Saturday, December 9, 2006

Heisman Heart Warming

Tonight's Heisman Trophy Presentation is much more than honoring the best college football player in America: tonight's ceremony will honor a 22-year old man who might not be a hero, but who has surely demonstrated a hero's courage and strength.

Even if you have no interest in The Ohio State Buckeyes or college football in general, the story of Troy Smith is something you should hear.

If you think most athletes are immature thugs and college sports have no redeeming value, then the story of Troy Smith might just change your mind.
Troy Smith was a nine-year old little boy crying in the parking lot after a football game because he has no one to pick him up and no home to go to. No one has been to watch him play all year. His mom was struggling with a drug dependency and was unable to care for Troy or his sister. He was so clearly a kid in distress that his pee-wee football coach arranged to become his foster parent and took Troy in. His sister went to live with an aunt.

Later that year, Troy and his foster dad spent much of Christmas Eve looking for his mom so that he could give her the Christmas present that he'd bought for her. When she wasn't to be found, he gave that present to his foster mother.

After four years of a stable, loving foster home, Troy was returned to his mom without forewarning or consideration for the emotional toll it would take on him. He was an angry young man and he developed a nasty temper. The family reunion wasn't comfortable or easy. As says

The Smiths had little in the way of comfort. By this time the Smiths had moved to 71st and St. Clair, inhabiting a neighborhood rife with urban dangers. The area was brutal, but it was home.

Sports saved Troy from the troubles that ensnared countless peers. At Martin Luther King Junior High he played soccer, tennis, basketball and track. And he played football for the older version of the Glenville A's in the Cleveland Muni League.

"I go back and see the guys I grew up with," Smith said. "Some of them are incarcerated. Some of them, rest their souls, have passed away. But the ones that are still there, when I see them, their whole month or year has changed. They light up like a Christmas tree.
Eventually the situation between Troy and his mom got so rough that Troy's high school coach (and father of his team mate Ted Ginn, Jr.) took Troy in to live with his family for the rest of his high school career. Ted Ginn, Sr. eventually arranged counseling for Troy and his mom and even went to the first few sessions to make sure they both went and the session was productive.

Sports was Troy's salvation and he was recruited by Ohio State and the little football coach in the sweatervest, Jim Tressel, the man who wears a "what would jesus do bracelet" and never loses his temper or his cool. Troy was considered a risk--a hot-headed young man who came with a lot of risks. That assessment almost proved true.

Troy's troubles weren't behind him. In his freshman year, Troy partied too hard, still got angry too much and eventually got arrested for fighting. He spoke out about his lack of playing time and refused to watch film. He didn't need to.
In his sophomore year, he put the entire football program in jeopardy by taking money from a booster. He was suspended for two games and watched Ohio State's bowl game that year at home in Cleveland. This may have been the tipping point in his life. Sitting in the basement, watching that game, that he realized his bad decision affected the entire team:

"That was rough," Ginn said. "He felt he let his teammates down. He let himself down. He let the university down. Troy loves hard. I don't care how he sits up and tries to show you he's a big strong man, Troy's got a good heart. He probably loves people who love him real hard. He loves his teammates. He loves Ohio State. He was embarrassed for that."

Smith was changed by looking at Ginn's basement shrine to Glenville stars Ginn Jr., Pierre Woods (Michigan-New England Patriots), Donte Whitner (OSU-Buffalo Bills) - and Smith.

"I'm watching TV and looking at all the things we have all done. I really, really got it in my head that there wouldn't be a situation like this again," Smith said in August. "(I knew) my team is first in everything. Running onto the field with my guys is something I'll never take (for granted) again. That's probably the best feeling in the world.

So now consider what has happened to our angry young man since he had that epiphany:
  • He is 25-2 as a starter.
  • He has beaten Michigan three times (only one other OSU quarterback has done that).
  • He says his love for his team mates is the most important motivator he has.
  • He now speaks "team-speak"and deflects questions about himself.
  • He opens door, removes his hat in doors and thanks others for their time.
  • He earned a degree in communications in four years (he's working on a second degree right now in order to remain eligible to play ball).
  • He now considers his mother his best friend (she says he's her hero).
  • When asked about the Heisman, he would only speak of taking his mother to New York for the first time and how he looked forward to spending this time with her.
That little 9-year old has become a 22 year old man and this December night will be much different for both that man and his mother than that horrible December night 13 years ago. That man and his mother will be together and in New York City for the first time in their lives. He will be named the best football player in the country.

But for many Troy Smith's ability to forgive and love and mature will remain the real heroic act of his life.

For his heroic acts on the field, check this out

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