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Through The Eyes Of A Lion: Football Transfer Anthony Smith’s Story Of Perseverance

In the world of Division I football, transfers and departures are commonplace. Players leave for a variety of reasons, with playing time concerns and rocky relationships with coaches among the most prevalent. But with every departing player, there’s a unique story to tell, each a bit different than the next. Anthony Smith joins the cast of players in search of a new beginning, but his reasoning sets him apart.

Most fans know Anthony Smith the football player. Donning No. 24, he entered the program with the historic Class of 2013 — Bill O’Brien’s first and only full recruiting class at Penn State. But over the last few years, I’ve gotten to know Anthony Smith the person, and that’s blossomed into a friendship that I’ll always be grateful for. In talking to Anthony, I learned there’s so much more to the player on the field, which is why I want to tell his story. I want to shed light on a young man who’s seen and experienced far more than most college football players do in a career. After three years of trials and tribulations, his story deserves to be told.

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Smith’s Penn State journey began at Valley Forge Military Academy, a place the Dover, NJ native used to help springboard himself onto a major platform. After lettering three times at Pope John XIII High School, Smith emerged with interest from a few notable schools, but no scholarship offers. The semester Smith spent at Valley Forge paid off, even though at first it seemed the recruiting process would again leave the talented defensive back offer-less.

Smith had aspirations of playing big-time college football, but Happy Valley was the last place he ever thought he’d end up. Smith yearned for an offer. He knew he could compete with the best, he just couldn’t comprehend why nobody would give him a chance. But, one day, after a lighthearted conversation with his Valley Forge roommate, a seed was planted.

“My roommate was a huge Penn State fan growing up,” Smith said. “We were just talking one day, and he was saying how cool it would be if we could both walk on at Penn State. I remember saying, ‘Dude, Penn State’s not gonna pick me up. There’s not a chance.’ I thanked him for the confidence booster, but that’s all it was at the time.”

But after a strong season of prep ball, Smith’s fortunes began to shift. [pullquote] “I remember saying, ‘Dude, Penn State’s not gonna pick me up. There’s not a chance.'” [/pullquote]

“Late, late in the process was when schools finally came around. UMass, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island all expressed heavy interest,” Smith said. “Not long after, Penn State expressed interest in me. As soon as they did, I met up with [former linebackers coach] Ron Vanderlinden and took a visit right away. I loved every second of it.”

It was an exciting time for a player who didn’t have an offer to his name six months prior.

What began as something of a pipe dream quickly transformed into reality. What’s more is that the crushing sanctions that scared away so many recruits had no such effect on Smith; he embraced the challenges, wanting to be part of something greater than himself. He could’ve gone elsewhere during the fateful summer of 2012. Who could blame him? He couldn’t try to avoid hearing about the sanctions — every time he turned on the TV, it’s all he’d see.

“As soon as Penn State offered me I committed right away, even though my coach told me other schools had come in contact,” Smith said. “I told him I didn’t care, because I was coming to Penn State. I wanted to be a part of the rebuild.” [pullquote] “I was coming to Penn State. I wanted to be a part of the rebuild.” [/pullquote]

After months spent wondering what his future would hold, Smith signed his letter of intent and was headed to Penn State. Now, only one obstacle remained — how to break the news to his roommate. For a kid who grew up in Lancaster, Smith expected him to be devastated. After all, it was Smith who’d be headed to Happy Valley, not his roommate. “I didn’t know what to tell him, and I knew he saw the pamphlet on my desk,” Smith recalled. “But he was really happy for me, and knowing that just felt incredible.”

For Smith, the emotional ride was only beginning.

