In high school, Brandon Smith knew he wanted to play for Penn State football. Now the walk-on is helping the Nittany Lions ascend the College Football Playoff ranks.
Sitting in the Penn State stands in 2012, Andrea Cole knew Brandon Smith had fallen hard. Not for her—that happened years before, when they were both students at Lewisburg High in Lewisburg, Penn. No, that day Smith only had eyes for the Nittany Lions, his favorite childhood team and the one he wanted to play college football for.
Cole, now Andrea Smith, knew that the path stretched before Brandon was long, unforgiving and could possibly finish in a dead end. Walking on to Division-I college football teams is not for the faint of heart, and a part of Andrea thought Brandon might be happier—or surely he'd at least find it easier—to play football at Princeton or Penn, the two other schools on his short list. But Brandon, a linebacker and fullback in high school, had been smitten with Penn State since 2008, when he sat in Beaver Stadium next to his older brother Tyler, then a Penn State student, and watched the Nittany Lions clinch a share of the Big Ten title. That his play this weekend could be integral to Penn State bringing home their first conference championship since then is still a bit mind-blowing to him.
The 6-foot, 228-pound redshirt junior wasn't expected to be crucial to the Nittany Lions' defensive rotation this year. Smith started the season as a third-string middle linebacker but after a rash of injuries, was forced into a starting role. Like most walk-ons, Smith remembers every detail of every opportunity, because there were so few. He played three snaps at the very end of Penn State's Sept. 3 opener against Kent State, a 33-13 win, then sat the bench the next week against Pitt in a 42-39 loss. When another linebacker got hurt against Temple the following week, Smith found himself playing the entire second half. His first start came in Week 4 against Michigan at the Big House, one of the most storied venues in college football. He laughs at the memory.
'It wasn't intimidating, just really exciting," he says. "But it's crazy to think that the first time I went into a college game know I was actually going to play just happened to be my first start … at Michigan."
The high was short-lived. Smith was tossed in the second quarter for a targeting penalty, a call that fell under heavy scrutiny. (Another walk-on linebacker, Jan Johnson replaced him.) Michigan scored three plays after Smith was ejected on its way to a 49-10 win.
A temporary stint on the sideline didn't deter Smith, though, who has notched 54 tackles on the season, including four for loss, and two interceptions. Put on scholarship in August, Smith says he's honored and humbled to play at a program like Penn State. And Andrea, who became Brandon's wife in June 2015, is ecstatic to experience the ride with him. Coaches across the country constantly tell their players to "know your role." Andrea filled hers perfectly. Friends and family don't believe her when she tells them that for the last 18 months, she hasn't peppered Brandon with questions about football when he returns home from workouts each day. Instead she provides constant encouragement.
"No matter how impossible the situation seemed each day I just told him, 'Your time is coming,'" Andrea recalls. "In the Temple game, none of us were really expecting anything and to see what unfolded, I just sat there and cried. I know he had to prove himself constantly, and he always believed he could contribute. To never give up on that, and see it become a reality, it's just been incredible."
Football has tested their relationship. Andrea is two years older, and while she finished up school at Messiah College, a small private Christian school in Mechanicsburg, Penn., Brandon started his walk-on career in State College. Quickly, they learned that college athletics are a full-time gig. "I probably overestimated how physically demanding things would be, and underestimated it time-wise," Brandon says. Andrea felt the time crunch, too. She says that as a walk-on "you're not given as much grace," which meant that anytime Brandon had an optional workout, he needed to go, to prove that he really did want to be a part of the team. As a result, Andrea sacrificed a lot of time in her car. "I can't tell you how many times I'd drive four hours (two each way) to spend an hour with him," she says.
She also provided something every athlete, scholarship or not, needs: A distraction.
Despite a football-crazy schedule, the Smiths spend a lot of time giving back to the community. In 2012, Andrea and her sister, Emily Cole, co-founded Honduran Soles, a non-profit that sends shoes around the world. Together, the sisters gather donations, package and ship them, with Brandon helping out "in his free time," Andrea says. "He has a really giving heart." In March, the couple traveled to Honduras and handed out almost 1,000 pairs of shoes to children in need, then stayed to help build a soccer field at a local orphanage. Andrea's hopeful that eventually, it'll be a cause the entire Penn State program is passionate about. "He hasn't brought any teammates along… yet."
The chaotic schedule is worth it. Though Andrea sheepishly admits that prior to her husband's career she didn't fancy herself a football fan, she's enjoyed watching the statewide revival as Penn State ascends back to the top of the Big Ten.
"I work at the hospital in State College, and people I don't know are constantly encouraging me and telling me to pass it on to him," Andrea says. "Everyone is so excited about what's happening. Him playing a lot, it's like a spark was lit within him, but it's also amazing to watch that fire come back to not only players and coaches, but the whole community."
In Year 3 of the James Franklin era, the Nittany Lions have gone from has-been to playoff hopeful. Once decimated by scholarship losses following severe sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State rides an eight-game winning streak into the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin this Saturday, marking the Nittany Lions' longest conference streak since 1994. Franklin, who started the year on the hot seat, acknowledge this week on the Big Ten call that building to this point took time and for a few years. Walk-ons were once needed for practice bodies; now some of them have grown into significant contributors.
"We're one of the youngest teams in the country," Franklin says. "We had dips in the programs in terms of depth, and now we're in a position where we're more competitive at every position in terms of a two-deep, sometimes a three-deep. We challenge one another … the more success you have in practice against good people, it build competition and confidence, and then you're able to translate that (to games)."
Besides a possible playoff berth, Smith views the Wisconsin game as potential for a new top highlight. His favorite moment so far this season came Oct. 22, when Penn State upset heavily favored Ohio State and fans stormed the field.
"There were thousands of students running toward us like we were lifelong best friends, hugging me and picking me up," Brandon says. "Just to see how happy it made everyone feel, that was amazing."
He's anxious to see how much happier everyone might be after this weekend. Mostly, he's grateful that he gets to be part of it.