Young football players dream of playing on the biggest stage. Whether it’s the college football national championship game or the Super Bowl, athletes have always mulled over that fateful day growing up.
Former Owings Mills and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers left tackle Donovan Smith will get to fulfill his dream Sunday when he takes on the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
“It is every kid’s dream,” Smith said. “This is why you play — to get to the big game, the opportunity to have your name, your team, etched in history. That’s definitely something that you’re working towards as a youngin’.”
After making the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, the Buccaneers (11-5) defeated the Washington Football Team, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers to reach the franchise’s second Super Bowl. With Tampa Bay failing to win more than nine games in Smith’s first five seasons, the team’s success has been a welcome change.
It’s been a season full of changes, including the additions of tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Antonio Brown and, of course, six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady. According to Smith, Brady has elevated the play of each of his teammates, and the demand for excellence hasn’t been lost on the six-year left tackle.
Smith and his teammates have picked Brady’s brain throughout the year: How have you been so great for so long? What are the things that you’re doing? What are the steps that you’re taking for longevity, to be able to keep playing at a high level?
“Tom’s a great guy,” Smith said. “I think what’s so great about him is just with his presence alone, it allows everyone to tighten up on things and understand how he does things — he’s six rings in. ... It gives guys a lot of confidence and swagger to be able to step out and know that we’re going to go out there and play. We’ve got a quarterback on our side that’s proven and arguably — no — will be the greatest of all time in NFL history.”
Moving from Amityville, New York, on Long Island to live with his aunt and uncle in Owings Mills before his sophomore season in 2008, Smith experienced a whirlwind of change that would allow his football career to blossom. His first task was to help turn around an Eagles program that went 0-10 the season before he arrived.
Owings Mills continued to struggle in Smith’s first year on the team, going 0-10 for a second consecutive year. Three games into his junior campaign, the pain continued. His Eagles squad was 0-3, but the school’s losing streak came to a halt with a 12-0 victory over Loch Raven on Oct. 3, 2009.
Sam Bradley, an actor and former Owings Mills wide receiver, graduated a year before Smith. Bradley recalls how the big offensive lineman would take on two defenders at once and heard several coaches say, “Gang up on No. 75.” It was a statement heard throughout the ranks of Baltimore County football from 2008 to 2010.
“In his junior year, coaches from all different types of Division I programs were coming to see him lift when we had weight training,” Bradley recalled. “They also came to see him practice and play. I believe that one time during weight training and practice, Donovan was flown out by a coach and a couple of staff members on a helicopter. Overall, he helped our team be better because he was just an unstoppable force.”
Smith went on to level defensive linemen on running plays while combo blocking to drill linebackers. On passing plays, the 6-foot-5 tackle gave his quarterback “minutes” to throw, according to Bradley. Offense wasn’t the only thing that he excelled at either. He wreaked havoc at defensive tackle, slashing through blockers like a hot butter knife and ruining the opposing team’s game plan to run the ball.
Pikesville is one of Owings Mills’ biggest rivals. During Smith’s senior year, the Eagles took on the Panthers for Pikesville’s homecoming game on Sept. 24., 2010. It’s a night that still runs through the head of former Pikesville defensive end Myles Parham, who had the monumental task of taking on Smith in a battle of physical prowess and wits.
Parham measured in at about 5-11, 200 pounds, an undersized junior defensive lineman going up against one of the highest-ranked senior offensive linemen in the country. He had to use creative ways to get around the star tackle, and he did for one play. Smith, however, got the better of him.
“He was huge and had me so frustrated that I couldn’t rush him,” Parham said. “So, I had to try and beat him with speed. Donovan had a lot of power and great footwork. There was one play that I got through and sacked the quarterback on a rollout. It got everyone pumped and nearly started a fight on the field, but there was another play where I tried to drive towards the quarterback and he grabbed the inside of my pads. I knew it was over.”
Smith’s Owings Mills squad went on to win, 32-13.
Smith developed into a first-team all-state selection, an All-Metro selection by The Baltimore Sun and a Army All-American during his senior season. While his team wasn’t necessarily a world-beater, finishing 3-6 in his junior season and 4-6 during his senior year, he helped the program significantly improve.
The Owings Mills product was ranked as a four-star recruit, the 16th-best tackle of the 2011 class, the fourth overall player in Maryland and the 164th-best player in the country, per 247Sports. Smith received 14 Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offers, including from several teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten and the former Big East.
He selected Penn State, where he went on to be a first-team preseason All-Big Ten selection by USA Today in his junior season under coach Bill O’Brien. He paved the way for the Nittany Lions to rush for 250 yards or more four times during the 2013 season. Running backs Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak combined to rush for 1,792 yards and quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns under the protective watch of Smith, who finished his degree in criminology within three years.
After a strong performance in the Senior Bowl and the NFL scouting combine, Smith grabbed the attention of several teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions and then-Ravens offensive line coach Juan Castillo. The Buccaneers took the young left tackle early in the second round, No. 34 overall, in the 2015 NFL draft. Since then, Smith has started all 94 games that he’s played in at left tackle.
What’s his advice to young football players in the area?
“Get with the right people — surround yourself with people who have the same drive or vision that you have,” Smith said. “If you want to go play football, go surround yourself with guys that are doing the right thing and playing the game right. Make sure that you’re putting in the hours to go out there and lift, work out and you’re on top of your academics and that you don’t have any issues when schools tap in to see who you are as a person.
“If all of those things are intact, all that they have to look at is your film.”