May 30, 2017

Kevin Smith: From the Twilight Zone to the End Zone

I thought I was watching The Twilight Zone. However, it couldn’t have been that landmark science fiction TV show. It wasn’t 1963, and it wasn’t in black-and-white. The video took place in November 2011, and it was in Detroit Lions blue-and-silver.

He’s running with a screen from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, and he’s got that sweet, smooth way of shifting around while still moving straight for the end zone. I’m thinking, “Who is that?” He’s wearing #30, and as he crosses the goal line, I see “Smith” on the back of his jersey. Now I’m thinking, “Whoa!!…is that really him????”

Yes, it was him. No, it wasn’t The Twilight Zone, but what a script.

I have yet to watch a game this year. On the day the lockout ended, I gave up fantasy football. I also made a commitment to not even watch football. My fantasy football team, based in Columbia, South Carolina, is called the Columbia Overdrive. “Overdrive” describes my approach to the things I love. I ran on football overdrive for years, and the gear’s busted. Nobody who knew me could believe it. “I’m shocked,” said John Richardson, owner of the Georgia Scorpions, the Overdrive’s opponent in the 2009 championship game. Richardson was decked out in his security guard uniform. “I don’t wanna go to work.”

I didn’t drop football. I’ve had a blast covering high school football in the Carolina Low Country and Savannah, Georgia. I’m thoroughly enjoying working on a number of projects on pro football history. I basically know what’s going on in the NFL. People update me here and there, and yes, I do occasionally watch highlights on the internet. I was checking my e-mail on the morning of Monday, November 21, 2011, when Providence intervened with that blue-and-silver video.

I am now writing my second post on Leatherheads of the Gridiron, and it is a most unexpected post. The subtitles of this article are the titles of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, Season 4 (Winter-Spring 1963). That was the season of one-hour episodes, a format I think is great. I had never seen The Twilight Zone until Mom gave me Season 4 last Christmas. It has become one of my five favorite shows of all time.

And I have to say, the Detroit Lions have one fine running back.

No Time Like the Past

The Detroit Lions don’t want to go back to 2008. That was the year they went 0-16. Other teams in NFL history have gone an entire season without a win. The most recent examples are the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14) and the 1982 Baltimore Colts (0-8-1). The 2008 Lions, however, were the first to go 0-16. I’ll tell you what, though. In the third round of the 2008 NFL draft, the Lions found a gem of a running back.

I liked Kevin Smith a lot. I scouted him in ’08 for my fantasy team. There was an excellent class of rookie running backs that year. The Oakland Raiders’ Darren McFadden was the top-rated rookie RB in the fantasy football magazines. Rookies usually aren’t drafted high in fantasy drafts, but many magazines projected McFadden as a Top 30 pick. The Carolina Panthers’ Jonathan Stewart was generally considered the second-best rookie running back, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Rashard Mendenhall.

Kevin Smith was rated fourth or fifth by quite a few publications. Smith stood at 6′ 1″ and weighed 217. He had a stellar career at the University of Central Florida, running for 4,864 yards in three seasons. In 2007 alone, he ran for 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns. He was a consensus First-Team All-American, and his 2007 rushing total fell 62 yards short of the college football single-season record set by Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders in 1988. On top of his accomplishments in college, the running back position in Detroit was wide open, and Smith was expected to get the Lions’ share of the carries.

I liked him. In preseason 2008, as I prepared for my second season of fantasy football, I watched the film. I liked K-Smith’s vision, and I liked his ability to change direction. He wasn’t a blazer, but he had a nice way of shifting into second gear. I liked Kevin Smith, and I took him with the #86 pick in the 2008 Bitter Rivals fantasy football draft.

I thought about making K-Smith a starter for the Overdrive, but two factors doomed that notion. One factor was Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis. Portis was my favorite player on my favorite team, and the #6 pick in the draft was reserved for him. The other factor arose as I watched another running back on preseason film. A Tennessee Titans rookie named Chris Johnson outran the St. Louis Rams.

My jaw dropped.

I said, “That man’s lightning!!” I knew I’d be taking him as my other starting RB. I knew I’d be taking him early. I raised eyebrows at the draft when I took Chris “Lightning” Johnson with the #26 pick in the draft. It was the best fantasy football decision I ever made.

As for Kevin Smith, he soon had a problem far worse than not starting for the Columbia Overdrive. Smith rightfully won the starting job for the Lions. Little did anybody know that this team would make the wrong kind of history.

In the season opener against the Atlanta Falcons, Smith ran for a touchdown–after the Lions trailed in the first quarter, 21-0. The final score was a respectable 34-21, but the tone was set. This was a Lions team with a fairly competent offense, especially with Smith and super-talented wide receiver Calvin Johnson. What I remember most about the 2008 Lions, however, is that never have I seen a team fall behind so quickly in so many games like those Lions did.

In the meantime, Smith sat on the bench for the Overdrive. My policy is that I play my starters regardless of what the matchup is. That meant week in and week out, my starting running backs were Clinton Portis and Chris “Lightning” Johnson.

