2006 Person of the Year
Photo by Dan Trittschuh.
This story appeared in the January 2007 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Each Saturday this past fall, you gathered in bars, living rooms or Ohio Stadium itself to watch a young man wearing number 10 put together perhaps the greatest season in the history of Ohio State football. There are few things more exhilarating than the sight of Troy Smith coolly running the show or dodging and dancing away from defensive linemen to throw darts to Anthony Gonzalez or Ted Ginn in the end zone. That never got old, no matter how many times he did it between the Fiesta Bowl victory against Notre Dame on Jan. 2, 2006, and the thrilling win over Michigan in November that sent the Buckeyes to the national championship contest.
There was the soggy game against Penn State when—his Buckeyes clinging to a 7-3 fourth-quarter lead—Smith escaped a tackle, ran to his right and then his left, finally delivering a 56-yard touchdown pass to Brian Robiskie. There was the third-and-eight, 21-yard touchdown run in the shutout against Minnesota. There was the faked handoff to Beanie Wells before hitting Ginn in the end zone in the second quarter of the exhausting Michigan game. There was an entire season of moments like those, which made you laugh and yell and slap the guy sitting next to you on the back, whether you knew him or not.
Even if Ohio State loses the title game in Glendale, Arizona, Jan. 8, Smith has cemented his place alongside Archie Griffin, Hop Cassady, Eddie George and Chic Harley as an OSU legend, maybe the best ever. One day his jersey will be retired, and no matter how Smith’s NFL career turns out, he’s almost guaranteed to make a comfortable living for himself in Columbus simply by being Troy Smith.
He turned out to be a rare combination—the best college football player in the country and at the same time the underdog. His is the classic American success story: poor kid overcoming great odds—and his own highly publicized mistakes—to excel in a job nobody ever thought he would get. In the span of three short years he went from a second-string quarterback to a runaway Heisman Trophy winner. And adding to his accomplishments is the fact that, unlike many college football stars, he actually graduated. Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in communications this past spring and now is working toward a second undergraduate degree in African-American studies. You couldn’t help but root for the guy, even if you didn’t care about OSU football.
It’s hard to imagine anyone being under more scrutiny than Smith in 2006. For all of its growth and progress, Columbus continues to prove that it’s really the world’s biggest college football town. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but an extraordinary amount of attention is focused on the young men who are chosen to play quarterback at Ohio State. The smart ones learn how to insulate themselves from everything but schoolwork and football. “You need to do that,” says former Buckeye Greg Frey, the starting quarterback from 1988 to 1990. “You wouldn’t be able to function otherwise.”
The spotlight was even more intense for Smith since he quickly became the frontrunner for the Heisman while playing for the frontrunner for the national championship. So much was at stake that one bad game, one bad off-the-field decision, could have landed him in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. And yet he handled the mounting pressure with remarkable poise, grace and consistency. It’s a lot for a 22-year-old to bear: Many thousands of people of all ages spent their weeks counting on him for those game-day Saturdays.
“I don’t think about it in that way, though,” Smith says. “I think about a lot of people who sit back and just have a crazy devotion to our school, to our athletics and to our football team, and I think it’s a complete testament to the guys who went before me.”
While Jim Tressel was, of course, in charge, Smith shaped the team’s game plan and personality. The coach threw out his conservative Tresselball playbook to take advantage of Smith’s talents. Who would have predicted 41 passes against Michigan (29 completions, including four touchdowns)? And when players talked to reporters through the season, the recurring theme was their unfailing trust in Troy. They knew they were going to win every game because Smith was on the field. “That means a lot to me,” Smith says, “when they feel as if we get into a situation they can very much put all of their trust and faith in me.”
And you sensed the devotion he felt for his teammates immediately after the Michigan game. “You wouldn’t be able to understand it unless you ran the gasses that we ran, ran the hills that we’ve ran, pushed the sleds that we’ve pushed,” he said in the interview room. “I love every single one of my teammates with the deepest passion you can probably have for another person.”
This season, Smith was the definition of humility, deflecting praise by crediting his teammates. He made every effort to make no waves. He gave humble—some would say dull—quotes to reporters and, according to a story in the July issue of Play, the quarterly sports magazine published by the New York Times, Smith and Ginn rarely left their apartment, spending most of their time eating takeout and playing video games to avoid any potential trouble.
For Smith, it was about focusing on one goal at time without allowing himself to get caught up in the big picture. “I really don’t think he really has had the opportunity to sit down and let all that stuff soak in,” says Ginn’s dad, Ted Ginn Sr., Smith’s high school football coach and surrogate father. He hints that Smith realizes he can be distracted if he lets his mind wander. “I think he’s just concentrating on doing what he needs to do every day and stay in line with the things that are necessary to be successful,” he says. “He had to get his degree. He had to try to win the Big Ten championship. He did that. Now, he’s got one more game.”
