Rodney Smith still had 16 shopping days until Christmas, when he hopped into his red Dodge Avenger earlier this month and headed to the Mall of America.
This was four days before the Gophers football team became embroiled in controversy, with 10 players suspended in connection with an alleged September sexual assault, and a two-day player boycott.
Smith had just been named the Gophers team MVP and a co-captain for 2017. The third-year sophomore already was looking forward to Tuesday’s Holiday Bowl in San Diego and happy to be back at the mall, a favorite hangout since his recruiting visit from Atlanta in 2013.
“I’ve got to buy presents for my parents, of course, and my girlfriend,” the 1,000-yard rusher said, smiling. “She’s been on me about it.”
Smith poked his head into a few stores and then sat down for lunch, where he reflected on the past three years, and his growing role within the program. The Gophers have since careened into a dark place, leaving many fans disenchanted, and it will be up to Smith and Co. to help brighten the team’s image.
“I know my role is a bit bigger now,” Smith said, between bites of Chinese food. “Not just on the field but off the field as well, helping out the younger guys with questions, keeping them out of trouble and bad situations.”
Smith brings his own experiences to the role, having grown up in the Atlanta suburb of Jonesboro, Ga., under the watchful eyes of his parents. His mother, Essie, is a registered nurse who has helped him overcome diabetes and a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
His father, Patrick, coached Rodney in both baseball and football and was his high school athletic director. Patrick Smith has a commanding presence and once scolded Rodney to the point of tears for talking too much in class.
“That was embarrassing,” Rodney said. “But just knowing he was down the hallway, I kept a level head. I wasn’t a knucklehead.”
Finding his calling
After tearing an ACL as a junior at Mundy’s Mill High School, Smith bounced back from that knee injury to rush for 2,201 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior. He was one of the co-captains on that team, along with linebacker Jonathan Celestin, who joined him at Minnesota.
Those two Mundy’s Mill grads will be co-captains for the Gophers next season, along with Wayzata native Brandon Lingen.
Celestin and Lingen both played for the Gophers as true freshmen in 2014, but Smith redshirted that year, while David Cobb set a school record for single-season rushing yardage.
Smith said that was a long year. He spent a lot of time at the mall, and he credits a volunteer experience at the Southside Village Boys and Girls Club for helping him start to feel at home.
“When I first got here, it was tough to adjust because I wasn’t playing football,” Smith said. “I didn’t really open up to a lot of people because I had never been so far away from home for a long period of time. But I think that’s where working with kids kind of got me comfortable.”
The program’s director, Mark Graves, said Smith did far more than simply play football, basketball and other sports with the kids. Graves and other staffers trusted him to run portions of the program by himself.
“First of all, he made every commitment, and this is strictly on a volunteer basis, so that means a lot to us,” Graves said. “And the kids loved him. Being a star athlete, he didn’t carry himself in an arrogant way. He was very unassuming, easy for the kids to talk to, and he was just fun.”
The experience helped convince Smith to switch his major from kinesiology to youth studies. He’s on track to graduate in 2018.
Smith hopes to play in the NFL some day, and when his football career ends, he’ll consider coaching or possibly opening a rec center for youth.
“Just being able to impact children’s lives,” Smith said. “I want to work with them just because I can relate to some of the issues that some of the kids are having.”
Taking a stand
While Gophers seniors did most of the public speaking during and after the boycott, Smith was among the underclassmen supporting their stance every step of the way.
He noted that four players originally served three-game suspensions, while Minneapolis police investigated the alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault. Those players were reinstated when Hennepin County declined to press charges.
“Of course nobody condones behavior like that,” Smith said. “I feel like for the public to understand, they have to understand the whole process.”
The alleged victim also filed restraining orders that kept six Gophers from playing in the Oct. 22 game against Rutgers before those orders were lifted in a settlement.
Athletic director Mark Coyle issued the new suspensions on Tuesday after an internal investigation by the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. The EOAA office recommended expulsion for five players, one-year suspensions for four players and probation for one.
Coyle gave minimal explanations to the team, citing privacy laws, and the team couldn’t get answers from university President Eric Kaler.
“I feel like the miscommunication is why we as a team decided to boycott,” Smith said. “Because in our eyes, we’re seeing that charges have been dropped twice, and that’s just hard when they’re suspended for the exact same situation and we don’t get an explanation.”
‘Sky’s the limit’
By Tuesday night, the Gophers will need to have their entire focus back on football, facing a Washington State team best known for its high-scoring Air Raid offense. The Cougars have quietly become pretty good defensively as well, ranking 28th nationally against the run.
The Gophers will be counting on Smith, who had six 100-yard rushing games this year, with the team going 5-1 in those contests. Cobb, a fourth-round draft pick by the Titans in 2015 who is currently on the Bears practice squad, said Smith definitely has what it takes to make it in the NFL.
“I compare him a lot to guys like [Bengals tailback] Giovani Bernard, just being able to do multiple things, catch the ball from line to line,” Cobb said. “The scariest thing is that he has two more years [of college eligibility], so there’s no telling what he can do. The sky’s the limit.”
Cobb remembers when Smith was hidden on the Gophers scout team two years ago.
“We didn’t get to see a lot of him, but one day, I sat down and watched the video with Donnell Kirkwood,” Cobb said. “I was like, ‘He reminds me of me, only smaller.’ Kirkwood goes, ‘And faster.’ ”
But for all his success, Smith remains mostly anonymous when he’s out in public. Nobody chased him down for an autograph as he strolled through the mall. He said he had one person recognize him recently when he was dining at Red Cow, but that’s about it.
With few distractions, Smith has been able to keep focused on what he set out to do when he first left for college.
“I believed I would do great up here,” he said. “Not specifically the accolades, but become a better person, earn a degree and contribute on the field — I did envision that, yes.”
Now Smith is part of the glue holding the program together after one of the most turbulent months in its 135-year history.