Many of the 16 seniors on the University of Wyoming football team will be remembered for their production.
Nick Smith isn’t one of them, but the senior quarterback’s contributions over the past five years can’t be quantified by stat sheets.
What Smith has accomplished and meant to UW is a story of personal growth, perseverance, patience and selflessness.
Smith was part of fifth-year coach Craig Bohl’s first recruiting class at UW in 2014. The 6-foot-4 Smith came to Laramie from Merritt Island, Florida, and continued a family lineage playing college football.
Smith’s father, Lynn, played at Clemson from 1978-79. His grandfather, Bob Stransky, was an All-American running back at Colorado in 1957, played professionally in the NFL and Canadian Football League, went on to be a long-time coach and teacher in Denver, and was inducted into the University of Colorado Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010.
Smith also had three cousins play college football.
“From a football aspect, coming here, I had dreams of playing Division I football,” Smith said. “I’ve been able to play and start games, score touchdowns and be a part of bowl games.
“It is something I will always be thankful for.”
But that doesn’t start to tell Smith’s story at UW.
Smith has played in only 14 games during his career. He has completed half of his 134 passes for 895 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions, and added 179 rushing yards.
Smith’s only appearance in a game this season was in mop-up duty in UW’s season-opening 29-7 win at New Mexico State.
Smith started two games in 2015 as a redshirt freshman due to injuries to the Cowboys’ top two quarterbacks. UW lost all of his starts, though it is tough to put all the blame on him. The team wasn’t good across the board, and finished 2-10.
Josh Allen burst upon the scene in 2016, and although Smith was his backup, he wasn’t a factor. Smith didn’t play at all. UW won the Mountain Division of the Mountain West that season and played in its first bowl game since 2011.
Smith once again took a backseat to Allen in 2017, until late in the season.
Allen injured his right throwing shoulder during a win at Air Force in the third-to-last regular-season game. Smith came in for Allen in the second half at Air Force and helped UW to a 28-14 victory. Smith started the next two games, but the Cowboys lost both – at home to Fresno State and at San Jose State – by a combined nine points.
Allen returned for UW’s bowl game, and the Cowboys capped their second consecutive eight-win season with a 37-14 victory over Central Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. During UW’s postgame celebration, Allen announced he would forgo the final year of his eligibility and enter the 2018 NFL draft.
Smith had reason to celebrate, aside from what he and his teammates did on the field. He earned his bachelor’s degree in finance last December and started his pursuit of a master’s degree the following semester.
Heading into his last season of playing college football in 2018, Smith’s goal was to be the Cowboys’ starting quarterback.
During spring drills and fall camp, Smith competed for the starting job with redshirt freshman Tyler Vander Waal. Vander Waal was named the starter coming out of spring, and held onto the job in camp.
“It was tough, and for a couple of days I was quite devastated, emotional and upset,” Smith said. “I was trying to figure out why (I wasn’t the starter), and a lot of questions came into my head at that time.
“‘Did I make the right decision to come back? Why am I still here? What was my purpose on the team?’”
Initially, Smith’s first reaction was to not play football anymore. He got married over the summer and was pursuing his master’s degree. He had a lot to look forward to and work toward outside of football.
His wife, Brooklyn, his parents and friends told him to let those initial emotions calm down. Smith did that and realized he still wanted to be a part of the team.
“It was hard to get through that and see the bigger picture, and I’m glad I did because I feel like I made the right decision,” Smith said.
Another person who was happy with Smith’s decision was Vander Waal.
“I look at Nick as like a mentor and a role model,” he said. “On the field, he is one of the most humble guys. Off the field, he is super generous and super down-to-earth. I can’t say enough good things.
“On the field, he has taught me the ropes. He taught me the offense. He taught me the protections. When I came in, (Allen) was busy with all the stuff about going to the NFL. (Smith) helped me grasp the offense more in-depth. Competing against him, I think we pushed each other and made each other better every day.
“If he was disappointed about not starting, I couldn’t tell. He came into meetings the next day (after the decision was made) like he was the starter. He never wore his emotions on his sleeve. He never lashed out at me because I was the starter and he wasn’t. He was super supportive.”
Later in the season, Smith experienced similar disappointment, while Vander Waal dealt with it for the first time.
UW was 2-6, and the off-ense had scored two touchdowns or fewer in seven consecutive games. Changes were needed, and one of them was at quarterback.
Maybe this was Smith’s chance to spark the offense and turn the season around?
Instead, UW turned to true freshman Sean Chambers, who had not played a snap until the Cowboys’ Oct. 20 home game with now-No. 14-ranked Utah State.
“In an aspect, it was a re-visit of those feelings,” Smith said. “I put a lot of hours into this. I thought I could get a chance, but being through it once before, I knew I needed to take some time to talk to the people who helped me through it before.
“Toward the second half of the season, it is more than just playing. It is building relationships with the guys, and helping the other guys. If it was one person to go with, I’m glad it was (Chambers). I’ve been able to get to know him, and he is an awesome person and does things really well. I had to get behind him.”
Chambers has led UW to back-to-back victories. He has rushed for 100 yards or more in the past three games and has yet to throw an interception (though he has only thrown the ball 23 times).
