Each time Brady Smith places his left hand on the ground, the Boston College defensive end glances at the white tape on his right hand, where the initials VB and the number 25 are drawn in bold, black magic marker.
"I still consider Van Brooks to be one of my teammates, so every time I look down and see it, I want to push that much harder," says Smith, whose 20th-ranked Eagles host No. 21 Maryland today in a key Atlantic Coast Conference football game at Alumni Stadium.
"I want to show Van that ... every time I'm on the field, I'm pushing harder, playing harder because of him," says Smith, a 6-foot-2, 285-pound redshirt freshman who starts on the left side. "It's been that way for the more than two years since it happened - ever since I saw, with my own eyes, how one play can take you from the top of the world and change your life forever."
Smith was a Loyola High senior when Brooks, a talented junior defensive back, was paralyzed after his head collided with the leg of a Georgetown Prep running back while making a tackle in the fourth game of the 2004 season.
Brooks, who uses a wheelchair to get around, says Smith motivated him as he endured intensive therapy to increase movement in his fingers and legs, returned to and graduated from Loyola, and enrolled at UMBC, where he's taking 12 credits toward an economics major.
"I've admired how Brady's played through injuries," says Brooks, 18, who advocates embryonic stem cell research as his best chance to walk again. "Brady's provided me with a lot of lasting memories. When I'm going through tough situations, they're some of the reasons I'm able to pull through."
Smith's father, Jim, recently delivered to Brooks a hooded Boston College sweat shirt whose gold lettering reads "football" and "No. 25." Its maroon lettering reads "B.C. Eagles."
"Van's made the most of his situation, but I feel ... something was taken away from him," says Smith, 19. "In my own small way, I'm trying to give something back, playing for Van the same way I know he'd be playing for me."
One of four non-seniors on the Eagles' defensive line, Smith enters today's game with eight solo tackles and 23 overall. Smith became the Eagles' starting left defensive end despite a preseason bout with Lyme disease.
The Eagles (8-2, 4-2) are in third place in the ACC's Atlantic Division behind Maryland (8-2) and No. 14 Wake Forest (9-1), which are tied for first place at 5-1 in the division.
"It's a huge game as far as the conference standings, Maryland being home state, and my knowing a bunch of their guys," says Smith, referring to Maryland's Erin Henderson (Aberdeen), Jeremy Navarre (Joppatowne), Darrius Heyward-Bey (McDonogh) and Keon Lattimore (Mount St. Joseph). "Maryland recruited me, but never offered me a scholarship. I'm happy where I am, but that's in the back of my mind."
Smith never has been far from Brooks' thoughts - and vice versa - since that day in late September 2004, when Brooks lay motionless on the field for nearly 25 minutes before being flown by helicopter to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
"Brady would always come sit with me in the hospital, saying how I was an inspiration to him," Brooks says.
"Going into my senior year, we were the two leaders on the team," says Smith, recalling Brooks' acrobatic touchdown reception as a sophomore in a rout of state power Urbana, and his dramatic scoring run against Georgetown Prep moments before his injury. "Until then, we were in similar situations with recruiting."
A defining moment for the pair came on Thanksgiving Day of 2004 at M&T; Bank Stadium. Loyola and Calvert Hall were tied at 7 in the first quarter of their annual Turkey Bowl when Brooks emerged from an end-zone tunnel and was wheeled onto the Dons' sideline.
Drawing strength from Brooks, the emotionally charged Dons scored 14 straight points in a 21-13 win. Smith rushed for all three Loyola touchdowns despite having sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the second quarter.
The Dons finished 9-1, with Smith having endured a major concussion, a fractured ankle, broken fingers and a chronic knee injury while playing linebacker, defensive end, quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
"Brady says the way I handled my injury made his injuries small and mediocre," Brooks says, "like, 'Why should I complain about these?' "
A former two-time All-Metro selection who was named The Sun's Defensive Player of the Year as a junior, Smith spent last season as an understudy to defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, a 6-5, 265-pound player who was chosen in the first round by the New York Giants.
This past July, however, Smith discovered a "bull's-eye" rash on his right knee - early evidence of Lyme disease. Caused by bacteria often transmitted through deer tick bites, the debilitating disease attacks the nervous system and can produce effects ranging from headaches and flu-like symptoms to more severe problems, such as fatigue, sore muscles and joints and heart problems.
"I was hospitalized for three days with a high fever, achy joints. They pumped me with antibiotics. I pretty much slept the whole time," says Smith, who believes he was bitten in June while fishing with friends near his Finksburg home. "I was tired for a good two, three weeks."
Unable to train "for about a month," Smith saw his weight balloon to nearly 300 pounds. Rehabilitation began in early August with an exercise bike. Later, there were 100-yard sprints and light run-throughs in a helmet and shoulder pads.
Smith's hard work was rewarded Aug. 31, when he entered his first college game in the first quarter - a 31-24 win at Central Michigan. "First game back, I had so much trouble with the speed of the game, my head was spinning," Smith recalls. With every game, however, Smith gained confidence. On Sept. 30, Smith earned his first college start against Maine. Substituting for injured sophomore defensive tackle Ron Brace, Smith had nine tackles, five of them solos, and forced a fumble in a 22-0 win.
Brace returned to the lineup a week later against Virginia Tech and Smith shifted to left-side end.
"[Smith's] done a great job on the outside," Boston College coach Tom O'Brien says. "He's learning a new position on the run, and he's done it well."
Smith's lone tackle in last Saturday's 28-7 win over Duke was among the game's biggest plays. With the Eagles leading 14-7 in the third quarter and Duke driving on second-and-five at his 6, Smith dropped running back Clifford Harris for a 3-yard loss. Two plays later, Duke turned the ball over on downs.
"What Brady's gone through is a testament to his toughness. He'd never hear of missing a game because of injury," Brooks says. "The fact that he attributes some of that to me, yeah, that means a lot."