As a teenager, Trey Smith kept praying that he would reach 6-foot-5 -- the right height for a blue-chip lineman coming out of high school, and then a college star who would rise high in the National Football League draft.
His mother, Dorsetta -- a preacher’s daughter -- had dreams of her own, including that her son would honor his academic commitments and, after picking a good university, earn his degree. This was something they talked about while young Trey watched his mother wrestle with congestive heart failure, then die at age 51.
All of that was on Smith’s mind when he won the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award. The NCAA version of the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award, it goes to a student leader who has exhibited “exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field.”
Smith apologized and asked the audience at the Dallas Cowboys practice facility in Frisco, Texas, to give him a moment as he wrestled with his emotions. Then he thanked God, his family, teammates, coaches, academic advisers and the medical specialists who have literally helped keep him alive and playing in the University of Tennessee offensive line.
There was a moment last year, he said, when doctors treating him for blood clots in his lungs told him, “’You know, man, hang it up. Hang it up. You’re done playing football. This is it.’
”Something you dream about as a kid. A promise you made to your mom on her deathbed. Hearing that it’s done? You know, it’s devastating ... I kept thinking ... ‘it’s not over yet.’ God put a vision inside of me that night and that whole week, saying, ‘I don’t care what they say, I’ve got more glory, I have more honor for you.’ God had a bigger purpose for me.”
The spotlight on Smith’s fight to keep playing has allowed fans everywhere a chance to watch a dramatic case of the mental, physical, emotional and, often, spiritual challenges student athletes face season after season, said Chris Walker, a former Volunteer defensive end who is the university’s campus director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
”Some people think athletes are basically dumb jocks. ... What they need to remember is that, for the majority of us, we’re first-generation college students,” said Walker. “You take all the work and pressures of being a student and then you add another full-time job to that -- or more than a full-time job.
”Yes, these players signed up for this. But that pressure is always there, and it can take its toll.”
In the case of the Smith family, this player’s giant talent and battle with a life-threatening disease have only made this painful puzzle more visible to outsiders, said Walker.
Smith recently took the calculated risk of not entering the NFL draft, coming back for a senior year that will allow him to graduate on schedule -- honoring his promise to his mother. He will continue his volunteer work with the Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries and similar projects. Coaches and doctors will continue to monitor his health.
Walker said outsiders need to realize that most college athletes, at one time or another, face injuries and academic challenges that threaten their goals and dreams.
Many know that, for their families and friends, they represent a “chance to get up and out” of lives often shaped by single-parent homes and low incomes. Some athletes are forced to become realists about their pro-sports potential. Others grow to realize the importance of a college degree. All of this can “brew a storm of emotions that some athletes may not be equipped to handle,” said Walker.
In Smith’s case, his words from that platform in Texas “were not a show. That was not an act. That was just him being the young man that he is. ... Trey has made commitments to God, his mother and to others who depend on him. He knows that he’s being watched.”
At the end of those remarks, Smith added: “It’s not about me. ... We have to impact people while we have this time on Earth. ... As I write this next chapter in my journey, I have a lot of work to do.”
(Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)