STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — A young man who came to Penn State three years ago as a walk-on fullback will make his first career start at middle linebacker Saturday at Michigan Stadium in front of more than 100,000 people.
That’s not even close to the best part of his story.
Brandon Smith’s story is about hard work, perseverance, belief in the presence of doubt — everything a walk-on football player often needs before a big break and the chance to play at this level.
His story is also about helping people, and how football is only a small part of what defines him.
Smith had seen the field for three plays in his career before this past Saturday. When Nyeem Wartman-White became the third starting linebacker felled by injury, Smith became the next man up, in football parlance.
While fans at Beaver Stadium were reaching for their programs to see who No. 47 was, Smith started making tackles against Temple. He finished the game with eight tackles, two quarterback pressures and a pass breakup. He played 57 plays and earned recognition from the coaches as the defensive player of the game for Penn State in a 34-27 victory.
“I thought when he went out there, that he would get three or four plays, and then he stayed in the whole series and they stopped them,” Jeff Smith, Brandon’s father, told Land of 10. “I was really, I don’t know if the right word is shocked, but just thrilled that he got a second series and then a third series and then a fourth.
“I didn’t know how bad Nyeem’s injury was, and I didn’t notice until the second half that he was in street clothes. I just expected him to come back and finish the game. I was so glad for Brandon to get more than one or two series so he could get his legs about him and show what he knows.”
Smith grew up about an hour from Beaver Stadium and played three sports at Lewisburg High School. He received attention from bigger schools in wrestling and track and field, but he always wanted to be a football player.
He had the opportunity to play at the University of Pennsylvania or Princeton, but he chose the life of a walk-on at Penn State. Smith’s father said Brandon went to his first game at Beaver Stadium when he was about 4 months old. The Smiths were longtime season-ticket holders, until the kids started playing multiple sports and time constraints forced them to give up the tickets.
Still, Brandon grew up rooting for Penn State and wanted to be there.
“It was so overwhelming,” said Andrea Cole, Brandon’s wife. “It’s something that we’ve been hoping and praying for for three years. Every game, you never know if he’s going to get in. For him to get in and play the way he played, I was in the stands crying a lot. I know how much work and time he’s put into this and how big of a dream this was for him. To see him just do amazing, it was awesome.”
The fact that Smith and Andrea are married makes him stand out among his teammates. What he and his wife have done to help others makes them stand out among anyone.
Smith and Cole went to high school together at Lewisburg. She was a couple of years older than him, but the two of them and one of Smith’s friends started a prayer devotion group and they began spending more time together. Both are deeply committed to their faith, and connected through it.
Smith left his youth group, which he said was just him and his father, to join Cole’s. They dated for about five years. He proposed after the Pinstripe Bowl in 2014 and they were married in June 2015. Andrew Nelson, Penn State’s right tackle, was the best man.
“It’s been awesome,” Smith said. “I’m really busy with school and football, and she’s just done an amazing job being patient with my time constraints and supporting me. So I have an amazing wife.”
Cole and her sister, Emily, went to Honduras in 2011 on a mission trip through their church. When they came back, an idea was born. They wanted to help people who didn’t have shoes.
What started out as a project to find 200 pairs of shoes to donate to people in Honduras quickly exploded into something much bigger. Honduran Soles, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, was formed. They collected more than 3,000 pairs of shoes in five months.
This past summer, the organization sent its 10,000th pair. It has provided shoes to people in 16 countries. Smith has taken an active role in his wife’s and sister-in-law’s company.
“In 2012, we went on a mission trip to Honduras and while we were there we got to hand out about 2,000 pairs of shoes to kids and Brandon came with us,” Cole said. “I can remember clearly from that trip, watching him interact with the orphans and being in that moment thinking that I want to spend my life with him.”
Smith went back to Honduras during his spring break in 2015, and with Cole and her brother, helped build a soccer field. They have volunteered at homeless shelters, and done other community work through their church, Revival Tabernacle, in Watsontown, Pa., near home.
Brandon’s father said his son’s ability to help others has been evident since he was a kid. When he was a star wrestler in high school, he often helped out at youth camps and worked with younger athletes.
The Smiths went on a mission to a small town in West Virginia when Brandon was 13 years old, and participated in a baseball clinic for kids during the trip.