“(Smith) has meant the world to me,” Chambers said. “He takes care of us. He is like the dad of our group. Anything we need, he is right there for us. Nick’s a competitor. He works as hard as the rest of us do. He gives his all every day. Nothing really changed when I became the starter; he just kept doing his thing.
“If I had a son, I would want him to be like Nick Smith.”
Vander Waal said Smith showed more emotion when the decision was made to go with Chambers than when the coaches picked him over Smith at the start of the season. However, Vander Waal said Smith was there for him, and offered to sit down with him any time and any place, although Vander Waal hasn’t done that yet.
“It speaks volumes about his character,” Vander Waal said. “He went out of his way to make sure I was all right.”
Nico Evans can relate to the disappointment Smith has dealt with.
Brian Hill, UW’s all-time leading rusher, left school early to enter the 2017 NFL draft. Evans aspired to pick up where Hill left off.
Instead, he was used mostly as a third-down back and had 11 carries for 19 yards. UW went with true freshman Trey Woods and sophomore Kellen Overstreet. The Cowboys had recruited Woods as a linebacker out of high school, and he played that position during fall camp.
Evans has made the most of his senior season. He is second among all Football Bowl Subdivision players with 145.8 rushing yards per game, sixth with 154 all-purpose yards per game and seventh with 1,166 rushing yards.
“When you’re in that position, there are a lot of things that cross your mind,” Evans said. “‘Should I go somewhere else? Maybe I should stop playing all together.’ There are a lot of things you have to push out. You want to be on the field, so it is definitely not easy.
“How Nick has handled it is amazing. It is not surprising, knowing him how I do. A lot of other guys would have handled it completely different.
“Guys like (Smith) are some of the most underrated players on a football team. His importance doesn’t always show up on a stat sheet, but to have a guy that’s been through the ups and downs, and someone who continues to work like he works, is so important to have.
“Even though he is not putting up the stats, he is still a leader on this football team. He knows what it takes to be successful. Guidance is probably the biggest thing he brings to our football team.”
In Smith’s two starts in 2017, wide receiver Austin Conway caught the majority of his passes. Conway, a sophomore last season, had seven catches for 105 yards against Fresno State and eight catches at San Jose State.
But when talking about Smith, football was far down the list.
“The way Nick leads his life, his involvement in our Fellow-ship of Christian Athletes group, and how strong he is in his faith, you can’t ask for anyone better to guide you like that,” Conway said.
“I’ve had numerous conversations with Nick outside of football that have helped me become who I want to be.
“Outside of this football stuff, Nick means more to you in your life than a football teammate.”
Coaches have a lot of responsibility, and one of the bigger ones is to decide who they think gives the team the best chance to win games.
Simply put, Smith wasn’t one of them. But that doesn’t mean the coaches haven’t been impressed and impacted by what Smith has contributed to the program the last five years.
“I know each step of the way, Nick and I have had hard conversations where he hasn’t always agreed with our decision, but he understood and appreciated those decisions and moved on,” said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brent Vigen, who has been the only coach Smith has had at UW.
“When we decided to go with (Chambers), I said, ‘You might not agree.’ He said, ‘I don’t, but I’m going to support (Chambers) any way I can.’ That is a true testament to who he is.
“I’ve really appreciated the way he carries himself. He has always worked. He has always prepared. That’s going to serve him well in what he chooses to do in life. He is going to make some money, and be an impactful person beyond that in his community and things like that.
“He is a Cowboy for life, and he will always have a special place in my heart for him.”
Added Bohl: “Those decisions we made as a staff were hard, but he was able to put the team above his own agenda. When he has been called on, he always answered the bell. I look back at the five years I’ve coached him and cherish that time. We need more guys like Nick Smith in college football.”
Smith will be introduced before today’s game with 15 other seniors, and he will have his family by his side.
Smith’s parents, who still live in Florida, have missed only two games since he arrived in Laramie.
Smith said his time at UW has gone fast, and it seems like just yesterday he was moving into the dorms.
But if all goes according to plan for UW, Smith won’t play today.
“I don’t feel bitter at all,” Smith said. “I’m super thankful for my opportunity here. I’ve been able to get a great education. I’ve been able to accomplish everything I wanted to in the classroom.
“I got married. I’ve grown a lot as a man. I’ve met a ton of great people. The benefits and growth I’ve had far outweigh the tough things I’ve gone through.”
But even before his name is called to run out on the field one last time, there’s something even more special Smith will get to experience.
Prior to every home game, UW walks from its hotel across the street from War Memorial Stadium to its locker room in the High Altitude Perfor-mance Center. It is called the Cowboy Walk, and players and coaches greet fans and family members as they go.
“The last few Cowboy Walks, my grandpa (Stransky) has just been in tears seeing me be a part of a college football team,” Smith said. “That is so cool. I’d go through all of this again for him to experience those types of feelings and pride. My parents will be there, and my wife. Things like that make everything so worth it.
“I’m not bitter about what’s happened this year. I’ve learned so much more than just playing in football games.”
Robert Gagliardi is the WyoSports senior editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @rpgagliardi.