Last year, Grace Christian coach Rusty Smith led the Lions to a historic playoff win in its third season of football. The Lions, who lost the bulk of players off last season’s team, have fallen on tougher times in 2018.
But Smith’s life story and coaching philosophy prepared him to deal with a challenging season. Here’s that story, and how Smith got to GCA.
An unlikely playing career
Smith’s parents didn’t allow him to play football until he was an eighth-grader. His early days didn’t hint at a future in the game.
“I was a backup quarterback on [junior varsity] my freshman year and sophomore and got the starting job by junior year by default, because the guy ahead of me got injured, and then played my junior and senior year” Smith, who attended Florida powerhouse Sandalwood High School, remembers. “Honestly, I didn’t really have the aspirations to go play college football. I just loved playing the sport.
Smith, who graduated in 2005, planned to join the Marines. But then, a college coach—he doesn’t know who—saw him play and recommended him to Florida Atlantic.
Weeks before National Signing Day, FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger invited him for an official visit and offered a scholarship when he arrived. Smith committed on the spot,
He redshirted as a freshman, and was a part-time starter the next year. But he broke out as a sophomore, throwing for 3,688 yards winning Sun Belt Player of the Year honors.
The NFL didn’t invite Smith to the 2010 NFL Combine. Smith didn’t expect to be drafted, even though he held school records for passing yards (10,112) and touchdown passes (76).
But as he sat watching the NFL Draft during Round 6, the phone rang. That call changed his life.
“‘Hey, this is Jeff Fisher, the coach of the Tennessee Titans,’” Smith remembers the voice saying. “How would you like to be a Titan?’
“And I’m shaking. I can’t remember what I said, but it was something along the lines of, “Heck yeah, that would be awesome!’ … My name scrolled across the TV screen and my mom and dad kind of erupted.
“It was a pretty cool day.”
Staying in the game
FAU’s first-ever NFL draft pick got one start with the Titans and threw just 45 passes across his career. It wasn’t the career he’d envisioned.
“You know, the next… four-and-a-half years was not like I had anticipated or how I would expect it to go that draft day. But to be honest with you, it was a humbling experience. It taught me a lot about who I was as a man. It gave me all kinds of great teaching lessons for life.
“I got paid to play football. And what’s better than getting paid to play a game that you love?”
Smith got one NFL start, that in his rookie season. The Titans waived him in 2013. That was the start of a bouncing-around phase—he spent time with the Saints, the Giants and the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders—but didn’t throw a professional pass again.
His playing career was done after 2014. But Smith wasn’t done with football. He put out feelers in the coaching community. He’d worked out at Grace Christian during the offseason, and while the school didn’t have a coaching position open, he helped out with the football team. And, he assisted the school with Information Technology, the field in which he has a degree.
Grace Christian was playing eight-man football. The school joined the TSSAA to play 11-man football for 2015. GCA needed a football coach and an IT director, and tabbed the then-28-year-old Smith for both.
There were some good moments the first two seasons. GCA won its first TSSAA game in 2015, but won just three and two games those first two seasons.
Last year, Grace Christian started 1-3. But then, the Lions got hot and unexpectedly made the TSSAA playoffs, where quarterback Austin Amor accounted for eight touchdowns in leading GCA to a monumental 64-24 upset at Wayne County.
“[The players] had forged their relationship through some serious fires and adversity of the last few years,” Smith remembers. “Even the beginning of the year, we started [slowly]… and to see them pull it together and go on a deep run in the end of the year—we need a win the last week of the season to make the playoffs—and then to go to [Wayne County] and win, that was awesome.”
“Practice what you preach”
Smith sent four of last year’s players—Amor (Birmingham Southern), receiver Kolby Alonzo (Jacksonville University) and linemen Oliver Hunter and Cole Chapman (Centre College)—on to college football.
But this year’s roster has just 32 players. Furthermore, 22 of them are freshmen. Unsurprisingly, Grace Christian is 0-7 heading into Friday’s game with Mt. Pleasant.
“You know, the thing I always said from the moment I got here was that I’m not coaching high school football for wins and losses,” Smith said with conviction. “Yes, I want to win. I’m a competitive human being. I want to win as many games as we can possibly win.
“But that’s not my purpose. That’s not why I’m coaching. Any adult that is coaching [high school] kids for their own selfish purpose is not coaching for the right reasons.”
“And this year, God is teaching me to practice what I preach, to keep my attitude high, to keep my energy high, to pour into this team exactly like I was last year, when we were making our end-of the season push and going to the playoffs” he continued. “Am I preparing the exact same [way?] Am I putting in the effort in film [study?] Am I putting in the effort on the practice field? Am I doing everything that i would have done last year right now?
“And God’s teaching me right now that I need to make sure that I’m doing this for the right reasons. And I’m having to practice what I preach, and I am. … It’s not easy, it’s not fun to lose seven games in a row. But it’s part of where we are right now as a program.”
A brighter future ahead
Smith gets through it knowing better times are ahead.
“We’ve got 14 eighth-graders on our middle school team that should be coming up next year, not to mention anyone who comes in from other middle schools. … So the future looks good. But that doesn’t make the sting of losing 69-to-whatever any easier.
“I’m trying to make sure these freshmen stay positive, that they’re staying safe. At the end of the day, I’ve got 14-year-olds playing against 18-year-olds. I’ve got to keep these kids safe. I’ve got to make sure they have proper technique, I’ve got to make sure they’re taking care of their bodies.
“And that’s taken a bit different approach as a coach from my standpoint… making sure we’re teaching the fundamentals we really haven’t had to focus on as much the last few years because of the team we have.”
Still, there have been small signs of progress. After scoring 23 total points its first four weeks, the Lions made progress on offense, scoring 57 points in losses to McEwen and Moore County in their fifth and sixth games.
But it helps that Smith loves where he works. He values the example his players set for others, all the way down to elementary school.
“We are not like every other school,” he says. “We have the opportunity to get our leaders, our role models, in front of our future. And we try and do that is much as we can. And so what makes it special to me is the family atmosphere that we have.”
That’s what Grace Christian athletic director Len McKnatt appreciates that most about Smith.
“We feel very fortunate to have coach Smith leading our football program,” McKnatt said. “Even being an NFL quarterback, he is always asking questions, reading, attending clinics, and continuing to grow, He wants to mentor and make a difference in the lives of these young men.
“His Christian leadership has been a blessing to GCA.”