THROWBACK THURSDAY: ‘I just wanted to be great’
LARAMIE – Brett Smith knows there are a lot of opinions out there about why he decided to leave the University of Wyoming after his junior season.
Some say he received bad advice.
Others have opined that the coaching transition from Dave Christensen to Craig Bohl had something to do with it.
Did he leave for the money?
He’s even heard that with another year of development at the college level, he would’ve been drafted. Maybe in the first few rounds.
For more than an hour Friday morning, Smith discussed his decision and the ramifications of it. He insists that the speculation is just that. When in fact, he says, the answer is really quite simple – He didn’t want to wait.
“I wanted to compete against the best,” Smith said over the phone from his home in Salem, Oregon. “I dreamed about being in the NFL since I was a little kid. I wanted to challenge myself. I know so many people have said it was a dumb career move, but I was 21.
“I wanted to continue my story of the guy that’s been overlooked.”
Now at 27 years old, and married with a young daughter, Lyla, Smith says he often reflects on that time in his life. He says he wishes he was more mature. Claims he had no idea how to be a pro. Said his slender 195-pound frame did not translate to the game’s highest level.
While at Wyoming, Smith cemented himself as one of the best quarterbacks in school history. His 76 touchdown passes are still the standard. He is second in yards (8,834), attempts (1,212), completions (751) and owns the best single-game stats in program lore, throwing for 498 yards and seven touchdowns in a win over Hawaii.
It all seems like a lifetime ago, Smith admitted.
He played the game free of consequences, and admittedly, sometimes a tad reckless. He put his body on the line, took big hits and made chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what throughout his three-year career in Laramie. He rushed for 20 touchdowns in three seasons.
You can get away with that type of play in college, Smith said. The NFL, well, that’s a different story.
It pains Smith to recall his missed opportunity. He says he didn’t watch football for years after he was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after going undrafted in 2014.
When he reflects, he says not being invited to the NFL Combine threw up the first red flag.
“That was going to be the moment to go head to head with the biggest and best,” he said. “That was the biggest blow to my decision was when I didn’t get invited. I was banking on that combine. I thought, ‘this might be the writing on the wall.’ I still don’t know why I wasn’t invited.
“That was devastating,” he continued. “It was kind of the beginning of the downfall. That was the deathblow to my decision.”
You might recall that draft. Blake Bortles went No. 3 to Jacksonville. Johnny Manziel was the Browns pick at 22. Teddy Bridgewater went to Minnesota at No. 32, and fellow Mountain West quarterback, Derek Carr, went to the Raiders.
After all these years, does Smith think he made the right decision leaving UW early? At the time, he said, his focus was on moving ahead. It had nothing to do with coaching changes, money or advice from outsiders, Smith said he made up his mind early that he wanted to take a chance.
He was obsessed with the game. Lying in bed at night, he would daydream about lining up against Texas, Nebraska and other big-name programs the Cowboys played during his time. Some nights, the feeling was overwhelming.
“In Laramie, there were nights I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I’d go to the Half Acre at midnight and throw.”
After Smith’s rookie camp in Tampa, he headed north to the Canadian Football League. First, there was a brief stop in Toronto. Then, he spent the next season in Saskatchewan, the next in Ottawa and finally wrapped up his brief stint in Edmonton in 2017.
His only significant playing time came in Saskatchewan where he threw for 1,822 yards and 15 touchdowns. He completed 63.4 percent of his passes. But once starter, Darian Durant, was healthy the following season, Smith was relegated to backup. In June of 2016, he was cut.
“Edmonton was a situation where I was trying, but just lost desire,” Smith said. “My daughter was born and I just didn’t have it anymore. I miss it, but it doesn’t burn at me the way that it used to. I don’t wake up at 3 a.m. dreaming about playing.”
Last month, however, Smith received an interesting phone call. It was from the new XFL. They wanted him in Houston for a tryout. Smith said he hadn’t been working out and didn’t even know if he could throw a ball anymore. With a little encouragement from his parents and wife, Hayley, he boarded a plane.
He took a chance.
“I wanted to at least try,” Smith said. “I do still love the game. I thought, ‘what the hell?’ I did it. I felt like I did well. It was actually a lot of fun.”
Smith said he still had some zip on his ball, he could still compete in the 40-yard dash and worked through the drills like the old days.
“I have no idea what next step is,” Smith laughed. “If I get a call then that would be pretty crazy.”
At this point, it’s not really about the opportunity, he says. The fact that he did it – and could still hang – was the reassurance he needed.
Sometimes seven days a week, often for 12 hours at a time, Smith drives a concrete truck. His grandfather used to own a hauling business. Smith said it was a career that always intrigued him.
“It’s not football,” he said, adding that he has a two-year-old to support.
Smith said he often thinks about his time in Wyoming. He said he received hundreds – if not thousands – of messages wishing him well in his pro career from Cowboys fans. He learned to love hunting and fishing in Laramie. He said sometimes he would drive to small towns out in the middle of nowhere to have breakfast. But no matter where he went, he said, everyone wanted to talk about football and thank him for the passion he brought to the field.
Arguably the biggest thank you came from UW Athletics Director, Tom Burman. In 2016, Smith said Burman honored his scholarship. This spring, Smith earned his bachelor’s in social science.
“Tom is one of my favorite people in the world,” Smith said. “We were really close when I was playing there. When I told him I wanted to come back, he welcomed me with open arms. To this day that is one of the greatest things anyone has ever done for me. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”
When Smith was back on campus, he said plenty of people recognized him. Thankfully, he joked, there was a current quarterback who was grabbing headlines and everyone’s attention. Smith said he went to a couple of UW games. One time, it was for class. Another was to watch the Pokes take on Utah State. Smith’s younger brother, Cade Smith, played for the Aggies.
He even went down to Fort Collins to watch the Border War. His close friend, Chase Appleby, rewarded him with a pick-six.
But even he admits, he wanted to get a closer look at Josh Allen.
They even met and talked one night at a Laramie bar.
If there is one regret Smith has about leaving UW early it’s the fact that the following season the Cowboys traveled to his home state to play his father’s alma mater, the University of Oregon.
The Ducks never gave Smith a real look out of high school despite being named that state's Gatorade Player of the Year. He wanted to suit up and prove to them that they made a big mistake not believing in him.
“That still bothers me,” he said of not playing against the Ducks in Eugene. “I took a chance, did things my way and was a competitor. That’s why I left early. But that hurt a lot.
“I watched the first half. I didn’t see the rest. That hurt a lot more than I thought it would. That was one that stuck with me for a while.”
Smith said he will be content if he never plays football again. Does he want to play? Yes. Is he going to chase this dream forever? He can’t. Responsibilities will do that to a guy. But if he wants to let UW fans know one thing, it’s that the decisions he made came from a good place.
Part of him will always be in Laramie.
“I just wanted to be great,” Smith said. “I really wanted to be the best.”
* This feature was originally published on June 29, 2019