Marcus Smith had just left a meeting with the rest of North Texas’ tight ends on a nondescript winter afternoon early this year when his phone buzzed to let him know a message was waiting.
Smith’s phone was always ringing, often to let him know his father was trying to get in touch with him to offer encouragement as he battled his way back from a second reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
The shock of hearing that those conversations were over after returning the message his grandmother left still resonates with Smith.
Jerome Edward Smith died of a heart attack Feb. 27, just seven days short of turning 56.
“My dad loved to talk to me and I loved to talk to him,” Smith said. “He would give me words of wisdom and encouragement. He told me nothing would be easy in life and was a major help when I was coming back from surgery. He was there with me the entire time.”
Smith, a solidly built sophomore with broad shoulders above biceps covered in tattoos, wondered Monday if he would have made it all the way back from a second ACL reconstruction and enjoyed his finest moment with the Mean Green last week if it hadn’t been for his father.
The former San Antonio Warren standout caught his first three passes of the season in a 34-7 win over Middle Tennessee on Saturday at Apogee Stadium. Smith finished with just one reception in three games a year ago, when his season was cut short by his second major knee injury.
UNT is hoping Smith’s performance against the Blue Raiders is an indication that he is beginning to capitalize on his considerable potential while honoring his father in a season that will continue with a game Saturday at Louisiana Tech.
Since standout senior tight end Andrew Power’s graduation at the end of last season, UNT has been shorthanded this year with Daniel Prior battling injuries. Smith, whom teammates describe as a one of the team’s biggest jokesters, is helping fill the void. He made the first start of his career two weeks ago in a loss to Tulane and finished second among UNT’s receivers with 29 yards against MTSU.
“He can help us a lot,” wide receiver Brelan Chancellor said. “He’s starting to get his confidence back with catching the ball and doing something with it when he does.”
Jerome Smith helped his son develop that potential when he was growing up in San Antonio. Marcus Smith was tall and quick, just like his father, and developed into a top threat for Warren.
Smith was a first-team all-district selection as a wide receiver his junior season, when he caught 39 passes for 675 yards and three touchdowns — a performance that caught the attention of college coaches across Texas.
The course of Smith’s career changed dramatically June 5, 2011, during a 7-on-7 game in Lake Travis.
“I made a cut and someone dove for me and pushed my knee in,” Smith said. “I thought it was sprained at first and tried to walk it off.”
A trip to the doctor showed Smith had a torn ACL that kept him out for nearly all of his senior season.
Smith made a point to credit his mother, Jackie Rush; stepfather, Thomas Rush; sister, Sherronda Rush; and brother, Sean Smith, with helping him work through the injury. But there is little doubt Jerome Smith was the person he leaned on most.
“He took me to the rehab facility when I needed to go and would stay and coach me,” Smith said. “He would tell me not to quit even though it hurt, push through it and keep fighting. He was there through the whole process.”
Several of the teams that were recruiting Smith backed away, but former UNT head coach Todd Dodge and his staff stuck with him. Smith did not enroll until the Christmas break in 2010 and then redshirted during Dan McCarney’s first season as UNT’s head coach in 2011.
UNT moved Smith, who was 6-4 and weighed 215 pounds as a senior in high school, to tight end, which presented a whole new set of challenges.
Smith, who now is 255 pounds, was used to running past defensive backs, not blocking defensive ends. He said switching positions was tough.
“He has improved immensely with being physical,” McCarney said. “Is he where he needs to be? No, but he has improved.”
Smith’s development was cut short again last season, when he played in just three games, the last of which was at Kansas State.
“I had some pain in my knee and tried to play through it,” Smith said. “I was able to play into the second quarter, but after halftime I couldn’t even walk.”
Smith came back from his first ACL tear while he was at Warren in four months to try to help his team in the playoffs. He believes now he rushed himself back too quickly, which contributed to his second ACL tear, a setback that left him considering his future.
“I thought about hanging it up,” Smith said.
The support his father provided was perhaps the biggest reason Smith battled through a second ACL reconstruction and resumed his career at UNT.
“My dad called me every day and came up to see me in the dorms just to see how I was doing,” Smith said.
Smith, who also credits his teammates and coaches for helping him during his recovery, didn’t know it at the time, but he had only a few more months to enjoy spending time with his father after his second ACL tear on Sept. 15, 2012.
Jerome Smith, who worked in inventory management at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, was in good health and enjoyed walking at night before suffering the heart attack that killed him.
“It was a difficult time because I was also dealing with rehab,” Smith said. “It was just a random day that I found out that he passed away. It’s still very difficult.”
Smith spent a lot of time over the summer with teammates after his father died, including Chancellor and fellow senior Brandin Byrd.
“It was hard on him,” Chancellor said. “We talked to him and were there for him. Marcus and his dad were pretty close.”
Eventually, the personality that has made Smith a popular member of UNT’s team began to re-emerge.
“Marcus is a clown,” Byrd said. “He’s a character. We have to tell him to cut it out sometimes. He’s a big kid.”
The way Smith has rebounded from all he has endured over the last few years has earned him the respect of his coaches and teammates.
“When Marcus lost his dad, he was out there working the next day as hard as ever,” UNT cornerback Kenny Buyers said. “That speaks to his character. I don’t know if I could do that.”
Smith said rebounding from two major knee injuries and his father’s death hasn’t been easy.
It’s moments like last week’s win over MTSU that have made working his way back from a tough time in his life worth it.
The three passes Smith caught against the Blue Raiders resulted in first downs on scoring drives.
“It felt good,” Smith said. “Those catches meant a lot to me and the team as well.”
Catching those passes was a way for Smith to honor his father, a man he looked up to and credits for helping him get to where he is today.
“He was a great man,” Smith said. “He was fun, energetic and funny. He loved to joke around. He got on my tail when he needed to and was there when I needed him. He treated me extremely well. I wish he was still here physically to watch me on the field, but I know he is looking down on me.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.