‘Sometimes you don’t know how much something means to you until it’s taken away.’
That’s a familiar sentiment. It gets used often in sports to describe a player’s return from an injury or a suspension. It’s almost become as cliche as an athlete telling you he or she is in the best shape of their life. We tend to roll our eyes at this sort of statement, most will gloss over it in a transcript as typical coach-speak or a player giving a pre-prepared answer.
For Telvin Smith though, it wasn’t him losing something that inspired a dramatic maturation into the player he is today — it was watching someone he loved lose it all that had such a profound impact.
Smith and former Florida State CB Greg Reid are cousins. They grew up together in Valdosta, Georgia and played football at Lowndes County HS. Reid signed with Florida State in 2009, Smith arrived a year later.
Early in their tenure at Florida State both players ran afoul of team rules and coaches. Smith’s academics were clearly on his back-burner and Reid found himself in a seemingly constant litany of off-the-field problems including arrests and several failed drug tests.
On the field the duo’s potential was undeniable. It was what happened away from the field that had Jimbo Fisher and his coaching staff worried.
It all came to a head the day before the start of Florida State’s 2012 Fall Camp. Reid had been arrested in Valdosta that past July for marijuana possession and had finally run out of chances in Tallahassee. He was informed by Fisher that he was off the team.
“The day that he got kicked out he called me,” recounted Smith. “He said, ‘I’m gone. I’m through.’ And then I broke down right there, I dropped the phone and just started crying because it was just shocking that we were both looking so much forward to playing the next season together knowing it was going to be his last. It just really shook me.”
To Smith, this was one hell of a wake-up call.
“I mean when you see somebody who has it all lose it in the snap of a finger, it just shows that this is nothing you should take for granted,” Smith said. “It can be gone tomorrow, literally. In the next few hours it can be gone. You never know.”
Reid would have been Florida State’s top corner in 2012. He had just been named a Parade Preseason All-American the day before, he was highly touted, NFL scouts leaned forward every time he returned a punt or broke on a pass. One minute the world had been Greg Reid’s oyster, the next all of that was gone.
“I said let me call Coach Fisher, I know there’s something I could do, [even though I knew] I couldn’t do anything,” Smith remembered. “But I just… whatever I could’ve done to help him get back in the position he wanted to be in — that he needed to be in — you know I was willing to do anything.”
There wasn’t anything Smith could do though. So he did the only thing left, he prepared to say goodbye.
“I came up to the stadium and we just talked, and we sat down and we cried and at the end of the day we just said it’s on us. Everything that happened is because we made it happen or we let it happen. So, you know, I learned from that statement right there, it’s on me. Whatever happens either I let it happen or I made it happen and that’s one thing that I live by and continue to get better at it every day.”
It all changed for Smith after that. That was two seasons ago. Before then a trip to Florida State’s practice was rife with the sounds of Fisher screaming at the Valdosta-native.
“TELVIN!” — oftentimes followed by a string of obscenities.
But that Fall, in 2012, it all started to change.
“I told [Jimbo] right there, ‘you don’t have to worry about me anymore, coach.’ I’m going to be that guy you can lean on and say, you know, ‘get this team right.’ Any situation, I’m going to be that guy,” said Smith. “I just gave him my word on that and I just continued to grow and we just continued to grow with each other.”
Said Fisher: “I think understanding the importance of everything off the field — not that he was bad, I don’t mean it that way — you just really saw him growing up and becoming a man and it’s carried right on to the field. (I’m) very proud of him.”
While Reid was attempting an ill-fated year at Valdosta State (he ended up tearing his ACL and missing the season, further damaging his draft prospects), the lesson his cousin had taken from his Florida State departure continued to resonate.
It was there in the back of his mind at every practice, in every game. It would flit into his thoughts as he went to his classes each day and again when he was at home studying his playbook.
‘Don’t let what happened to Greg, happen to you. Make better decisions.’
“I really wasn’t focused on school like I should be. So now I’m more focused on school. Outside of school, outside of football — my life in general — I straightened up a lot,” Smith said this past October. “I started talking to my son more. He’s two now, so that whole aspect of my life has changed. Off the field I’ve just become a better person around my family and everything like that.”
“This whole process has just showed me so much. I learned from [Greg] and I just kept going, man, like you said it’s just matured me in so many ways.”
Offered Reid: “Telvin was there every step [of what] I went through but I don’t want to say that he learned a lot from me or anything like that — he’s his own person, you know? But I truly believe that it kind of lead to him understanding what this university could be and what he could be in life. I didn’t encourage him to do it, hey, I wanted him to be with me throughout my whole life. I think he made a responsible decision to be the man that he’s become today and look where it’s gotten him.”
Two years after Reid’s departure, Smith was in Pasadena hoisting a BCS Championship — the firebrand behind one of the most dominant defenses in the history of a school that is known for dominant defense. He had become the player he had told his head coach he would become two years earlier — the guy Fisher could turn to when he needed to, ‘you know, get this team right.’
This Spring he will be drafted into the NFL.
“[He's] just a tremendous football player. I could go on and on about him,” said Fisher. “Great leader, instinctive, dadgum is he instinctive when he pulls the pin and makes a decision he explodes at the ball carrier. Very good football player.
“He’s a fun guy to coach.”
That’s a long shot from the early days when Fisher used to scream Smith’s names to the high heavens after being frustrated by the 6-3 linebacker at practice.
And as for Telvin? After coming so far, maturing so much, he leaves Florida State with a sense of fulfillment — and without regrets.
“That’s the best way I can say it — a destiny fulfilled,” Smith said at FSU’s Pro Day. “We came in and said we were going to win a national championship, we came in and said we were going to change the program, we came in and said we were going to do so much and we fulfilled everything we said we were going to do. We brought new facilities, we brought in more players — talking about recruiting classes and stuff like that — over time I feel like our class had a major impact on Florida State University and I couldn’t ask for anything more, from the coaches to the players to all of the staff here, man I love them all.
“I’m a Seminole for life.”
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