Thomas Smith could not shake the thought during Lafayette High's game on Saturday against New Kent that it was approaching midnight in Afghanistan, the 10th anniversary of 9/11. So every time he touched the football for the Rams, he thought of his father, Maj. Thomas C. Smith, who is stationed in Afghanistan.
Smith gave his father a lot to be proud of in the Rams' 59-14 win over New Kent. He turned five of his six touches into long touchdowns: on a 69-yard punt return, a 29-yard run and on pass receptions of 40, 21 and 25 yards.
"I dedicated the game to him," Smith said of his father, an Army logistics officer who trains Afghan soldiers in the use of ammunition. "I think about him often, because I know the sacrifice he makes.
"I know it crushes him not to be here, so I wanted to do something special for him."
The performance was sort of a thank you for all his father has done for him. Smith said he has grown up in the kind of `yes sir, no sir' environment typical of many service children.
Despite his father's efforts, Smith admits he has been slow to develop disciplined study habits. So Smith's father, fearful that his son was wasting the Division I scholarship potential he flashed on the football field as a junior, removed him from the Lafayette basketball team when he brought home a D in math.
The lesson was painful for Smith, whose physical presence and rebounding were crucial on an otherwise finesse-oriented team. Smith felt bad about letting his teammates down, but understood and appreciated his father's concern.
"I wasn't happy, but I realized he wanted me to be serious about my grades," Smith said. "He wanted me to know that he wasn't playing around when he said playing sports was a privilege.
"I've definitely improved my effort academically from the time I got pulled off."
Smith also has improved his football work ethic and is a chiseled 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds: 13 pounds fewer than a year ago. He was impressive enough on the recruiting combine/camp circuit to earn a scholarship offer from Virginia Tech.
Smith accepted, but will attend Fork Union Military Academy next fall to continue improving academically. Rams' coach Andy Linn says Smith must also continue to improve his work ethic in practice.
"He's not all the way there yet, but he's getting there," Linn said of Smith's practice intensity. "The good thing is that I don't have to sugarcoat what I say to Thomas, because his father said I can handle him the way I think I need to.
"So I'll tell him, 'You're still out there trying to earn that scholarship, because it's only a verbal agreement right now, buddy.' You won't find anyone more competitive on Friday nights.
"He wants to shine."
Linn says Smith is a talent comparable to the other Bay Rivers District standouts who received football offers from Virginia Tech during the past decade: Bryan Randall of Bruton and Dyrell Roberts of Smithfield. So Linn uses Smith in as many ways as possible: receiving, rushing, covering opposition receivers and returning kicks.
Smith has excelled at each, scoring seven touchdowns in the Rams' opening two victories in four ways: four pass receptions, a run, a punt return and an interception return. All have been 20 yards or longer.
His favorites are the punt return, on which broke tackles from almost everyone on New Kent's cover team, and on a touchdown reception where he used his 33-inch vertical leap to beat double coverage from the Trojans. As with the other three touchdowns Saturday, he thought of his father and the sacrifice he was making on one of America's most revered anniversaries.
"I talked to my father on the phone later that day," Smith said. "I told him, 'That (performance) was for you and I really appreciate what you do.'
"That was from a son to his father."
WHO: Bruton (2-0, 1-0 Bay Rivers) vs. Lafayette (2-0, 1-0)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Wanner Stadium.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times