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At the club level, it’s still football for this Connecticut athlete

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On a frosty November night, the bright lights shined down on the football teams of East Catholic and Cheney Tech, two bitter rivals in the last game of the season. Though it wasn’t Texas, for senior offensive lineman Jason Smith, there was no bigger stage.

Some 1,500 watched a game that meant so much for both sides, and Smith was chomping at the bit to get out there. East Catholic played their home games on Cheney Tech’s field, so it was “essentially a home game for both sides,” said Smith. It was the night before Thanksgiving, and Smith wanted to leave it all on the field, which he did with a defensive stop in the closing Cheney drive. Just like that, after all of the hype, in Smith’s most meaningful game of his playing days, he came up with the big play to lead the Eagles to a 20-12 victory.

Despite his greatest football moment, Smith’s last thoughts on the field weren’t just of the W.

“It felt amazing to go out on top, to win my final game,” said Smith, “But the feeling settled in quickly. Where had the time gone? I felt like it was still freshman year.”

Smith has been playing football ever since he was in the seventh grade. He would have played earlier if it hadn’t been for the caution of his father, Mike Smith, a former college football player at Southern Connecticut State University and a former football coach at South Catholic High School.

“Since I had coached football at the high school level long before Jason was born, I had mixed feelings about football for kids below high school age,” said Mike Smith. “So I actually discouraged him from playing when he was younger and encouraged fall baseball instead. I gave in when he was age 11 and let him play football.”

“My father didn’t let me play football until the 7th grade,” said Jason Smith. “His belief was that there was too much of an injury risk for young bodies to play too soon and that you can become just as good of a football player if you start in 6th or 7th grade as you can when you are young.”

Smith’s father has had a profound impact on his son from a young age, acting as both a supportive father and a grueling coach. “My dad also has a big influence of why I became interested in football,” said Smith.

“Growing up, I always watched games with him and threw the football outside. Being a college football player at SCSU and a high school football coach at South Catholic High School, he has told me many stories of his success over the years,” said Jason Smith.

While Smith believes that his father had a large impact on him, his father felt that being a coach while also being a dad wasn’t always the best combination. “Well it is a mixed bag,” said Smith.

“Coaches as a rule are tougher on their own kids and have unrealistic expectations at times, and I was no exception.  For me, I loved every minute of it and was always proud.  I will admit it did make it easier for me as the coach that he was always a pretty good player.”

Jason Smith doesn’t fit the prototypical offensive lineman size, which is often over 6’0, even for a player at the club football level. Listed between 5’10 and 5’11, he’s a below average sized offensive lineman in terms of height. But what Smith lacks in height, he makes up for in brute strength, mobility, and fundamentals. “Being undersized at the college level, you need good footwork and balance on the O-line,” he said.

After four years of high school football, Smith chose to attend Eastern Connecticut University in March of 2011 after turning down offers from coaches to play DIII football at Western Connecticut and Norwich University because playing in college wasn’t immediately in his plans.

“My freshman year I had no idea that Eastern had a football team,” said Smith.  “I really wasn’t interested until my sophomore year anyways because I really wanted to get my first year of college under my belt.  Towards the end of my first semester I really started to miss football and I had heard that they had a team so I decided to go to a game.  I went to the game and I fell in love with football all over again.  From that point on, I knew I wanted to play football again and join the (club) football team.”

After taking a year off from the sport, Smith was back at it, playing on the offensive line for Eastern’s club football team as a sophomore. Eastern has a Division III athletic program, but not a division level football team. Instead, they offer a club program, of which Smith paid a small fee to play, and Smith joined the team during their 2012 spring practices.

The club team finished their season 5-2, with a notable win against the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. Their wins have gotten attention from other club teams from across the country. Head Coach Bruce Haney is very proud of the team’s play over the last three seasons.

“Our first season was sort of a new experience for us all.  We had to figure out our identity as a team and what we could run on both offense and defense, not to mention we needed to figure out what the other teams in the league were and what they ran, he said.

“Having said that we managed to make the playoffs and play some respectable football gaining the attention of teams from other conferences (UMES, Coppin State, University of Michigan-Flint, etc.) as well as from the National Club Football Association. Our second season was a little rough as we were struck by the injury bug as well as giving up our fair share of turnovers.  However, we did manage to fight our way through the season with some memorable moments. This past season we beat University of Maryland East Shore, as well as finishing 8th in the National Rankings.”

Haney is a firm believer in the running game in college football, particularly in skilled and athletic linemen that can block well for running backs.

“My goal for my offensive line is to simply execute every play to the best of their ability,” said Haney. “Make sure you know where you are going, what your assignment is and get it done. I chose the style of offense we run due to my love for NAVY football.  Navy has the smallest offensive line in all of Division I college football and maybe even at the DII status, yet they get the job done by execution, not physical size. So in retrospect my line is my heart and soul of the offense.”

For Haney, Smith fits his description of an effective lineman. “Smith is one of those players who I can count on to play any position on either side of the line,” said Haney. “Smith is not only a smart player, but he understands concepts and how to read what is in front of him and is also very sound technically.  He is one of the top linemen in our league that I have seen in terms of technique and ability.  Though a little small for most college linemen even at our level, what Smith loses in size, he makes up with smarts and technique.”

Smith’s team enjoyed a successful campaign in his second season, and he believes that the program has a bright future with the recent success it has had over the last year.

“I believe with team success and the university’s help the football program at ECSU can takeoff,” said Smith. “Last year I felt like no one even knew we had a football team.  This year people seem to care a little bit more. With more people talking about the ECSU football team on campus as well as off campus, the football program can only improve.  I hope every year we continue to bring in more and more talented players in order to reach (greater) team success.”

With other Eastern sports like soccer, baseball, and basketball have been very successful at the Division III level, there has been a push by some for the school to try to move up to Division III level for football. Haney said he has heard many pros and cons from present and past college officials about developing the program at a higher level and although he is not completely sure about going Division III any time soon, the wheels are in motion for such a transformation.

“We are in the process of petitioning the local and surrounding congressmen and anyone at the state level to see what we can do to make this happen since we are the only (state) school who doesn’t have football,” he said.

While Haney is not sure of the direction of the program, Smith is confident that people will see that Eastern deserves a spot in Division III football in the future.

“I think the commitment and success the football team shows in the upcoming years will put pressure on the CSU president and athletic director at Eastern to fund a NCAA football program at Eastern,” said Smith. “It most likely will not happen before I graduate (only having one more year at Eastern) but I would love to come back in the future and see the NCAA DIII football team that I helped start. “

Smith is majoring in business at Eastern and enjoys going to the gym, eating his mom’s good home cooking, listening to music and playing video games. He has every intention of staying at Eastern and continuing to play football through his senior season. His involvement with the team has been a big part of his college lifestyle.

“The club football experience has meant a great deal to me, he said.  “The people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had have been incredible and will be something I will never forget.  College is tough; being a student athlete is even tougher.  It has taught me to manage my time, which will help me in the future. That being said, after graduation I will have to quit my playing days in order to focus on getting a job and focusing on that (business) career.”

Looking back on his son’s growth through football, Mike Smith wouldn’t change a thing. “He seems happy where he is and with what he is doing,” said Mike Smith. “As a parent that is the most important wish for a child.  And I really enjoy his Eastern games.”
Michael Siva is a University of Connecticut journalism student. He wrote this profile for a fall 2013 sports writing course.