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PERSPECTIVE

Nelson Smith, who knows something about resilience, has led Navy's turnaround

Navy football players celebrate after a touchdown by fullback Nelson Smith (43) against Air Force in 2019.

STARS AND STRIPES

By KAREEM COPELAND | The Washington Post | Published: October 23, 2020

When the police officer arrived at the scene of the accident in the summer of 2015, he figured no one had survived. The twisted wreckage of metal, plastic and glass wrapped around a tree offInterstate-10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans looked like the back corner of a junkyard.

"The state trooper said he's never seen anyone live from an accident like that, let alone walk away," Nelson Smith III said. "He didn't actually walk away; he was medevaced out."

Five years later, Smith's son, another Nelson and the driver of that green 2006 Honda Accord, is a fullback leading the resurgence of the Navy football team. After opening the season with two horrendous losses, the Midshipmen (3-2, 3-0) sit atop the AAC standings entering Saturday's 3:30 kickoff against Houston (1-1, 1-0).

The day of the accident, Smith had been driving to a football camp at Tulane, hoping to attract interest from bigger college programs before his senior season of high school. He fell asleep at the wheel and never arrived. Despite his relatively good fortune, he needed eight staples in his leg and stitches in his foot and arm and suffered road burn all over his torso and a torn abdomen.

He managed to return to the field as a high school senior, but his only Division I offer was from Navy.

"That experience pretty much was the turning point," Smith III said. "He went from being a boy to a man shortly after that. His maturity level just went from a kid playing around — not serious, not focused — to, 'I know what I want to do and I'm about to make this happen.'

"Without that accident, I'm not even sure if he would have even considered the academy. With that accident, he realized that there was more to life than football, and it wasn't just about football. It was about setting himself up to be successful for the rest of his life."

Smith would need to lean on that maturity during his time in Annapolis. He opened his junior season atop the depth chart, but lost the starting job midway through the season to Jamale Carothers. Carothers was a year younger and helped the Midshipmen tie a school record with 11 wins, leaving Smith's status fairly uncertain with one year left in his collegiate career.

"I pride myself on [having] kind of a stoic kind of attitude," Smith said. "Like, control what you can control.

"I was definitely a little down last year. . . . I've always known I was good football player. So I knew that if I worked hard during this off season and showed up on the field, that I would get my chance. There wasn't a doubt in my mind. I couldn't have a doubt in my mind. It was just more, 'So this is what I'm going to do and this is how it's going to happen. I'm going to work hard and I'm going to make my way back up.'"

The unusual offseason was both a positive and negative for Smith. A global pandemic provided plenty of time to run, lift weights and do squats. Motivated by the memory of getting chased down at the end of a career-long 77-yard run against Connecticut last November — and good-natured teasing from his coaches and father that followed — Smith vowed to lose weight and get faster. He changed his diet, dropped 15 pounds and ran and ran and ran.

What he didn't get, without a normal training camp, was a chance to prove himself and win back the starting job, so Carothers began the season as Navy's top fullback.

Now Smith is hitting the hole with a reckless abandon and has been the key to an offense that managed just 10 combined points while losing to BYU and Air Force by a total of 85 points. Smith has posted back-to-back career-highs of 120 rushing yards and 157 in wins against Temple and East Carolina while scoring four combined touchdowns.

"Nelson could have sulked and complained and kind of been bitter," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "It can get toxic if you're a good player and you're not getting the reps that you want. But that never entered the equation with Nelson. Came to work every day. Uplifted Jamale and his role. Continued to embrace his role. Continued to work hard.

"He's been a spark plug for us this year. . . . He's been our catalyst this year for us rebounding in some of these games."

Smith has been the key to an offense that managed just 10 combined points while losing to BYU and Air Force by a total of 85 points. Smith has posted back-to-back career highs of 120 and 157 rushing yards in victories over Temple and East Carolina while scoring four combined touchdowns.

The elder Smith marvels at the growth of his son since that accident on I-10. In those days, everything was about his NFL dreams; now the younger Smith is focused on being selected for the Marine Corps. After his son's successful sophomore season, Smith III asked him about exploring transfer options to get more attention from pro scouts, but the response was, "It's about more than football. It's about sacrifice and service."

Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper credits Smith's offseason work and the perseverance that came after losing his job.

"They're all competitors, and when you lose your position, it's not always the best feeling," Jasper said. "He could have very easily had a bad attitude about it and went in the opposite direction, but he did the complete opposite. He's a complete team player. I'm just happy for the kid."
 

Navy's Nelson Smith gets a big block from teammate C.J. Williams (20) as he turns the corner and scores his team's first touchdown in the second quarter of the Navy-Air Force football game at Annapolis, Md., October 5, 2019.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES