Smith no ordinary walk-on for KU
BLHS grad earned respect, scholarship with Jayhawks
His name is Alex Smith. There’s nothing catchy about it; nothing that lends itself to a good chant or even a snazzy catch phrase or slogan.
Smith. One of the most common surnames in the English language.
And, in a lot of ways, that’s exactly how he prefers it.
See, this Alex Smith — and by my rough estimate there are about 89,341 people (guys and gals) out there with this same name — is nothing like former Notre Dame football walk-on Daniel Ruettiger, who found glory, first by working his way onto the field during a real game with the Fighting Irish, and then again when Hollywood got ahold of his story and made the film, “Rudy.”
Smith’s seen the flick. He even admits to liking it. But he doesn’t want people to think that his story is anything like the movie. Good thing, too. Because it’s not.
For four years, Smith — an offensive lineman — suited up every day, worked his butt off at practice without saying much, and then disappeared into his surroundings. He had a helmet. He had a locker. He had a jersey with a number on it — No. 62 — and he enjoyed all the perks of being a part of the Kansas University football team.
All the perks, that is, except for playing time. But that wasn’t a problem for him. It’s what he expected. It’s what he signed up for. It was the deal he worked out with former KU coach Mark Mangino, who found a soft spot in his heart for Smith because the young man from Basehor was willing to work so hard and take such a beating from the first-stringers without asking for anything in return.
“I knew where I stood,” Smith said matter-of-factly during a recent interview. “And I was OK with it. I just wanted to be a part of the program. I just wanted to keep playing football because I loved the game so much.”
Out of high school, Smith had offers to go elsewhere. Smaller colleges and junior college programs throughout the country had invited him to join their teams on scholarship. But the two-time All-Kaw Valley League defensive lineman was not interested in going somewhere small or far away from home. He loved Kansas. He wanted to be a Jayhawk and he wanted a chance to compete.
At 5-foot-11, 266 pounds, his chances of playing any real minutes on a NCAA Division I college football team — in the Big 12, no less — were slim. But again, he wasn’t looking for playing time, fame or fortune. To him, just being allowed to suit up every day and be a part of a team was fortune enough.
As the years went by, Smith found himself able to survive. After playing both offense and defense for Steve Hopkins and the Basehor-Linwood Bobcats in high school, Alex began to focus full-time on the offensive line in college.
He red-shirted as a freshman in 2006, spending his time lifting weights, learning the playbook and making the insanely difficult leap from Class 4A Kansas high school football to big-time college ball.
In 2007 —the year the Jayhawks won the Orange Bowl — Smith played sparingly as a back-up offensive lineman. But, right away, he showed that the hard work and extra attention had paid off. During the opening week of the season, which culminated with a 52-7 rout of a formidable Central Michigan team, Smith was named the scout team offensive player of the week.
“Being on the scout team helped me a lot,” he said. “I got regular reps, I had to learn new offenses and new schemes each week, and it gave me a chance to try to hold my own against our defense.”
In 2008, as a sophomore, he once again was listed as a backup, and, last season, as a junior, he played a few snaps against Northern Colorado in the season opener.
During his time with the Jayhawks, KU’s overall record is 34-27. That includes two bowl victories, one dramatic win over Missouri (2008) and dozens of memorable moments.
There will be no bowl this year for Alex, who played the final home game of his career Saturday against Oklahoma State. But that really isn’t a problem.
After all, his real reward came several months ago, before the season ever started. It was then, on that day in mid-August, that he learned from new KU coach Turner Gill that his final season with the Jayhawks would be paid for. Smith had earned a scholarship.
When Gill announced the news to the media, he told a tale of nearly 100 Jayhawks — Smith’s teammates — hooting and hollering when they heard the news.
Clearly, the guy had earned some respect. And to think, he didn’t even have to record an improbable sack or be carried off the field on his teammates’ shoulders to get it.
Smith’s senior season at Kansas has been his most productive. He’s played in eight of the Jayhawks’ 11 games, including last week at Nebraska and during mid-October in his final Sunflower Showdown. He will close his career against Missouri on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium. Some days he’s played on the offensive line, where he currently sits as the second-string center behind Jeremiah Hatch. Other days his playing time has been limited to special teams, where he lines up as the left wing on KU’s punt team.
“He has great tenacity and he’s very passionate about the game,” said Gill of Smith, when asked to talk briefly about all 20 KU seniors during his weekly “Hawk Talk” radio show Thursday night. “He’s a great guy to have on our team.”
Just being out there, being part of the team, has made all the bumps and bruises, wins and losses worth it for Smith, who said he’d never forget the opportunity he was given at KU.
As for that whole “Rudy” thing ... Well, Smith admitted that any walk-on in the country is going to have a small dose of “Rudy” in them. After all, none of these gridiron ghosts would reach the heights they did without a few similarities.
“(There are) probably some,” Alex said. “Just as far as trying to stay determined and knowing that even though I may not be a starter, I can still help the team. I played on the scout team for three years and just try to play really hard every day to get my shot.”
But it’s not the fame, the glory, the stats or the successes that make Smith’s story special.
Nope. It’s just the fact that the small-town kid from 30 miles away came to KU to live out a dream and walked away having done so much more than that.
Win or lose, the outcome of Saturday’s game — nor KU’s final record this year — won’t take anything away from Alex’s time at Kansas.
He never was the best player on the team. He never was the best player at his position. But, many will tell you that, day-in and day-out, there wasn’t a guy who worked harder or cared more.