Inoffensive threat: The New York Jets' all-around special guy Brad Smith

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Brad Smith. (Via newyorkjets.com.)
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There’s a classic story about Brad Smith, the New York Jets' all-purpose offensive and special-teams playmaker. It's one that Gary Pinkel, his coach at the University of Missouri, says he has told 100 times.

It was Smith’s senior year of high school in Youngstown, Ohio, and Pinkel was working hard to recruit him. Both parties liked each other, but no papers would be signed without the approval of Smith’s pastor. The pastor, the late Bishop Norman Wagner, had become a father figure to Smith, just as he had for many children in his inner-city congregation whose fathers were nowhere to be found. He didn’t take the responsibility lightly.

So when Pinkel sat down in his office, Wagner told him, “Coach, I know more about you than you know about yourself.” He then proceeded to recite the most extensive dossier ever compiled of Coach Gary Pinkel—“family, kids, everything,” Pinkel remembered.

Fortunately for him, Pinkel’s background checked out. Smith’s signature on a letter of intent to attend the University of Missouri would have Bishop Wagner’s blessing. Relieved and overjoyed, Pinkel thanked Wagner. Wagner paused. “Coach,” he told him. “You have no idea what you’ve got here.” Pinkel stammered, and began, “Respectfully, Sir, I think I ..." Wagner cut him off. “No you don’t. You have no idea what you’ve got here.”

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On the way out of the church, Pinkel turned to his assistant coach. “If this kid becomes a great player, this is gonna be a great story,” he said.

ON A JETS TEAM CHOCK FULL OF BIG PERSONALITIES, a quiet guy with the most nondescript of names has racked up a disproportionate number of big plays.

Brad Smith doesn't get much attention, relatively speaking. He’s not even a starter. Yet it’s reasonable to wonder where the Jets—now 6-2 and legitimate Super Bowl contenders—would be without him.

Though he admits to being somewhat disappointed at times that his role isn't bigger, Smith is completely convincing when he says, as he did in an interview with Capital this week, "I love this team and I have a great time with the guys here. They’re really my family. That’s really my focus right now—being the best teammate you can be."

Jets fans—the real ones—won't need Smith or anyone else to explain his importance to the team, or his consistent ability to do remarkable things at crucial times. Like the 106-yard kick return touchdown in Indianapolis in the second-to-last game of the 2009 season, spurring the team to a win they needed to stay alive. Or the following week against Cincinnati, when Smith nearly singlehandedly put the Jets in the playoffs with two long runs, one for a touchdown. Or three weeks later in the AFC Championship in Indianapolis, when Smith’s deep pass on an option play set up a Jets touchdown that put them up by eight points and engendered a real hope that the Jets were the real thing, a hope that has carried over to this year.

He's kept on going right into 2010. There was his fourth-quarter conversion of a 3rd-and-15 in Miami in which he glided upfield through a defense that he seemed to have hypnotized, setting up the Jets’ go-ahead touchdown. (At 2:35 on this video.) 

And there was the 86-yard kick-return against Minnesota two weeks later that averted what would have been a dispiriting loss.

All this from someone who doesn’t really have a position and only plays a handful of snaps a game. Smith, who is listed at 6-2, 212, played quarterback in college and is officially designated as a receiver on the Jets roster. But he lacks the passing polish expected of an NFL quarterback and he takes a back seat to three established Jets receivers who have played the position for much longer (Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, and Jerricho Cotchery). Instead, Smith makes an impact on the fringes of the game; he's a freelance athlete who does his best work outside the restrictiveness of traditional offensive formations. Special teams is one area in which he excels: He returns kickoffs and plays a key role on every other special team, including as the upback on the punt team. The Jets also try to utilize Smith’s rare athleticism by using him at quarterback in the Wildcat formation (they call it the TigerCat, among other things, in honor of Smith’s Missouri Tigers).

Whenever he touches the ball, good things happen. After taking over for the injured Leon Washington as kick returner last year, Smith had the league’s second-highest return average among those with 10 or more returns. This year, he is again second in kick-return average among qualified candidates. (Washington, now in Seattle, is first.) On offense, Smith has averaged a phenomenal 7.6 yards per carry in his 78 career carries.

Advanced statistics paint a similarly positive picture of Smith’s skill and knack for rising to the pivotal moment. According to the respected statistical website AdvancedNFLStats.com, Smith, solely by virtue of his performance on offense and not including special teams, led Jets offensive players last year in the Wins Probability Added per games played stat, which measures the importance of plays in their actual game context. That’s a staggering accomplishment for a player who sees so few offensive snaps.

Given the fact that he doesn't see more action, fans could be forgiven for wondering, as Bishop Wagner might have, whether the Jets really know what they’ve got in Brad Smith.

