Marine Brent Smith’s Journey to Penn State Football
When he walks around campus, he’s almost impossible to miss. It’s not the fact he’s 6′ 2″ and a solid 240 pounds. It all has to do with the can’t miss beard that engulfs his face.
“Service members, when they get out have been shaving for four, eight, 10 years or however long they’ve been in,” said Brent Smith a Penn State defensive end. “It’s something that we normally do for a couple months. Fortunately, I’ve been gifted with the ability to grow a very thick, sweet beard.”
Smith’s journey to Penn State is far outside the ordinary. It’s been eight years since the 26-year-old graduated high school and he is just now starting his freshman year.
Smith graduated early from Hughesville high school in Hughesville, Pa. in January 2004 so he could enlist in the Marines sooner.
“It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was a little kid,” said Smith. ”I remember watching Top Gun when I was really young and being really impressed. Around ninth grade I decided I wanted to join the Marine Corps out of all the other branches.”
After graduation Smith was sent to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina for recruit training. Marine boot camp is a thirteen-week process and is considered the longest and toughest of all four military branches.
The final test of boot camp is a 54-hour field training exercise called the crucible. The exercise simulates a combat situation and requires a Marine to use all the skills learned while completing a 48 mile course.
“We had three hours of sleep a night if you’re lucky,” said Ernie Jenkins, a Marine enlisted in the reserves and a junior at Penn State. “And you’re constantly going nonstop. You’ve got to work as a team and try to accomplish objectives. For three days you’re covered in sweat running around in full combat gear.”
Smith graduated from boot camp an infantry Marine specializing as a rifleman. From there he was sent to Camp Lejeune, an infantry school in Jacksonville, Nc. Camp Lejeune is the biggest base on the east coast and the second largest in the country. He was stationed there for four years.
While stationed in North Carolina, Smith was deployed to Iraq in 2005. His first tour lasted eight months and he was stationed 45 miles northeast of Bagdad, the capital of Iraq. In Iraq, Smith had to endure grueling temperatures of almost 120 degrees some days. On top of the heat, Smith walked around in full combat gear for 12 hours day, which weighed almost 80 pounds. Smith’s first tour ended in 2006.
He would be deployed again six months later in December 2007. This time he spent thirteen months in Iraq northwest of Fallujah, an area Smith said was nicknamed, “the wild, wild west.” On his second deployment he spent time training Iraqi police and army.
After his deployment, Smith’s contract with the Marines expired, however, he decided to forgo civilian life for another four years and reenlisted.
“When I got out in 2008 I came home and applied to a bunch of different schools and got into everywhere but I decided I wanted to reenlist,” Smith said. “I still had more things I wanted to do in the Marine Corps.”
After reenlisting in 2008 he was relocated to an area 20 miles south of Washington, D.C. He switched from infantry type training to search and rescue. His duties included protecting the national capital region.
“I got to train completely outside of what I was normally use too,” said Smith. “I was use to the infantry side of the Marine Corps and I got thrown into a completely different environment.”
Smith spent two and a half years in the D.C. area before being transferred to Camp Schwab, a Marine Corps based located in northeast on the island of Okinawa, Japan. Schwab wasn’t one of Smith’s favorite assignments.
“Being up at Schwab it was real hard to get down south. It was a big pain in the butt to do anything,” said Smith.
Located south of Schwab its Kadena Air Force base. Kadena is the United State’s primary air force base in the Pacific. Smith’s duties in Okinawa were similar to the ones he had during his second tour in Iraq.
“We did a lot of training of Tai and Korean, bilateral and trilateral training,” said Anthony Cafferelli a retired Marine. “We taught at a machine gun range where we got to teach Tai and Korean infantry men how to fire our weapon systems. We got to cross train them on all our weapon systems as well as learn some things about how they operate.”
Cafferelli worked with Smith during his tour in Okinawa. He credited Smith as having a great work ethic.
“It was good working with someone of that caliber. You can both operate at high levels. You didn’t have to worry about anything,” said Cafferelli.
Smith was stationed in Okinawa for a year before leaving the Marines and returning home and enrolling at Penn State.
“When I got out this time I didn’t apply to any different school. I was taking world campus classes the last three years of my career and I just always wanted to come here,” said Smith. “It wasn’t a question of any other school. I love this university.”
In Okinawa, Smith was preparing to try out with the Nittany Lions. He got in contact with Bill Kavanaugh, Penn State’s recruiting coordinator. Kavanaugh invited him to the spring walk on tryouts. Smith, however, was unable to make it because he was still in transition from Okinawa.
He worked out and continued to get into football shape. Once he started summer classes in May, he contacted Kavanaugh again and was invited to the Lasch football building for an interview. He was interviewed by Kavanaugh and strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald.
“They called me up a couple days later and asked me if I want to come to camp and I said absolutely,” Smith said. “They asked me ‘What position do you want me to play?’ and I said ‘I don’t care what ever you guys need. I’ll play anything, it doesn’t matter at all.’”
When Smith joined the team he found out that he wasn’t the only person with military experience. Senior fullback P.J. Byers, 26, is enlisted in the Navy.
“Not being the only service member is great because I can relate to Brent more about a lot of topics,” said Byers.
Smith is not likely to see any playing time this season but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to be a leader.
“I want to take all the leadership skills I’ve learned in the Marine Corps and bring it into the locker room,” said Smith. “Failure is not an option, you always have to persevere. I want to bring that kind of mindset to the team. Especially with the younger guys. I’m going to be with the freshmen class for four years.”