ANDERSON – Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Taj Smith is a story of hope, perseverance, overcoming challenges and environment, inspiration and of sincere dedication as he tries to make the club in 2011.
Smith is working hard daily in training camp trying to extend what he was exposed to last year, that being the club's active roster.
Smith played in the final five games for the Colts in 2010 as a special teamer. He also played in the club's Wild Card playoff game.
That he was able to do so is a testament to his inner strength and drive to make something of his professional opportunity.
Every athlete is a study of some sort for the sacrifice and effort it takes just to play in high school and college, let alone beyond those levels.
Some paths are easier than others. Smith's path through his home area of Newark, New Jersey was riddled with obstacles.
With a meager family dwelling for his parents and seven siblings, Smith began his journey. He resisted many of the pitfalls that snare young adults. Smith overcame challenges to eventually finish his prep career at Weequahic High School, playing both on offense and defense.
Without a college option, Smith worked for months to make ends meet before a teacher he knew briefly from his high school worked a connection to get him a chance to play at Bakersfield College, a junior college in California. While there, Smith persevered through a personal matter when an older brother perished on the streets in Newark. Smith returned to Bakersfield, eventually graduating in 2006. He earned an academic and athletic scholarship to Syracuse.
Smith played two years for the Orange, catching 56 passes for 1,049 yards and eight touchdowns. As importantly, he earned his degree in special education.
A brief free agent stint with Green Bay ended in August of 2008, and Smith was signed to the Colts' practice squad a month later. He spent most of the 2009 season on the club's practice squad. During that season, he suffered another personal setback when a second brother perished in a difficult manner.
Smith stayed determined and kept forging ahead. He suffered a hamstring injury at the end of the 2010 training camp, but stayed around Indianapolis. On the last day of November with the team fighting injuries, Smith was signed as a free agent. His first game provided a career moment when he blocked a punt for a touchdown against Dallas, the first such play for the club in more than 20 years. He also forced a fumble late in regulation that the club could not recover before losing in overtime. The next week at Tennessee, Smith recovered a fumbled punt to set up a late first-half touchdown as the Colts eventually won, 30-28.
Like all others in camp, Smith is trying to extend a dream. In last week's game at St. Louis, he caught a 44-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Dan Orlovsky. He is trying to find a spot in the club's difficult offense. It is a challenge more mentally than physically.
"With the plays being called and the signals with Peyton (Manning) and everything, it's at least 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical," said Smith. "My perspective, it's more learning than actually doing. They say, 'Practice is hard, the games are easy.' The practice part is what I'm trying to get down how to be in sync with the quarterbacks and running routes the way I need to. That's more mental than physical to me. I'm comfortable, just not relaxed. I feel comfortable just being out there and knowing what I need to do. I've just got to cut out the mental mistakes and pretty much just play football."
Smith sounds like many young players trying to carve a niche in the NFL. He is thankful for this opportunity and like every other period of his life, he is dedicated to providing a positive result.
"I take it one day at a time and try to get better each and every day," he said. "It was a blessing that I did get a second chance (to play). I'm grateful I got that second chance. I know everybody and we have a good chemistry. I'm just trying to do what I need to do to make the team again. This is a professional sport, but it is a job, too. I make the best of it like anyone in a job, and I look at it that it is a job. It's what I make of it. I'm just living in the moment, trying to make it and actually help the team out and my family out. It's a lot but at the end of the day, you just have to be professional about it."
Given the personal challenges he has been through with family, Smith, 27, is dedicated to helping his brothers and sisters every way he can. He is the oldest now and has five siblings ranging from 19 to 26 years of age.
"I just try to be a role model for them. I'm not perfect, but every day I call them to make sure they're doing alright and that they're just living the right way," he said. "I just try to make sure they stay out of trouble and show them the right way to do things. They are grown up and to me, that's even harder to deal with. They are vulnerable and they can go out and do what they want to do."
Smith knows he is providing an example far beyond family.
"The people in my city, they're watching me and seeing that I made it out of the inner city and that they can be encouraged to do the same," he said. "It pushes me every day. Those who didn't make it (out), it makes me want to go ever harder. I always know God is first always. He blessed me with the gift of actually being out on the football field. It's much more than just football. It's about our youth. With me, I do my best to let them know that. It's (life) hard work. You have to sometimes give up a lot to get where you want to be. You have to stop hanging around certain crowds and do the right things."
Smith's story is known to some around the club. Head Coach Jim Caldwell certainly knows the inspirational story, and he cited a special moment last year.
"Taj is a guy who has displayed a lot perseverance in his life," said Caldwell. "He's had some very, very difficult times. He's a guy who has the wherewithal to get it done, but he's also an achiever. His story is one when you look at all the hardships he's gone through and see him here today…Also the people he has had an impact on. Last fall, his English teacher (who helped him get to Bakersfield and who teaches there now) came up as well as one of the assistant coaches for the junior college in California. The impact he had on those two. They knew about his background and difficulty, and that he was able to come through it and perform extremely well and have a positive impact on all those around him. It is a real testament to his character."
Smith is fighting on. It is all he ever has done.
"Last year it was pretty much just special teams. Whatever they ask me to do, I'm just going to do it to the best of my abilities," said Smith. "There's a lot of depth at wide receiver. I have to do the things to actually earn a spot, just cut out the mental mistakes and continue to make progress. I think I'm doing that but sometimes you get caught up in the moment, especially when you haven't played in a game, just a preseason game. It's like starting all over again. I've been here four years, but I really haven't played in a regular season game (offensively). It's kind of difficult to say I'm on their (veterans) level with experience playing, but I do have (some) experience. I just have to remember that.
"I actually got the chance to be out here with Marvin (Harrison) his last year. Just listening to how Reggie (Wayne) goes about things, the things he studies when he watches film, it makes you want to be on that level and get the necessary things accomplished that he did. Just asking him (Wayne) questions on the field, he's very, very helpful. It's a blessing to be side-by-side with those guys. I live in the moment and just be professional about it."