“When you go away like that, you have the opportunity to be a little more free and discover who you are,” Jeff said. “He’s just like a magnet for kids, and he treats them well.”
Penn State’s football team takes an annual trip to Hershey Children’s Hospital to spend a day with patients. When Smith went with the team in July 2014, he met a little girl named Leah Fait.
Leah had cancer, and when Cole saw a photo of Smith with her online, she wanted to find out more information. Cole, then a pre-med student at nearby Messiah College, volunteered at the hospital.
She began visiting with Leah about once a week, and both Cole and Smith grew close to her and her family. Leah, who is 5 years old and has now been in remission for more than 18 months, lives with her grandparents about an hour from the hospital.
Penn State’s student body has been raising money for children with cancer for nearly 40 years. A year-long fundraising effort culminates with THON, a weekend-long dance party/fundraising event. The proceeds go to Four Diamonds, which helps families that cannot afford the full cost of fighting cancer. THON has raised $127 million for Four Diamonds since 1977.
Four Diamonds, and the Penn State student body, helped pay for Leah’s treatments, which saved her life. She remains a big part of Smith’s and Cole’s life.
Leah was the flower girl at their wedding.
“Brandon and I just got really close to her and her family during her time in the hospital,” Cole said. “It was so cool to meet her through the football team.”
When Smith came to Penn State and joined the football team, Bill O’Brien was the coach and the program was readying for scholarship reductions from NCAA sanctions. As a fullback, Smith stood a strong chance to see playing time. It’s a position where teams dealing with scholarship limitations might decide to try to get by with walk-on players.
Then James Franklin arrived, and fullback essentially became an extinct position. The NCAA sanctions were lessened, and then withdrawn, and there were more scholarship players for Smith to compete with.
He made the switch to linebacker, and last season was named co-defensive MVP of the scout team. Smith was helping the starters prepare for the next game, of course.
“I think (former walk-on and NFL draft pick) Carl Nassib has been a great example for our players of a guy that really took advantage of his opportunity nutrition-wise, sleep-wise, workouts, practice, how he approached all those things. And Brandon’s one of those guys as well,” Franklin said. “I sent him a text (Tuesday) morning just about how proud I am of him and how appreciative I am of him.
“He’s very mature. He’s got a very good football IQ. He’s got tremendous instincts. He’s one of those guys in practice where you get frustrated with him on scout team because you’ll be trying to do a play-action pass, you’re trying to do a fake with a reverse or something like that, and he’d be there. You get frustrated because you thought he was cheating the drill, but he’s reading his keys.”
While the Nittany Lions are getting closer to 85 scholarship players like a normal program, they are still a recruiting cycle or two away from having depth and experience at every position. Linebacker was one of the thinnest positions on the roster before the 2016 season began, with only seven scholarship players.
All three starters are now injured, and Wartman-White is out for the season. Sophomores Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen have four career starts between them, and one before this season.
Smith became the fourth player to see time at middle linebacker in three games when he ran on the field against Temple. Franklin said Smith is a better athlete than he gets credit for, and he was consistently in the correct position against the Owls.
For a defense that struggled to stop the run the week before against Pitt and a linebacker unit in disarray because of injuries, Smith provided some stability.
“As far as measurable things, I’m pretty average, but I think I’m able to use what I do have well,” Smith said. “The things that I can control, I take control of. I work hard with coach (Dwight) Galt, and our strength staff to improve the measurable parts of athleticism. As far as determination and drive and just finding a way, that’s something I can control while I’m playing. I just try to take full advantage of that.”
The Nittany Lions will head to the Big House this weekend and try to slow down Michigan’s potent offense to upset the No. 4-ranked Wolverines. Cole and Smith’s parents will be there, after a long drive from Central Pennsylvania to Ann Arbor, Mich.
Smith will be in the middle of the defense, calling out plays and working to make sure everyone is in the right position before the snap.
Helping people, of course.
“I’m really excited. It’s going to be a huge game, and to see him play is going to be awesome,” Cole said. “I told him I’m going to try and not cry the whole time. I’m so nervous already.
“It’s been so overwhelming to go from no one knowing who he was on Friday to this crazy media storm after the game. I just told him, ‘Brandon, you stand out because you are genuine.’ His character and who he is just stands out. Obviously he is a talented football player, but the person he is, he is a role model and an inspiration to so many people. People are going to want to know his story.”