On Thursday We Leave for Home

On Thursday morning K-Smith answered the phone. It was Overdrive owner Matt Haddad. “Portis is on bye,” Matt said. “You’re starting.” It was Week 10 of the 2008 season, and Thursday Night Football was beginning. The Columbia Overdrive hosted the Boston Rampage in the first game of a rivalry that would become one of the best rivalries in The Bitter Rivals Fantasy Football League. Owned by Lucas Brewer, the Rampage were starting to build a reputation as a team with a dangerous passing attack. The Cleveland Browns were at home against the Denver Broncos for Thursday Night Football. Browns tight end Kellen Winslow started for the Overdrive, and Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall took the field for the Rampage.

In front of a crowd of screaming South Carolinians, the game took on the intensity of a playoff match. Winslow caught 10 passes for 111 yards and 2 touchdowns to score 31 points for the Overdrive. Marshall struck back with 6 catches, 89 yards, 1 touchdown, and 20 points for the Rampage. On Sunday, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne scored 23 for the Overdrive, but Chris “Lightning” Johnson played his worst game of the season. The Chicago Bears’ defense bottled the lightning for 8 yards rushing–and 3 points for the Overdrive.

Columbia needed Kevin Smith to do something good. The Lions played the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Jags quarterback David Garrard scored 20 for the Rampage. Smith responded by running for 96 yards and a touchdown, plus catching one pass for 27 yards. His efforts gave the Overdrive 18 points.

K-Smith did most of his damage in the fourth quarter. He ran for a 1-yard touchdown with 6:02 remaining, a play that got the Overdrive 6 points. An onside kick ensued, and Calvin Johnson recovered for the Lions. Detroit didn’t score on that final drive, but Smith scored 3 more points for the Overdrive. On third-and-1 at the 50, Smith ran 32 yards to the Jacksonville 18. Every one of K-Smith’s points was necessary. The Overdrive won, 104-101.

Sadly, the loss to Jacksonville left the Lions at 0-9. NFL.com remarked, “They might have what it takes to be the NFL’s first 0-16 team.” Finish 0-16 they did. Smith was one of the bright spots with 976 yards rushing, 4.1 yards per carry, and 8 touchdowns. He also caught 39 passes for 286 yards.

2009 brought a new season to conquer: I won the Championship. The Columbia Overdrive defeated the Boston Rampage in the playoffs and the Georgia Scorpions in the title game. Clinton Portis and Chris “Lightning” Johnson were again my signature players. “Playing for Matt is the highlight of my career,” Portis said in an exclusive interview with The Imaginary Newspaper.

Kellen Winslow and Reggie Wayne were also on my ’09 championship team, but Kevin Smith wasn’t. I really wanted K-Smith as my top backup. Rashon Johnson and the West Rasheed Crusaders had other ideas. They drafted him to be a starter.

Smith didn’t have as strong of a season in ’09. He did well in the receiving department, with 41 catches for 415 yards and 1 touchdown. However, his rushing numbers regressed: 747 yards, 3.4 yards per carry, and 4 touchdowns. Late in the season, which saw the Lions finish 2-14, Smith tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

In 2010, for a Lions team that finished 6-10, Smith played in six games before losing his season to a thumb injury. Playing second-string, he ran for 133 yards and 3.5 yards per carry while catching 11 passes for 123 yards. He didn’t score a touchdown. On March 3, 2011, eight days before the lockout, the Lions let Smith go.

He’s Alive

Yes, the commentators confirmed in the blue-and-silver video, that was the one and only Kevin Smith. Smith’s 28-yard touchdown catch-and-run came when the Lions were down, 10-0, at home to the Carolina Panthers. For the first time since December 2009, K-Smith reached the end zone. Against the Panthers, he would do it three times.

The Panthers led 24-7 at one point, but the Lions put some roar into their offense. The final score was Detroit 49, Carolina 35. Smith ran 16 times for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also caught 4 passes for 61 yards and 1 touchdown. That was the greatest game of his career. The Lions’ record now stood at 7-4, their best mark at that point since 2000.

Mute

No, no, no. Kevin Smith didn’t keep silent. The blue-and-silver video showed him giving hugs to his offensive lineman. Then he knelt down at the bench and gave thanks to the Almighty. K-Smith later said, “The chance to be in the NFL, the chance that God blessed me with another opportunity, is what I’m thankful for.”

That game took place on November 20th, thirteen days after the Lions re-signed him. Afterward, he was asked what he did during his eight months out of football. “Wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning, train until 12, go home and play with my son,” Smith said. He worked out at a sports facility in Aventura, just outside his hometown of Miami. His greatest encourager was his mother.

On Thanksgiving Day, four days after the Panthers game, Smith and the Lions took the field against the undefeated, defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Smith ran well in the early going, gaining 36 yards on 7 carries while catching 3 passes for 21 yards. Then he hurt his ankle in the second quarter. At that time, the Lions were down, 7-0. Smith didn’t return. The Packers dominated the second half and won the game, 27-15.

Smith will hopefully be back on the field soon. “It wasn’t that bad,” Smith said of the injury. The X-ray came back negative, and Smith was diagnosed with a mild sprain. He might see action on December 4th at New Orleans. The Lions have gone from 0-16 to a team competing for the playoffs. I believe the story of Kevin Smith is to be continued.

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