Harding grad Rod Smith’s journey to NFL filled with highlights and heartbreak

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Ever since he picked up a football Fort Wayne’s Rod Smith wanted to make it to game’s highest level.

“I always had a dream, even since I was a little kid, of making the NFL,” Smith told WANE-TV before a workout at AWP.

His physical gifts were obvious to anyone who saw the star running back at Harding High School, as Smith still holds the SAC record for career rushing yards with 6,625 – a record he claimed as a senior for the Hawks in 2009.

Those prolific numbers helped him earn a scholarship to Ohio State, where a number of recruiting websites ranked him as the Buckeyes’ top recruit for the 2010 class.

“Indiana, to be real, they don’t respect us football-wise,” Smith says. “So I’d been wanting to go somewhere big and show them that we’ve got ballers down here in Indiana.”

But Smith’s time in Columbus didn’t go as planned. After redshirting his first season on campus Smith found himself stuck behind future NFL stars Carlos Hyde then Ezekiel Elliott on the OSU depth chart.

The coaching carousel from Jim Tressel – who recruited Smith – to interim coach Luke Fickell to Urban Meyer during his time at OSU didn’t help Smith gain much ground with the coaching staff. Smith admits he struggled with discipline, specifically in the classroom, and that academic issues led to a dismissal from the team in October of 2014, his senior season. Three months later the Buckeyes would go on to win the national title as Smith watched his former teammates from home.

“Oh man. When you come back and you are watching a team that you were on a few weeks ago go on and win the national title, it definitely wakes you up,” says Smith. “I feel like it matured me, it definitely made me understand what I want in life. I just learned so much from it, the good and the bad.”

With a renewed sense of purpose, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Smith earned a shot with the Seattle Seahawks in 2015, impressing Super Bowl champion coach Pete Carroll.

“Rod Smith has done a nice job,” Carroll said at the time. “Totally different style… a tall, lean guy… anxious to see how he fits in.”

After playing in one regular season game for the Seahawks Seattle placed him on waivers in order to return him to the practice squad. However, the Dallas Cowboys claimed Smith off waivers and placed him on their active roster. Playing primarily on special teams, Smith found a niche in Dallas.

During the off-season the Cowboys reunited Rod with younger brother Jaylon, nabbing the Notre Dame linebacker in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

“I saw a Dallas number and I said, ‘that’s Dallas, man!'” Smith says. “Got on the phone, and Jerry (Jones) was on the phone, and, ha ha, he’s really fixing to come to Dallas! I was probably one of the most happy people in the room that night.”

With Jaylon was forced to sit out the 2016 season while rehabbing a knee injury suffered during his final game with the Irish Rod played well enough to sign a two-year contract with the Cowboys in January of 2017. It means this fall will be his third season in the NFL – a place he might not be if he hadn’t faced – and overcome – the adversity at Ohio State.

“This is something you can do, only you can stop you from doing it,” Smith said about his mentality regarding the  NFL. “Really, at that time I made a decision to make a change, make a difference, and it’s been going good for me. I wouldn’t say I’m perfect yet, but I’m always pushing forward, always trying to work on it, so I’m doing good.”

Smith and the Cowboys open the preseason August 3 against the Arizona Cardinals in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio.