EDITOR’S NOTE: The Tennessee Titans announced Wednesday night that quarterback Vince Young would not return to the team next season. This story, about Titans rookie backup quarterback Rusty Smith, was written prior to that announcement.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Russ Smith knew something was wrong … very wrong. He didn’t need to be a rocket scientist (literally) to figure that out. The sound of rockets should never be heard from your teenage son’s bedroom.
After racing upstairs, Russ came upon a sight that parents, with the softening effect of time, can retell with laughter. Russ’ 13-year-old son Rusty was furiously stamping out his smoking rug.
“When I went into the room, the carpet was smoldering,” Russ recalled, chuckling. “He said it was an accident. It wasn’t an accident. But that’s just being a boy.”
A decade later, Rusty Smith is hoping his rocket-like ascent from barely recruited prep star to NFL quarterback includes a much higher ceiling than the ill-fated indoor missile launch of his youth. Smith, who turns 24 on Jan. 28, has just finished his rookie season as a Tennessee Titans backup. It was his first time in a reserve role since his redshirt freshman year at Florida Atlantic University — a position he is hoping to improve on quickly.
“It’s not easy being a rookie in the NFL, not playing a whole lot, not getting a whole lot of reps,” Smith said. “You have to keep the faith and know that God’s got a plan for you and it will work out how he wants it to.”
Faith predates football in Smith’s life. Growing up, First Baptist Church of Jacksonville (Fla.) was practically a second home for him. His parents took Rusty and his younger sister Tracie to church three times a week.
Smith became a Christian at about age 8 and was a “polite, well-mannered” kid, according to his father. The worst thing Rusty recalls doing (aside from the indoor rocket episode, of course) was getting caught for cheating in the ninth grade. He received an in-school suspension and “my parents grounded me and spanked me,” he said.
A spanking in high school?
“Spare the rod, spoil the child,” Smith said, “and I can definitely say that I’m not spoiled.”
Indeed, Smith has had to work hard for everything he’s achieved. He learned that trait from his parents. Russ and Melody Smith own two Russ-Doe’s Sandwich Shops, a family business that was started by Russ’ parents in the early 1980s. Russ and Melody get up at 3:30 a.m. and work 12-hour days every weekday.
“Anytime I wasn’t in school, I helped out in the sandwich shop,” Rusty said.
As talented as he is with hoagies, Smith is even better with a football. Yet he flew so far under the recruiting radar in high school, he almost never took off.
After three years at Paxon School for Advanced Studies in Jacksonville, he transferred to Sandalwood High School for more football exposure as a senior. But Sandalwood featured a run-heavy offense, and despite sporting a 21-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Smith only received one scholarship offer, from Florida Atlantic.
In hindsight, Boca Raton was serendipitous for Smith. There, he started three and a half years for head coach Howard Schnellenberger, a renowned football mastermind who has two Super Bowl rings and helped produce NFL stars like Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Joe Namath and Vinny Testaverde.
As Schnellenberger’s latest NFL-bound pupil, Smith led Florida Atlantic to its first two bowl games in school history and finished with 10,112 passing yards, 768 completions and 76 touchdowns — all FAU records. He was named the 2007 Sun Belt Conference player of the year and the 2008 Motor City Bowl MVP.
Despite missing the last five games of his senior year with a sprained left (non-throwing) shoulder, the 6-foot-5, 226-pound Smith was drafted by the Titans in the sixth round last April, becoming the first-ever NFL draftee from FAU. Then, it was back to the bench, buried on the depth chart behind starter Vince Young and Kerry Collins.
But on Nov. 21, Smith was forced into action in a home game against Washington thanks to injuries to Young and Collins. Smith’s first NFL completion was a 52-yard strike to Nate Washington in the fourth quarter, but he completed only 3-of-9 passes for 62 yards with an interception, and the Titans lost in overtime.
With Young being placed on the season-ending injured reserve list and Collins still healing, Smith made his first start at Houston in week 12 (coincidentally, beating Denver rookie quarterback Tim Tebow to become the first Jacksonville native to start at quarterback in the NFL). But the result wasn’t pretty. Smith threw for only 138 yards with three interceptions in a 20-0 loss. Collins started the following week against Jacksonville.
“It’s difficult to get used to, but I knew that’s what the role was going to be so I prepared myself for it,” Smith said of being a backup this season. “Just mentally, I knew I wasn’t going to get many reps. I knew that I wasn’t going to be the guy. I’m happy with anything I get.”
Knowing Smith, he won’t feel that way for long. He is “extremely competitive,” according to his father, who recalls moments when he had to pull young Rusty aside in youth leagues to explain that not all his teammates burned to win like he did.
For Smith’s part, he said God is teaching him “patience and trust because I’m in a waiting game — one, if this is where I’m going to stick with my career, and [two], patience because I want to be the starter one day. I trust that He knows what He’s doing. I’m here for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. Nothing happens by chance or coincidence, and I have to trust Him.”
Titans quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains called Smith’s performance against Houston “just a part of the growing process for a rookie quarterback.”
“He just needs to work hard every day to improve his game from a mental standpoint,” Loggains said. “He needs to continue to learn NFL defenses and NFL coverages. He has to continue to work on his fundamentals and continue to lead by example.”
With the Titans’ season over, what happens next? Smith isn’t sure. Aside from the labor unrest between owners and the players union that threatens the 2011 season, life as a sixth-round backup quarterback in the NFL is tenuous, at best.
Smith signed a four-year contract worth approximately $1.9 million last summer, but he and his wife Nicole, whom he married less than two weeks before last April’s draft, haven’t planted roots yet in Nashville. They have a three-bedroom apartment near the Titans’ practice facility, and after leaving his old pickup truck at his parents’ house last spring, Smith waited to buy a new Ford F-150 until last November, a month after test-driving it.
“Now, I’m thrifty,” Russ Smith said, “but that kid is so tight, he squeaks.”
Still, if Rusty’s work ethic is any indication, he will have a successful NFL career.
“His willingness to work really impresses me,” Loggains said. “He is a guy that comes in on off-days like Mondays and Tuesdays and has since the day he got here. He has the drive to get better each day.”
Smith doesn’t know what the future holds, but he wants to take advantage of the spotlight he’s been given. He has spoken many times at churches and schools and hopes to again “whenever possible.”
“God’s given me a platform for a reason,” he said, “and I want to use it.”
Just don’t ask him for many specifics about his fledgling NFL career.
“It’s like that country song says: If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your life plans,” Smith said. “He’s the one who’s got plans laid out for me and my wife. Whenever a door opens for us, we’ll walk through it and try to be the best Christian example we can be and let the Lord take care of the rest.”