"HE'S THE KIND OF GUY YOU WANT FOR YOUR NEIGHBOR, or if you had a daughter, you’d want for your son-in-law,” said Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff.

“He’s a great athlete, but he’s ten times the human being that he is an athlete,” said Gary Pinkel, Smith’s college coach. “He’s one of those guys you spend and hour with and say, ‘Nobody could actually be like that.’ But he is. He showed me that in four years.” “Just the most unassuming young person I’ve ever met in my life,” said his high school coach, Ronald Berdis. “His mom did a remarkable job raising that family.”

“It’s who he is on the inside,” said his mother, Sherri Smith. “It’s his value system, his consistency, the humbleness that’s about him.”

Writers often call these statements “platitudes,” and are usually disappointed when they hear them. Good guys don’t make for snappy angles. Good stories revolve around unrest and conflict.

But sometimes the depth of feeling behind these statements is unmistakable. This was the case when the subject’s mother spoke poignantly about raising three children by herself and seeing each of them graduate from college. When she said, “It was always about academics first with Brad,” she wasn't just saying it because that’s what you’re supposed to say. It was also the case with the subject’s pastors, who made it clear that his spirituality speaks to the deepest and best aspects of his humanity, and that it’s not just an excuse for cheesy self-help slogans or intolerance or end-zone celebrations.

Similarly, the superficial outline of Smith's backstory will sound familiar to you if you've read much sports writing—a humble kid’s rise up from a single-parent home in the ghetto, a story peopled by unsung heroes and propelled to its happy ending by the power of faith. But again, there's a lot to his version of the narrative.

Smith, who turns 27 next month, emerged from a single-parent home in the predominantly black Southside section of Youngstown, whose reputation for poverty, crime, corruption, and decay stands apart even by grim Rust Belt standards. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song eulogizing the place, whose population has declined from 170,000 in 1930 to 80,000 today. The biggest story to come out of Youngstown in the past decade is that of former congressman James Traficant, Jr.—that’s the guy with the bizarre mullet who was imprisoned for accepting bribes and racketeering. The “Youngstown Tuneup” was once a cheeky term for the car-bombings once common in a city with an unrivaled reputation for organized crime. In America’s ninth most dangerous city, there’s plenty of unorganized crime too, convulsions of anger and desperation ripping through a population whose median household income was, as of 2007, the lowest among cities with 65,000 or more people.

The Southside was once a thriving middle-class black enclave, home to many steelworkers. But the steel industry went into steep decline after World War II, and the resulting hemorrhaging of jobs changed the neighborhood’s outlook. In 1968, the stresses boiled over in riots set off by assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“That tore up the Southside,” said Elder Alfred Coward of Mt. Cavalry Pentecostal Church, Smith’s church. “We lost a lot of homes, a lot of property. The Southside really went down after that.”

Meanwhile, the steel industry continued to crater. There was “Black Monday” in 1977, when a large portion of Youngstown Iron Sheet and Tube and Company closed and left 5,000 people jobless in one fell swoop. By the mid-1980s, the city had lost an estimated 40,000 manufacturing jobs. Neighborhoods like the Southside were hit hardest.

Sherri Smith wasn't being dramatic when she described the role her church played in the lives of her and her children.

“Mt. Calvary was a beacon of light in this dark neighborhood in this dark time,” she said. “My kids know how fickle people are and how fickle life is. They’re under no illusions. God gives us the power to be still, to be quiet inside when people are topsy-turvy around you.”

Not only is Mt. Cavalry a spiritual center for a community looking for answers to all kinds of questions. It also functions as a community social-service organization. It has a school, a senior-citizens complex and employs around 60 people (including, now, Sherri Smith, who is one of the ministers). It also has a youth football team, the better to engage its many fatherless boys. So Brad Smith's career started on the Sons of Thunder Pee-Wee football team. By the time he enrolled in Chaney High School, one of two traditional public high schools in a city that used to have six, he had already made headlines in football-crazed Youngstown.

At Chaney, he starred on the football field, the basketball court and in the classroom. See, the Brad Smith story isn’t a sports-as-redemption story, because the truth is he would have been just fine without sports. During summers in high school, he got a scholarship to take college preparatory classes at The College of Wooster, a liberal arts school in an idyllic setting that is at once 80 miles and a million miles from Southside Youngstown. At Missouri, he was a finalist for what is now called the William V. Campbell trophy (formerly the Draddy Award) that honors one college football player for on-field performance, academics, and community service. The distinction earned Smith money toward his postgraduate degree, and he is currently nine credits short of a Master’s in Economics with a focus on marketing. What’s more, Smith’s wife—who in July gave birth to the couple’s first child—has a Ph.D in biomedical engineering.