Who is Rodney Smith?
For most of his life, he was a football player. But when a season-ending knee injury stripped him of that identity three games into last year with the Gophers, Smith wasn’t sure what was left.
“I didn’t know what I would do without football,” Smith said. “… I didn’t know who I was as a person without football because I had had the success on the football field, and I was a senior, and everything that I had dreamed about as a child was right in front of me.
“And to have it taken away like that was tough.”
Smith fell into what he called a “depression state,” which is hard to imagine from a guy who seems to always have a smile paired with his slow Georgia drawl and bright red hair dyed to look like Shadow the Hedgehog, his favorite cartoon character.
It’s even more difficult to fathom now, with Smith riding a four-game streak of 100 or more rushing yards and just 95 yards shy of tying the school record of 5,109 all-purpose yards. He has a chance to better those marks Saturday against Maryland, before a potentially packed house at TCF Bank Stadium, while the No. 17 Gophers could improve to 8-0 for the first time since the early 1940s.
The Gophers languished for decades before having a season like this, and no current player has toiled for as long as Smith, in his sixth year with the program. He’s been through everything from two coaching changes, to a scandal, to bowl victories, to blowout regular-season losses.
But his ACL tear last year was what shook him the most. He was lost — despite coaches and teammates praising him for how he stayed around the team, traveling to games and mentoring the young running backs while rehabbing his knee. Smith gave out all that help, but he had to make the uncomfortable choice to also seek it for himself.
Smith said he had one-on-one sessions with Dr. Carly Anderson, the athletic department’s director of sport psychology. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has been a longtime advocate for mental health and has made Saturday a Mental Health Awareness game.
“I think football culturally has been, ‘Hey, be the tough guy, toughen up, you’re all right,’ ” Smith said. “So I shied away from it at first.”
Anderson said resisting vulnerability is a common reaction from men. But the Gophers athletics department preaches how strong people use whatever resources they can to be at their best.
Smith’s experience helped pull him from his low point and might have played a part in making him an even better player than he was before the injury. He has climbed to fourth on the school’s all-time rushing list, with 3,745 yards, and ranks ninth nationally this season with 112.29 rushing yards per game.
“He is running really hard, and he is seeing things really well. He’s patient when he needs to be patient. He’s sudden and triggering when he needs to trigger,” Fleck said. “So he’s better than he used to be. It’s not the old Rodney. It’s a new Rodney, which is very different than the old Rodney in a really good way.”
This version of Smith is a culmination of all he’s learned through his time with the Gophers, and Fleck said if he were a player, he’d take Smith to lunch every week just to pick his brain.
“Rodney is a very well-respected guy, and he’s been through a lot,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “He’s been here a while. He’s very knowledgeable. And if he says something, the guys are going to listen. So a lot of the young guys definitely do go to Rodney for advice. Especially guys who’ve been struggling with stuff when they first get here.”
Smith said his transition to college was hard, mostly because he didn’t have his parents — including his dad who was also a teacher and coach — pushing him. His grades suffered as well as his social life, since he didn’t bother taking school seriously or trying to fit in with his teammates. That changed his redshirt sophomore year, when he started volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club of the Twin Cities. He also put together his best season, rushing 240 times for 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.
The 23-year-old is now working on his master’s degree in youth development leadership and makes himself available to talk to any of his teammates about non-football topics. He joked he’s also tried to look more approachable, since he recently heard about one of the true freshman this year thinking he was “the scariest guy.” Even as the veteran, star player, Smith observes all his teammates. Sometimes he just listens to them if they’re feeling down. Sometimes he analyzes their games, seeing what he can learn and add to his own performance.
Smith has said a big reason why he stuck with the Gophers through crisis and injury was because he felt this team could be special. And the Gophers are confirming that this season.
He still isn’t exactly sure what he wants to do after football, though he has started looking into work-study opportunities observing youth counselors. But taking everything he’s been through, on and off the field, good and bad moments, Smith is at least more prepared when prompted with that existential ask.
Who is Rodney Smith?
Not too long ago, a stumped silence met that query. Now, the answer is immediate.
“Rodney is an authentic, loving, community guy,” Smith said. “Selfless, all about others, and he’ll do anything for anybody that needs help. Likes to have fun.
“And I just so happen to play football.”