By halftime of the Towson football team’s 31-24 win against Colonial Athletic Association archrival Delaware last Saturday, Caleb Smith had already caught five passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. At the break, teammates began to predict that Smith might reach the 200-yard mark, but the redshirt junior wasn’t buying it.
“I didn’t believe it because it felt like a regular game,” he recalled. “I was just catching the passes that were coming to me. I didn’t think it was that many yards. We do that in practice all the time. It really just felt like practice. I was just getting reps.”
Six years after suffering a knee injury that nearly cost him his football career, Smith, 21, made his teammates look like seers as he finished the game with 200 yards and the lone score on nine receptions, becoming the first Tigers player to accumulate that many yards in a game since Christian Summers caught six balls for 232 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-28 win against Saint Francis (Pa.) on Sept. 10, 2016. In a span of 60 minutes, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound wide receiver nearly matched his season total of 288 yards, made his first trip to the end zone, and became the fourth player in the CAA to compile 200 receiving yards this season.
But Smith’s outburst — which earned him honorable mention for the STATS Football Championship Subdivision Offensive Player of the Week award — was perhaps the least surprising development to redshirt senior quarterback Tom Flacco.
“We all know what he’s capable of doing,” he said. “Our wide receivers in general, they’re all capable of doing what he’s doing.”
Smith’s road to No. 21 Towson (5-4, 2-3 CAA) — which visits Stony Brook (5-4, 2-3) on Saturday at 2 p.m. — is not typical.
The son of Tigers Hall of Fame defensive lineman, Baltimore native and Poly graduate Rodney Smith, Caleb Smith began playing football at age 5. He and older brother Gabriel, now 24, were so enamored with football that they returned from basketball and baseball games and track and field meets to run football plays in the backyard of their parents’ home in Albany, New York, even after the sun had already set.
“It’s kind of an identity,” the younger Smith said of his passion for football. “It’s fun. You get a lot of aggression out. You can really show who you are. It builds a lot of character.”
In the La Salle Institute’s junior varsity team’s third game of the 2013 season, the then-sophomore Smith caught a pass on a bubble screen and was tackled. But when the scrum cleared, he could not get up.
Smith was taken to a nearby hospital and learned that he had suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee. A setback, but he was encouraged by the examples of then-Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and then-Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III bouncing back from their own ACL injuries.
Recovery, however, was slow, and further examination revealed that the damage to the meniscus was so extensive that Smith had to undergo a meniscus transplant. After the operation, a doctor advised Smith to abandon any notion of playing football again.
Rodney Smith, who had played seven seasons in the Arena Football League, said the doctor’s words cut deep.
“To see that taken away from him, it was very devastating, and it was tough to have conversations with him that life would go on, that you may have to go on with a life without football, without athletics,” he said. “I was trying to have those conversations with him, as a dad trying to prepare him.”
Caleb Smith did not play another down for La Salle, withdrawing from his friends, avoiding all athletic events, and riding his bike throughout Albany to be alone. Looking back, he acknowledged that he was depressed, but he refused to give up his dream of playing football.
“I knew what I wanted, and I knew that I wasn’t going to let somebody else make that decision for me,” he said. “I believe in making a choice, and once you make your choice, God gives you what your heart desires. I knew that if I was going to do it, it wasn’t going to be easy, but it was still going to be possible.”
After selecting Towson from a group of universities that included Delaware, Old Dominion and Temple, Smith asked Tigers coach Rob Ambrose if he could try out for the team. Ambrose promised him a tryout after the 2016 season if he worked for director of football operations Lance Yaniger.
After spotting balls and holding first-down markers at every practice, Smith tried out in February 2017 and impressed the coaches enough to join the team as a walk-on. Ambrose accepted the risk of adding Smith to the roster.
“But he had some tremendous measurables and a huge upside, and his genetics aren’t too bad either when it comes to being part of a football family,” said Ambrose, who played with Rodney Smith. “So when you’ve got a guy who comes from that family he comes from, he does have a chance. We would have been crazy to say no.”
An unspecified ailment and illness limited his playing time last season, but this fall, Smith has played in all but one game. He posted a career high in receptions (five) against Villanova and another best in receiving yards (69) at James Madison before Saturday’s game.
Smith, who has started three of the last five games, said he took a great deal of satisfaction from his performance against Delaware.
“I put a lot of emotion out there and passion,” he said. “So it was very gratifying, and it felt very good. But it also felt very good to get the win.”
Rodney Smith was unable to attend Saturday’s game, but he listened to the game’s online broadcast, and his cousin was there.
“I cannot put it in words,” the elder Smith said. "To see him get that and perform that way, for him, I am happy because he needed that. That’s the Caleb Smith that he grew up as. In every sport that he played, that’s the level that he performed at, and he finally did it.”
Caleb Smith won’t predict that he will be able to maintain a 200-yard pace for the remainder of the year and said he simply wants to help the Tigers reach the FCS playoffs. But he said he is looking forward to the challenge.
“Everybody keeps telling me that I’m scratching the surface,” he said. “So I don’t plan on settling.”