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Malcolm Smith: Tough to swallow
Every day Malcolm Smith worked out hard and waited for his email to ping or his phone to buzz or a text to arrive inviting to him the 2011 NFL Draft Combine, the great February audition before April's selection weekend.
Smith sweated through the tedium of individual drills, knowing that his chance to follow his brother Steve into the NFL was coming quickly.
Sure his senior year at USC hadn't been the exhilarating showcase season he had hoped for and the eating disorder that had bothered him for several years was common knowledge among the hyper-critical general managers and scouts, who sometimes assess college athletes as if they thoroughbreds at the Keeneland Yearling Sale.
But Smith knew in his heart that if he just got the chance at the combine he could show the league just how valuable a linebacker he could become. Like so many athletes at this tipping point in their careers, Smith only asked for a chance.
Alone in a hotel room outside Los Angeles, Smith wept when he got the news. He called his mother. He called his brother, St. Louis wide receiver Steve Smith.
"I was just hurting," Smith said. "My whole life I dreamed of the opportunity to show some things on that level and when it didn't happen, that really hurt me. It felt like, whatever I had done (in college) just wasn't enough. That still bothers me to this day."
His brother told him to stay focused. He reminded Malcolm there were dozens of undrafted free agents playing in the league.
"You have the talent," Steve told him.
And Malcolm had a chip on his shoulder, a chip that should almost be part of the Seattle Seahawks' logo.
Every NFL team has players who believe they've been disrespected. Every team has players with chips on their shoulders; players with something to prove; players who think that if they just get their chances.
Every team has a handful of these players. The Seahawks have a roster full of them. From cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman; from Russell Wilson to Marshawn Lynch, from Bobby Wagner to Golden Tate, this team is loaded with guys who came into the league with something to prove and have proved themselves.
"We all have a common goal," Smith, 23, said before a recent practice. "We have aspirations to be a really special group. We want to do something great. We want to do something that lasts. And the fact that we're all similar in age and a lot of us came from similar circumstances like we feel like we were doubted and we weren't perceived the way we should have been, that might be something that they figured out upstairs (Seahawks front office).
"Maybe they figured out that we were all very competitive and that we could feed off each other. But we try to play with that attitude. We try to keep that (feeling of being disrespected) in mind. You always know where you come from and how you got to the place where you are and the journey that you've been through. Everybody on our team has a story and we really, really, really, really, really – I don't know how many times I said really --want to win. It's really important to us."
But doesn't every team want to win? I mean, aren't the 0-and-8 teams desperate to win?
"Maybe it's just a different degree of wanting to win for us," Smith said. "Maybe it's the way we hold each other accountable. Maybe the way we don't want to be the one who's jeopardized that for the guys next to them."
Nothing scares away teams like the hint of a health issue. In Pasadena, at the end of Smith's sophomore season, the Rose Bowl-bound Trojans were eating in the Beef Bowl, the annual prime rib bacchanal at Lawry's when Smith began experiencing difficulty swallowing. In the next months, his condition worsened.
"It really scared me," he said. "I didn't know what was going on."
He was diagnosed with a condition that caused his esophagus to shut down. After spring football, before his junior season, Smith had surgery.
"I was coming off a good spring, but recovery was tough," he said. "I got sick. I lost about 30 pounds. It was just a battle to get back. When the season came I was still struggling with swallowing and gaining weight. I really had to focus on my diet to get to where I needed to be."
Even now Smith has to eat very slowly. He eats food in small amounts and drinks a lot of water.
"I always pictured myself playing in the NFL, so I don't think I was ever deterred," Smith said. "It was just that there were obstacles in the way. I'm sure my parents and my family were worried, but I stayed focused on whatever I needed to do to play."
Despite the fact Smith didn't go to the Combine, despite the eating disorder, the Seahawks chose him in the seventh round of the 2011 draft. It was a show-me kind of pick for the Seahawks, a shot at redemption for Smith.
Smith had played for Seahawks' head coach Pete Carroll and linebacker coach Ken Norton, Jr. at USC and his former coach, knowing Smith's competitiveness, decided to make a leap of faith.
At the moment of the draft, Smith admits, he was underwhelmed by the call. Even Seahawks' general manager John Schneider said to him on the phone, "You don't sound too excited."
"I don't think I was as grateful as I should have been at the time," Smith said. "It was more like a sigh of relief for me because it was so late in the draft. I was definitely appreciative, but it was a long day and it definitely took a toll on me."
Smith remembers Ken Norton, Jr. being especially hard on him when Smith came to Renton for a pre-draft workout. He showed Smith film of what Smith says were, "the worst plays I ever made in my life."
"When I came to visit Coach Norton wasn't very nice," Smith said. "He was really tough on me. Man, he destroyed me and at one point I was like, 'Man I don't even want to play here.' I was really upset. But I know that he always does things for a reason. He was my coach for three years at USC and I think he was just messing with me a little bit."
Three seasons later, although Smith is listed on the depth chart as backup linebacker and special teams player, he is, in truth, the fourth starting linebacker on a team that runs a 4-3 defense. That means he doesn't get on the field as much as Wagner, K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin. But when Smith has started, in place of Wagner, or whenever he's been called upon this season, he has been as good as any of the Seahawks' very good linebackers.
He doesn't have the long arms of Wright. He isn't as fast as Wagner. At 226 pounds, maybe he's a little light for his position, but Smith is stout at the point of the attack. He reads defenses and puts himself in the right positions.
He was all over the field in wins over Carolina and Arizona. He forced a safety against San Francisco and made a jaw-dropping, open-field tackle last month on Tennessee's Chris Johnson.
The Seahawks were criticized last April for not drafting a linebacker. Smith has rendered the criticism moot.
"When you're a reserve player, you never know when you're going to get your opportunity," Smith said. "You never know what the scenario's going to be. I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to start some games. I just want to make the most of those opportunities. I really love playing and I think it shows when I play."
Malcolm Smith got his chance in Seattle, where he found a team of like-minded players with something to prove.