Anthony Smith

Expectations for Smith entering year one weren’t necessarily set too high given Penn State’s secondary depth (Ryan Keiser and Malcolm Willis manned the safety spots, along with box safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong), but despite his status as a two-star recruit, Smith did what most freshmen in his position don’t usually do — he saw the field. The freshman earned his playing time contributing on special teams in three games, and made his way onto the stat sheet with a tackle against Eastern Michigan. Considering where he’d been only a few months ago, Smith was enjoying the ride of his life. The university and football program went to hell and back during his recruitment, and the significance of his recruiting class — not to mention his small place in Penn State history — didn’t escape Smith. He understood.

“It’s special. Granted, I wasn’t there when the sanctions hit, but I saw how it affected the program,” Smith said. “I’ll never forget any of it. It just shows how amazing Penn State people are, and how we were able to come together as one.” When Smith arrived, he had no idea how fans would react to the circumstances, let alone himself. But things work in mysterious ways, and having the opportunity to play a role in the healing process meant more to Smith than any personal accolade.

But as Smith’s freshman season came to a close, everything he’d come to know would be drastically altered. Not long after the season ended, Smith’s everyday routine would never be the same. Life instilled a lesson at an unwanted time, but through all the heartbreak Smith endured, the experiences he gained along the way helped shape the man he is today.

During an offseason workout, Smith suffered an injury. Being the competitor he is, he pressed on and played through the pain. But as the offseason progressed, he learned his ailment wouldn’t subside — and in order to continue playing the game he loves, he might have to take a step back. “As an athlete, you always want to keep pushing forward,” Smith said.” But sometimes, you have to listen to your body. This was one of those times.”

On the final day of summer practices, Smith made the heart-wrenching decision to undergo season-ending surgery. Instead of working toward a starting position in Penn State’s secondary, Smith would spend 2014 on the sidelines. During this trying time, he learned the true meaning of perseverance, but he didn’t have to go about this lesson alone.

Blue-chip tight end Adam Breneman — fresh off a splendid freshman campaign in which he scored three touchdowns — endured similar hardship, one that brought his 2014 season to a premature end. Two young men, both hailing from the vaunted Class of 2013, would form a great bond as they strived toward a common goal.

“Adam and I were always great friends,” Smith said. “I mean, we roomed together for three years. But we built a great relationship when we were both going through our struggles, because Adam and I were injured at the same time. It was good that I had someone there for me that was going through the same thing.” Rehabilitation was no small task — with its constant battles, every day feels like an eternity. But with a tight-knit support system, Smith accepted the situation he’d been put in and continued to press on.

As he learned to accept his new role on the sidelines, Smith soon realized although he couldn’t make an impact on the field, he could still assist his fellow brothers in other ways. Soon after the season started, he became a mentor to the team’s youngest players and took them under his wing. A coach’s wisdom and instruction can only do so much for certain players — coaches are usually generations older than these 18-22 year old kids. Sometimes, it takes a fellow teammate’s wisdom gained over years of experience to drive a point home. Safety Marcus Allen, a freshman in 2014, was somebody Smith grew very close with during that season. Allen responds well to coaching, but it took the advice of an experienced veteran that helped him fully reach his potential.

The pair’s relationship grew especially close after starting free safety Ryan Keiser went down with an injury in practice and was lost for the season leading up to Penn State’s primetime matchup with then-No. 13 Ohio State. With Smith sidelined for the year, James Franklin had no other option but to turn to the inexperienced. Smith, Keiser’s backup during summer camps, took it upon himself to ensure Allen was ready — even if it meant employing a bit of tough love. “If I hadn’t gotten hurt before the season started, I would’ve started against Ohio State,” Smith said. “But again, there’s nothing I could do about it, so I was in Marcus’ ear all week long. We both knew how big the stage would be, so I wanted to make sure he left it all out there.”

Former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop commanded the entire team’s respect as a result of his leadership style and execution — but the safeties held an amplified sense of admiration toward their position coach. “Coach Shoop is a mastermind. He’d anticipate things two or three steps ahead, and he’d always be right,” explained Smith. Though his sterling football prowess helped mold good players into exceptional ones, his meticulous nature could occasionally seem intimidating, especially to young players like Allen.