Sports saved Smith from the mean streets of Cleveland, where he grew up. He had a difficult relationship with his mother, whom he rejoined after living with a foster family between the ages of 9 and 13, and he had a lot of anger. After getting kicked out of a private high school for getting into a fight during a basketball game, he became a star at Glenville, one of the city’s poorest schools. Smith was a leader in high school, Ginn Sr. says, but a different kind than he is today. “You can be an immature leader in a high school situation,” he says.
In 2002, he accepted a football scholarship to Ohio State—as the last signee of the recruiting class—because “I wanted to be a Buckeye,” he told Columbus Monthly in 2004. “I wanted my mother and sister to be able to come and see me play without traveling a great distance.” What Smith had to know—what everybody else thought they knew—was there’d be no guarantee he would play. Justin Zwick, a star quarterback from Massillon, already had been recruited with much fanfare the same year. Rumor had it that Tressel, who had coached Zwick’s older brother at Youngstown State, promised Zwick he’d be the only quarterback recruited that year. So Smith was written in as an “athlete.”
Ginn Sr. says he was never worried that Smith wouldn’t get a chance to play quarterback. His concern was whether Smith was prepared to take advantage of the opportunity. “There are things he had to do to put himself in the situation,” he says. As it turned out, Smith nearly blew it.
There have been many plot twists in the Troy Smith story—most of his own making—that could have derailed a less determined man. He was involved in a campus dispute in 2003 that led to his being found guilty of disorderly conduct and paying a $100 fine. He complained publicly about his lack of playing time after Zwick was named the starter in 2004. There were the notably cool comments by Tressel after an injury to Zwick forced the coach to start Smith in the second half of that season. There was the revelation that Smith accepted $500 from an athletics booster, resulting in his suspension from the 2004 Alamo Bowl and the following season’s home opener. He played unevenly in big-game losses to Texas (off the bench) and Penn State (as a starter), leading some fans in ’05 to declare him another Steve Bellisari.
Ginn Sr. says Smith had to evolve as a player and an individual, first to survive and then to thrive. Smith had to lose some of the swagger he’d kept from his high school days as a cocky—and at times careless—quarterback who played as if he could win games all by himself. “There were some things when I was younger,” says Smith, “that I didn’t understand as a quarterback that I needed to go through.”
“He felt that he could be the quarterback without changing his ways,” Ginn Sr. recalls. Smith also transformed his off-the-field demeanor to fit the part of the clean-cut Ohio State QB. “You have to carry yourself in a certain way,” Ginn Sr. says. “There are certain places you can’t be, certain things you can’t wear, certain things you can’t say.”
Smith needed to learn all this to win over his initially reluctant coach, who might never have given him the chance if Zwick had stayed healthy. Back in those days, Tressel seemed to withhold praise for Smith purposely, even after a spectacular game—his 386 yards of total offense against Michigan in ’04, for example. But if Tressel’s standoffishness nagged at him, Smith didn’t let on. In fact, he mimicked his coach by giving exceedingly dull quotes before and after games. The brash, opinionated Smith quickly disappeared. Smith says he’s “learned a lot and grown up. But along those lines, anytime you do some kind of a soul-search and change in that way, you do in turn become a different person.”
Frey, who remembers trying to encourage a frustrated Smith two or three years ago, is thrilled about Smith’s progress. “I’m just so proud of Troy because, like a number of guys, he stumbled early in his career,” he says. “But he grew from that, and that made him even stronger.”
About whether there are any traces of the old Smith still lingering, Ginn Sr. says, “I would say that person is gone.” He compares the transformation to someone who has found religion and declares, “I’m living my life in a different manner.”
There might have been a hint, though, of the unpolished Smith in the third quarter on Nov. 18. His intercepted pass set up a Michigan field goal that cut OSU’s lead to four points; it felt as if momentum had shifted. Caught by the cameras while sitting alone on the bench, he appeared unresponsive to his teammates’ efforts to buck him up. Fans could have been excused for wondering whether the unflappable leader finally had lost his confidence.
“I was just focused,” Smith says now. “That face and that demeanor that I had at that time was a serious one. It wasn’t that I was down. You can’t get down in a situation like that. You can’t run from the pain. You gotta go towards it.” And so he did. In the fourth quarter, Smith led the offense on an 83-yard drive, culminating with a laser beam of a pass to Brian Robiskie in the end zone to seal OSU’s win.
And at that moment Troy Smith made you happy.
Dan Williamson is a senior writer for Columbus Monthly.