was also an academic honor roll student. As a freshman at Central Florida in 2005, he made an immediate impact, rushing for 1,178 yards. Two seasons later, Smith carried the ball a staggering 450 times for 2,567 yards, finishing 61 yards shy of the single-season record held by another college star who went on to play for the Lions: Barry Sanders. Smith turned pro after that, joining a 2008 draft loaded with outstanding running backs. Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden, Rashard Mendenhall, Matt Forte, Ray Rice and Jamaal Charles were all picked that year. For a while, Smith looked like he belonged in that class. Taken in the third round, he ran for 976 yards as a rookie, showing promise even while the Lions became the first NFL team to go 0-16. He was a big part of the offense again in 2009, but toward the end of that season, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Smith came back slowly last year and played in six games, but a thumb injury ended his season in November. When the Lions let him go, Smith wasn't surprised. He said he respected the team's decision, but the timing clearly wasn't good. Smith first had to wait out the lockout, then try to catch on somewhere else ''With the lockout this year and short training camps and things like that, it was really a terrible situation for him in trying to come back,'' Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. ''Credit to Kevin. He never lost faith, he persevered.'' Smith's routine was simple: wake up at 7 a.m., work out until noon. Then he'd go home and play with his son, who is now 18 months old. Smith tried out for several teams - he said about a half-dozen brought him in - but the season dragged on, and he still had nowhere to play. After all his injuries, it wasn't clear if Smith would be heard from again in the NFL. ''I think it was pretty hard on my mom, but she didn't really show any weakness. She's a strong woman. I kind of get that from her. I can honestly say she missed the game as much as I did,'' Smith said. ''She kept a positive attitude. She knew that I would get another shot. She believed.'' Looking back, he's realistic about what the future could have held. ''I think I was going to head back to school. The bills still got to get paid, so probably get a job and see what happens the next year,'' Smith said. ''I try not to think too far ahead. In that situation, you don't want to have the attitude of, `What if I don't get in?' or `What if nobody calls me?''' Smith instead focused on staying in shape, fighting the urge to play general manager in his head. ''That right there drove me crazy more than anything - trying to keep track of, `He goes down here, well, why wouldn't they pick me up here?''' Smith said. ''It's a crazy business, but you get an opportunity and then maybe you get a chance to show some people that maybe they slept on you when they had a chance to pick you up.'' While Smith was trying to show he could contribute to an NFL team, the Lions were in the thick of the playoff race after winning their first five games. With quarterback Matthew Stafford finally healthy, Detroit's offense was clicking, but the lack of a consistent running game was a concern. Rookie Mikel Leshoure tore his left Achilles tendon before the season even started, and Jahvid Best has been hampered by concussion problems. The Lions were thin at running back, and earlier this month, they turned to Smith. ''Any time that you're a player, you realize what an honor and privilege it is to play in the NFL,'' Schwartz said. ''When you're faced with that being gone, maybe it becomes even more so. It just shows you Kevin is very appreciative of what he has in life and how he got here. I don't think there's any room for bitterness.'' When the Lions fell behind early Sunday, Smith helped turn the game around, leading Detroit down the field almost by himself with a 43-yard run and a 28-yard touchdown catch. He went on to rush for 140 yards - more than he had all of last season. ''He played great,'' Stafford said. ''He was breaking tackles, doing a great job picking up blitzes in the pass game, and when his guy didn't come, he was getting out, making some catches and getting yards after the catch. If we can get that kind of effort out of him every week, obviously it would be a great thing.'' Fresh legs may be Smith's biggest asset right now, and he can still impress with his vision and cutting ability. On Detroit's final scoring play last weekend, the 6-foot-1, 217-pound Smith took a handoff and danced to the right, avoiding a charging tackler before turning upfield. He then sprinted by another defender and juked his way past one more before trotting into the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown that sealed the win. Smith was chosen NFC offensive player of the week by the NFL, and he might be the biggest X-factor when the Lions (7-3) host the Packers (10-0). He's still settling in back in Detroit, and his family isn't expected to be in attendance on Thanksgiving. Smith says he's heading home after the game. It may not be a perfect arrangement, but Smith has an opportunity now, a chance to enjoy a gratifying finish to a year that began amid so much uncertainty. ''I could have been anywhere. I could have went to another team and played and had a 2-7 record and been home at the end of the season,'' Smith said. ''I'm right back here where I'm familiar. They're familiar with me. They trust me. I trust them. We're right in the thick of things.''
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