COLUMBUS, Ohio -- From a distance, the chip looked familiar. Troy Smith had played with it many times atop his own shoulder pads.
That's how Ohio State's quarterback knew he was related to the angry 16-year-old while watching a Youngstown, Ohio, youth league game.
"It was scary," Smith said. "When I was a youngster I was hot-headed. The way I knew he was my brother (was) something went wrong in the football game and he took his helmet off and threw it in the air.
|Troy Smith has come to rely less on his legs and more on his head. (Getty Images)|
They've met twice, Troy and Charles. Beyond that, they share little more than a father. But there was something else shared, something passed on, something bitter and ugly.
By his own admission Smith has been a knucklehead. There have been so many heart-to-hearts with various authority figures that transfusions were in order. As a sophomore, he complained about playing time. He spent last year's Buckeyes opener on the sideline -- and it wasn't even the Ohio State sideline. He was watching his old high school in a state playoff game.
That day marked the second of two games Smith was suspended for taking $500 for a booster.
"I'm sure everybody in the stadium knew why I was standing on the sideline," Smith said. "I was kind of embarrassed, ashamed. Listening to my team on the radio was probably one of the worst things you could come across."
|Monday: The candidates|
|Tuesday: They wouldn't take it away, would they?|
|Thursday: The favorite|
|Friday: The challenger|
For Smith, that's saying something.
He wasn't always the polished Heisman candidate who will be rolled out before the country in September. He wasn't always the erudite fifth-year senior, de facto spokesman for CBS SportsLine.com's preseason No. 1 team. Smith was once a high-school teenager being sat down for the umpteenth time told he was "poisoning the program."
The slick, lithe, basketball/track/football star from Cleveland's Glenville High ruled the world but couldn't control himself.
"Is it really that bad?" he once thought.
"Troy had never been able to trust a man in his whole entire life," said his high school coach, Ted Ginn Sr. That barely gets through the first chapter of the Book According to Troy.
So why is Smith's image smiling down on motorists from giant billboards in the Cleveland area this spring? The short answer: The municipal school district wanted Smith and teammate Ted Ginn Jr. to headline its stay-in-school message. (Says Billboard Troy: Gangs didn't get me here. Discipline, respect and hard work did.)
The best answer: Smith suddenly got it. But why? Hundreds of thousands of major-college kids have not only filled a uniform but matured inside it.
Not all of them have the support group that Smith has. Not all of them go from playing for Ohio State to leading it. Not all of them have the caché of beating Michigan twice and Notre Dame once before chasing bigger, better things in 2006.
"You never know what you mean to somebody," Smith said. "A week-and-a-half ago a guy from Florida comes up to me. His kid has my jersey on. He tells me his son wants to be just like me."
Which me? The Smith who was arrested on a misdemeanor disorderly conduct complaint in 2003 or the Smith who is this year's Vince Young, 13-2 as a starter?
He is surprised at Young comparison, but Smith is the next evolution. Twenty pounds lighter, five inches shorter, but sporting the same chip. Young, too, came from the inner city with a strong mother with the hopes and dreams of a city heaped upon on him.
"One thing I totally appreciate about Vince, he did things people said he couldn't do," Smith said.
That's where we are with Troy Smith. The 2005 season started in confusion. Justin Zwick got a couple of charity starts because Smith had been suspended. But when things sputtered against Young and the Longhorns, Jim Tressel turned to Smith in the season's second game.
It was a dilemma anyone could have seen coming in the spring. Not only was Smith suspended, he wasn't getting the reps to stay fresh. Ohio State lost to Texas, started 3-2 and the season was adrift before mid-October.
The issue had always been trust. Talk to quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels, and it's about Smith trusting his arm. Until midway through last season, Smith was an athlete-quarterback. His legs could take him to great places, but wide-open receivers could take the team there quicker.
Starting Oct. 15, there was a marked change. Aside from a 77-yard game against Northwestern, Smith never threw for less than 226 yards while completing 63 percent of his passes.
"Troy, just before our eyes, went from a young man who had great confidence in his legs to a guy who's using that athletic ability to throw the ball," Daniels said. "He's as good at throwing the football as I've been around."
The 2006 Heisman race effectively started in January's Fiesta Bowl. Smith outclassed Notre Dame and Brady Quinn with a masterpiece -- 408 yards in total offense.
"When I first got here I was playing on instinct," Smith said. "Every time I felt threatened in the pocket, it was run, get out of there. As I adapted and grew with the offense ... I don't have to take the punishing hits."
Talk to Ted Ginn Jr. and it's about trusting each other. The roommates have shared the same roof for half their lives. Ginn Sr. took Smith in at a young age. A dream that started for Smith at 112th St. and St. Clair in inner city Cleveland is now being played out in Ohio Stadium.
"Right now we're leaving a big legacy," Ted Jr. said. "Two black kids from the same community playing together all their lives having fun."
There's a trust between that community and those kids. You see, they cannot fail. There is a pipeline of Glenville players running through Ohio State's program, all the players personally groomed by Ginn Sr.
In the fall, the former high school security guard will open the Ginn Academy, which will cater to at-risk students. Ted, Troy and others made it out of inner city Cleveland with various behavioral, academic and family problems.
"If we don't take care of our kids, we're going to be creating monsters," Ginn Sr. said.
The former knucklehead now has Ginn Sr.'s words swirling in his head. If he didn't, Smith would still be that knucklehead. The chip still resting comfortably on his shoulder pads.
Dennis Dodd is the winner of the All-American Football Foundation's Fred Russell Outstanding Sportswriter Award.