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November 30, 2012
Another calm, cool Friday night awaited the residents of Louisville, Ky.
It was another opportunity for football fans to watch a growing local legend up close, with their very own eyes.
Listed in 2010 as a 6-foot-1, 180 pound quarterback, DaMarcus Smith had scholarship offers from Louisville, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Purdue, and Tennessee, among dozens of others.
Positioned near the 50-yard line on that cool night, Smith launched a pass so high it was seemingly fired from a cannon.
The ball eventually came back down to Earth and was reeled in by the senior's teammate, Michael Fluellen, as Fluellen fell out-of-bounds in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
A high school quarterback hitting a defended receiver in the endzone from almost 50 yards away?
That's the kind of throw only a once-in-a-generation player can make.
In a town known for its horse racing and devotion to college athletics, a kid from Seneca High School seemed destined to become a Derby City household name.
DaMarcus Smith was set to play quarterback for the hometown Louisville Cardinals, just like he had planned from his childhood days.
But then, somewhere down the line...those plans changed.
Smith spent his early childhood growing up in Victory Park, a neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in over 400 square miles of Jefferson County.
"There was just a lot of violence," Smith said. "Shootings, fights, all that stuff.
"But I was protected from most of it; people knew from an early age that I could end up going somewhere for sports. They wanted to keep me out of it, away from the gangs, from all of it, help me make it out and represent the neighborhood well."
He starred in both basketball and football at an early age, but deep down, he knew which sport he really loved.
"I was really more known for basketball early on," he said. "Like fourth, fifth grade, I was already getting recognized for sports, especially basketball.
"But I knew all along, a lot of people didn't, but I knew I wanted to be a quarterback."
That fourth, fifth grade kid blossomed into an athlete so talented, he was bumped up to the physicality of high school football when he was still in middle school.
"I think that's when a lot of the pressure started," Smith said. "When I started playing varsity ball so early."
Situations many adults look back on as they grow older, laughing, reminiscing on how simple life really was.
DaMarcus Smith's pressure was a bit different.
"I'll never forget my sophomore year when we played (Louisville) Trinity," he said.
Then University of Louisville head coach, Steve Kragthorpe, had a son who played for the Trinity Shamrocks.
"My entire family, even some friends, came to the game dressed up in all Louisville gear," Smith said. "I mean, all-out dressed up.
"Some even wore shirts that had stuff written on it like, 'D. Smith to Louisville!'. They knew his (Kragthorpe's) kid played there, they just wanted to make sure the point got across."
That year as a tenth grader at Seneca High School, Smith threw for over 3,992 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, to go along with 457 yards rushing and another 3 touchdowns--in only 11 high school games.
"I started getting all kinds of letters after that," he said. "Letters from coaches and schools all around the country.
"When they (coaches) could start making phone calls, they'd call the house phone and talk to Mom or my mentor Rodney. You name the head coach at a school during that time; they probably called my house at some point."
"I was their (Louisville coaches) first priority after the hiring," Smith said. "I went to the hiring press conference, met Strong the next day. I was ready after that."
Smith verbally committed to Louisville shortly after Strong was hired, despite sitting out his entire junior season because of a devastating torn ACL.
But things began to change for the budding star when he attended the Elite 11 camp the summer before his senior season, held in Aliso Viejo, Calif.
Smith at Elite 11 with now NFL QB's Blaine Gabbert, Andy Dalton. Smith reps start at 1:58
The exclusive quarterback-only camp is reserved for only a handful of the best prospects around the United States.
"I had just never taken the time to really look into other schools before Elite 11," he said. "Once I got out there, it opened my eyes a bit.
"I just wanted to see what other schools were about."
Coming off an entire junior year spent rehabilitating his knee; Smith was still able to shine at the Elite 11 camp, outperforming a large number of the other quarterbacks in attendance.
But as he started looking into other schools, Smith said Louisville started looking into other quarterbacks.
"People started acting different," he said.
"Rumors started building that I was going to commit somewhere else.
"Then (in December), Louisville got a commitment from Bridgewater."