In the days leading up to the biggest game of his life, Allen’s racing mind dominated his actions. He’d get ahead of himself, worried about what his position coach might think with his watchful gaze studying the freshman’s every move. “Marcus was worried about everything once he was named starter,” Smith recalled. “I pulled him aside after practice a few days before the game and had a little heart-to-heart with him. I said, ‘Listen, you and I both know what you’re capable of. You need to play your game out there. We both love Coach Shoop, but fuck what Coach Shoop thinks right now. You control your game.'” [pullquote] “You need to play your game out there. We both love Coach Shoop, but fuck what Coach Shoop thinks right now. You control your game.” [/pullquote]

In front of a national audience, Allen recorded 11 total tackles and two pass breakups in a double-overtime thriller, and one can’t help but think Smith’s guidance and inspiration had something to do with that. Allen went on to start the rest of the year — instilling fear in opposing receivers as he blossomed into a threat against the run. All the while, Smith was there, smiling proud as he watched his friend mature before his eyes.

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The defensive backs on picture day

Athletes have a tendency to keep pushing no matter the obstacle, but just as Smith reiterated, sometimes athletes need to listen to their bodies — no matter how difficult the message is to swallow. This was a reality he had to come to grips with in 2015, despite a burning desire to return to the field. Smith worked tirelessly in his rehabilitation efforts, but the injury would again prevent him from playing. The agony of being around the game you love without playing week after week with your brothers is unimaginable, but Smith took it day by day. He took those lessons learned upon arrival and persevered. “This year was tough,” Smith recalled. “I wanted to be out there, but being able to walk out on that field on Senior Day meant the world. Not just for me either, but for my entire family.”

Though it’s not always fair, all things must come to an end. Sports are beautiful in a way because they reflect the lessons learned throughout life, just portrayed in different forms. With two years of eligibility remaining and a plan in place to receive his degree in May, Smith knew it was time to move on. Just like before, he wasn’t alone. Players like Geno Lewis, Akeel Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, and Austin Johnson — all good friends of Smith’s — made a similar realization. For a group of young men that endured so much as a family, it was fitting they now go their separate ways.

“We all just had the feeling that it was time to move on,” Smith said. “We’ve seen it all, and it was just time to move on. I know for me, you have to just trust in the process. Stay the course, and eventually you’ll get to where you need to be.”

Though he’s early in the transfer process, Smith remains excited for what lies ahead. It’s been a long journey, one of heartbreak and struggle, but in the same sense, it was a journey of growth and maturation. The friends and memories made will last a lifetime, and knowing he was part of a special group of young men made this journey worth it. “I have no regrets at all, I’m so thankful for everything I was able to experience at Penn State,” Smith said. “It’s been a long road, but I’m back to full health. I’m ready to get back to doing what I love to do, no matter where it might be.”

For Smith, football is only part of the next step. It doesn’t matter where he lands next, right now he’s focused on the educational aspect, graduating, and making the most of his next opportunity. “I’m so blessed to be walking across that stage in May,” Smith said. “I’m gonna take the proper time and go through this process the right way.” Wherever his next chapter begins, success will be waiting for him. It won’t be presented on a golden platter — he’ll have to earn it. But Smith possesses an innate drive, something that came as a result of his patience and perseverance.

***

Now that his first chapter comes to a close, thanks are in order. Thank you, Anthony Smith, for your contributions to this program both small and large. Now, your journey doesn’t end here — it simply continues.

You won’t want to miss how the next chapter unfolds.

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About the Author

David Abruzzese

David is a senior from Rochester, NY, nestled right in beautiful Western New York. He is majoring in Broadcast Journalism, and as an avid sports fan, he passionately supports the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres. He is the first Penn Stater from his family, and couldn’t be prouder to represent Penn State University. In his free time, he likes to alpine ski, and play golf. You can follow him on Twitter @abruz11, and can contact him via email at [email protected]

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