Nov. 17, 2011
By Sean Kaveney
When Harrison Smith was deciding where he was going to play college football, there was one thing in particular that made the University of Notre Dame stand out above the rest.
It was the way everyone on the team meshed together.
“When I visited Notre Dame, it was the guys on the team that really stood out to me,” Smith recounts. “Everybody hung out with everybody, and everybody looked out for each other. It was unlike any other school that I visited.”
What ultimately attracted him to Notre Dame was the general makeup of a typical Irish football player. He will be the first to tell you that when he first arrived on campus in 2007, he didn’t fully understand just exactly what he had gotten himself into though. But now in his fifth year of playing football for the Irish, Smith has come to truly embody exactly what a Notre Dame football player is meant to look like.
“I think Harrison really epitomizes what we look for in a player,” explains safeties coach and recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin. “He has great work ethic. He is fully committed and he is a guy that you can count on every day. When we as coaches ask ourselves what we want our program to look like, we can say we want it to look like Harrison Smith.”
Named the Irish captain for the 2011 season, Smith has taken on the added responsibilities of being not only a natural director of the Irish defensive unit, but a leader and face of the Notre Dame football program as a whole. Although it may be a demanding task, Smith has certainly embraced his role as captain and is making the most of the opportunity to lead the Irish both on and off of the football field.
“Being named captain didn’t force me to change who I am, but it is a lot of responsibility,” Smith says. “It shows the trust that the coaches have in me, and it is my job to show that they made a good decision.”
The way that Smith has emerged as a leader is not through being the most outspoken player on the team, but rather through utilizing his experience and setting a day-to-day example for his teammates. He is not the kind of player or person that necessarily enjoys being in the spotlight, or at the center of attention.
“He is not the kind of guy that really likes to be out in front of people,” Martin says of the captain. “But when you see him out on the field Harrison is so confident; he is able to talk and order everyone out there. It is hard not to want to be around that kid.”
One teammate that Smith has developed a keen relationship with is fellow safety Zeke Motta.
The two have helped each other’s development by dissecting film as a duo, discussing upcoming opponents and by spending time with playing video games.
“I think that Harry is definitely more of a leader by example,” explains Motta, a junior. “Everybody respects him. Everybody takes what he has to say seriously, but at the same time he is just someone that can really relate to all of the guys.”
And there is not much that Smith hasn’t seen in his time at Notre Dame. He has appeared in two bowl games, came into the 2011 season leading active Irish players in almost every defensive category including games, total tackles, and interceptions and has already graduated from the prestigious Mendoza College of Business with a degree in management-entrepreneurship.
“Yeah, he is getting kind of old now,” Motta jokes about Smith. “But it is always good to take in everything that he has to offer. He adds a very unique aspect to the game.”
Smith has clocked in a career for the Irish that has been defined by both versatility and a high level of consistency. After working himself into a starting position for the Irish defense in 2008, Smith bounced back and forth from playing the safety and linebacker positions. It was a transition that Smith describes as a difficult but nonetheless beneficial one.
“It was tough transitioning between safety and linebacker for me early on, but it was all part of my development as a player and a person,” Smith admits. “It was really tough, but I am glad that I did it. It allowed me to learn more than I would have otherwise, and in the end made me a better player.”
Smith was able to compete at a very high level at any position that the team needed him to play. He turned in his most successful season and truly demonstrated his prowess as an elite defensive player at the college level during the 2010 campaign, which was capped by an unforgettable performance in the Hyundai Sun Bowl victory over Miami. In that contest, Smith recorded three interceptions in the game, all of which came in the first half of play.
It seemed as though every time the Irish defense took the field in the first half, it was only a matter of seconds before No. 22 pilfered another pass from the Hurricane quarterback.
“I didn’t think too much of it at the time,” Smith comments about his Sun Bowl performance. “It was like when you make a play in practice. The coaches make the call, and you just go out and do your job. It was awesome to have the opportunity to make those plays, but it happened so fast I didn’t really know what was going on.”
This kind of feeling is one that is not foreign to Smith. Football is a game that always brings with it a fair share of both highs and lows. In the past five years, he has been a part of the most exhilarating victories and agonizing defeats in the entirety of his football career.
And in the end, it is truly the losses, failures and oftentimes the slightest shortcomings that resonate with him.
“I always remember the losses more than anything,” Smith explains. “There are always plays that you wish you had back. Even some that at the time may not have seemed like such a big deal.”
There is one game and one play in particular that stands out clearly and vividly in Smith’s memory.
It happened in the Irish loss to Syracuse at home during his season of logging significant minutes on the gridiron in 2008. Harrison nearly cringes when describing a missed interception in that contest.
“They threw it on the out, and I had an easy pick,” Harrison remembers. “There is no doubt that it would have been a 100-yard interception return. But I dropped it. I dropped it, and we ended up losing the game. That is something that has stuck with me.”
But the nagging sense of defeat is not something that has been strictly a burden to Smith. Alternatively, the mistakes and the losses are something to which he attributes much of his drive and desire to succeed.
“Those are the plays that keep you going,” Smith says. “The ones you don’t make. Those are the kind of things that keep me going.”
Now as his final season wearing an Irish uniform is nearing an end, the Irish captain who doesn’t too much care to be out in front of people is preparing to electrify the 80,000 within the confines of Notre Dame Stadium one last time.
“The experience of playing here on Saturdays is something that you can’t put a price on,” Smith notes. “It will be tough letting it go, but at the same time I am glad I have had this experience and I am just happy to have been a part of it.”
All of those that are a part of the Notre Dame football community will certainly pain to see one of its most consistent and hard-working players go.
“I hate to even think about that,” Martin says of thinking about Smith playing in his final home game against Boston College. “He is such a first-class person, and also he is just a very good football player.”
“I am probably going to miss whipping him in video games,” Motta says with a smile. “I think his leadership will truly be missed. He is just a great guy, and everybody here respects him.”
Smith himself acknowledges that wrapping up his playing days at Notre Dame will be difficult. And the sense of brotherhood that brought him here in ’07 is still as alive and strong as ever nearly five years later. Smith encourages his teammates to enjoy every opportunity they have in their time at Notre Dame. And to the fans that have supported him in his remarkable journey as an Irish football player he offers, as he so often does, a simple yet powerful message.
“Thank you,” he says and pauses. “Thank you for everything.”