Both Bridgewater and Smith had equivalent four-star ratings from Rivals.com, but Bridgewater was rated as the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the country, while Smith was ranked No. 11.
"Especially at quarterback, there's a saying you know, you can't have two big dogs trying to lead the pack," Smith said. "After I started looking at other schools and they got Bridgewater, people started saying I was trying to run away, saying I was scared to compete against Teddy, stuff like that."
The negative talk came to a boiling point on National Signing Day.
For most recruits, Signing Day is when they make their commitment to a school official, signing a binding letter-of-intent to play at a school and submitting it to the coaches at their chosen college.
Many athletes host a signing ceremony as a celebration, enjoying the moment with family and friends.
Not DaMarcus Smith.
"Seneca started getting all kinds of threats about me signing," he said. "Threats like people were going to bust the windows out, or something more drastic if I signed somewhere besides Louisville."
That day, Smith did in-fact end up signing somewhere besides Louisville.
He signed with Central Florida, at the time a Conference-USA school in Orlando.
"Took a little bit for anybody to even ask a question. I'll never forget that day."
Oh, and don't forget homework and school. Or friends.
Who even has time for the big homecoming dance?
Rivals.com national analyst Josh Helmholdt has seen the changes in recruiting during the 10 years he's covered top high school athletes.
"The biggest difference between now and when I started is that the barrier between college football recruits and the everyday fan has been taken down due to social media devices such as Twitter and Facebook," Helmholdt said. "The interest in college football recruiting has also increased dramatically, and the number of media covering recruits has swelled."
Smith is just one from hundreds of examples of highly recruited high school athletes across the United States.
"Each kid handles it (the pressure) differently," Helmholdt said. "Some step up and respond to the pressure, others start reading their own press-clippings and believe they have already made it and stop working hard.
"The majority, though, respond to some degree. They made it to this level because they have some measure of work ethic, and most understand the recruiting process is a vehicle to give them a platform to achieve their goals, and is not the goal itself."
After arriving at UCF but being declared academically ineligible to play by the NCAA, Smith ended up back at home, never having played a single down for the Knights.
A few months passed before the quarterback settled at Western Kentucky, enrolling for the Spring 2012 semester at a school that's almost as new to the Football Bowl Subdivision as Smith is to college life.
After finally getting academically cleared by the NCAA to begin practice in the Spring of 2013, Smith hopes to achieve at WKU what he had planned to do for Louisville.
Lead a program to new heights.
"I just knew Coach (Willie) Taggart and WKU were on the rise," said Smith, on ending up as a Hilltopper. "I wanted to make sure I went somewhere that I knew I could be a part of it."
After nearly two years away from football, Smith knows he has an upward climb in front of him, but he said he's ready to give it his best.
"I'm so humbled now by this whole experience," he said. "I'm just ready to do whatever I can, however I can help, to put WKU on the map."
The former Seneca star still dreams of being an NFL quarterback someday, but he has backup plans in the event his aspirations fall short.
If professional football isn't in his future, he hopes to become a high school English teacher and successful football coach.
"Not a lot of people know this, but I have a passion for English, writing," he said. "If football doesn't work out, I had to think of something else I'm talented in."
Or is the former four-star recruit destined for an alternate path in adulthood?
Only time will tell.
But years down the road regardless, Smith will have more stories to tell his grandkids from childhood alone than most assemble over an entire lifetime.
And that's why if he was given the chance to go back and redo everything, change who he hung out with, or what choices he made, he wouldn't take it.
"I've thought about that subject a lot," Smith said. "If I could go back, would I change anything?
"Nah, I wouldn't. It sounds clich?but I know everything happens for a reason. It has been such a struggle being away from football for so long, most people say 'it's just a game', and to them it is. But this game was, and is, my life. It made me who I was, brought me to this point. No, I wouldn't go back and do anything different. I'm finally about to play again, that's all I've wanted. That daily struggle is over with; I'm just ready for whatever's next."
Jordan Wells is the editor of InsideHilltopperSports.com. You can e-mail him at JWells.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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