Nov. 11, 2016
By Denise Skwarcan
Durham Smythe grew up in the center of Texas.
In the small town of Belton.
In the heart of football.
His father Roy had been an offensive lineman for Baylor.
The Bears, Texas A&M and Texas were all little more than an hour drive away from home. The younger Smythe was surrounded by people he knew and loved. But when the Irish tight end headed off to college, he took comfort in an extended family that he found, ironically, more than a 1,000 miles away–a new family that made being away from his Texas home easier to handle.
“My first year was a big transition for me, a guy coming from central Texas up to northern Indiana, away from my family and then just jumping into college,” Smythe says. “I think at first I was in shock because of the academic load and the athletic load and the time management required for all those things. I think there’s going to be at least a small transition for anyone. But I became pretty comfortable pretty quickly because of the family atmosphere here.”
Now the elder statesman of the Notre Dame tight ends, the senior Smythe assumed the starting role at that slot in 2016 season after injuries shortened his campaign the previous year. At 6-4 Â½ and 245 pounds, Smythe always seemed destined to be a tight end, even as a youngster, and it was a position at which he flourished.
“I was always kind of one of the bigger kids as far as size, and I also kind of prided myself on being able to catch the ball which was something I enjoyed,” Smythe says. “The two things just collided and it worked out for me. It’s also a position that kind of does everything on the field. You’re expected to block like an offensive lineman and catch like a receiver and have almost as much knowledge of the offense as the quarterback does. I enjoyed that about the position, too.”
It seemed to be that combination of brain and brawn that first brought Notre Dame into Smythe’s crosshairs, a pairing of academic and athletic prowess to which he was drawn. But Smythe didn’t happen upon the Irish by seeing a football game or watching the movie Rudy on television, sometimes the first introduction many people have to Notre Dame. Smythe enlisted the help of his computer.
“I was really young, probably in the fourth or fifth grade, when I kind of took it upon myself to find a powerhouse football program that was also a pretty solid academic institution,” Smythe says. “So my fandom started by looking on the internet. I didn’t know much about the (Notre Dame) football program but looking at university rankings in terms of education I stumbled across Notre Dame. I thought it was the best opportunity and jumped on it at an early age.”
At Belton High School, Smythe accounted for more than 1,100 yards, 11 touchdowns and three two-point conversion receptions between his sophomore and senior campaigns. He was a two-time first-team tight end on the Texas District 8-5A squad in 2012 and 2011–and the Texas High School Coaches Association named him to its all-state academic first team for 2012. Smythe checked out several Texas schools during his recruitment, but he really had his heart set on only one.
“I grew up just north of the University of Texas and they were the powerhouse in the state,” Smythe says. “If you got an offer from Texas at that timeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦most people were going there. At the same time, my dad went to Baylor which was right down the street, and they were a potential player in my recruitment, too. I took a visit to all those schools and eventually took a visit to Notre Dame. That was the one I was really excited about from the beginning. When I got up here I completely felt the way I thought I would and made my decision very quickly.”
In the end, it really came as no surprise to anyone that Smythe chose the Irish, not to family or friends. Despite growing up in the heart of Texas, he never hid the fact that he bled blue and gold.
“I think in the beginning my parents really would’ve enjoyed me being relatively close to home,” Smythe says. “At the same time, they were always big on me finding a great academic institution. The best that I could go to. And once we came up here to visit, they saw the complete package just as much as I did.
“All my friends grew up as fans of Texas and Baylor and A&M, and originally after I made the decision they joked with me about it. But they knew I’d been a big Notre Dame fan since I was young, so I think they all understood.”
And, while Smythe’s dad didn’t attend Notre Dame, it helped that he had been a collegiate student-athlete. His advice and experience came in handy for the younger Smythe.
“It was a more common thing when I first got to Notre Dame, telling me what to expect,” Smythe says. “But now it’s just the perspective he brings by dropping little hints to me about things. And it’s not overbearing at all which is nice for me.”
As a freshman in 2013, Smythe bided his time behind tight ends Troy Niklas, who was third on the team in receptions, and Ben Koyack, who was fifth. Smythe moved on from that to playing in all 13 games as a sophomore and then earning starts in the first two games of the ’15 season. It was at that point, during a come-from-behind victory at Virginia, that Smythe suffered a knee injury. That, coupled with a shoulder injury suffered a week earlier, forced him to miss the remainder of the regular season. But not before being part of one memorable moment against the Cavaliers.
“I remember the touchdown, but parts of it are a blur because everything happened so fast,” Smythe says. “But it’s something that I’ll always carry with me.”
The injuries, on the other hand, would probably be something he would likely rather forget. But, once again, the combination of brains and brawn came together to serve Smythe while he recovered.
“You’re going to get banged up and bruised playing football but, as far as big injuries, that was a first for me,” Smythe says. “It made me appreciate the game from an overall standpoint and not take it for granted. Plus, I got to approach the game from a mental standpoint and look at it from a different perspective. I think in the long run that helped me.”
As a senior this season (with a year of eligibility remaining), Smythe has worked on evolving as a leader as well–not only because he’s a veteran on the team but, more specifically, a veteran among the tight ends. That’s not always an easy task for someone who has a tendency to be soft-spoken. But it proved easier as be became an upperclassman who’s more comfortable with the system and his role within that system.
“I’ve been here the longest among the tight ends, so I feel that kind of brings some responsibility just by itself,” Smythe says. “I’ve been in this offense for a while, so I try to be a guy that the others can rely on as far as asking about defenses or really about anything across the board. I’m trying to be the guy everyone in (the tight end) room is to trying to beÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦an all-around tight end.
“And I’m naturally a very nonverbal person, but I’ve come to realize there are some situations where it benefits the entire team to speak up a little bit. You don’t want to do it too much because you can lose a little bit of credibility. But I’ve definitely realized it does help out.”
Smythe may be trying to become the best at his position on the team, but he already owns the title of best on the team in another area.
“I’m definitely the best ping-pong player on our football team,” Smythe says. “It’s something I take a lot of pride in.”
In a season in which the Irish have seen their share of ups and downs, Smythe is still in the trenches, fighting for a bunch of teammates who are battling just like he is.
“I think it’s just how close we are across the board,” Smythe says. “This team is really built around working for the guy next to you. I feel like a lot of teams say it, but it’s really come to fruition for this team. That’s something in itself to be very excited about.”
Denise Skwarcan is a freelance writer from Elkhart, Indiana.