Sunday night, the Wildcats celebrated their biggest football win in over four years. Derek Smith should have been there. They absolutely dominated the 17th ranked University of Louisville Cardinals. Derek Smith was supposed to be there. His hometown friend and football partner, Jared Lorenzen-the same guy who threw him all of those touchdown passes-produced the signature victory that had to this point eluded him. Derek Smith was not there. The front page of the daily newspaper featured celebratory shots of the team, with senior Ronnie Riley holding the Governor's Cup. This should've been Smith. He was supposed to be the senior smiling and holding the Cup aloft. Derek Smith was supposed to be the guy on the front page of the daily newspaper. Instead he was buried on page eight. There, after reading about Tim Couch's elbow, was his line: "The Colts also cut former UK tight end Derek Smith." It is hard to read these two news stories and not think about what might have been.
Derek Smith should have had a storybook college career-the kind that makes television and radio announcers gush... the kind of athletic achievement that Lee Corso and Dick Vitale would get excited just thinking about. Smith was more than a football player, he was also a very good basketball player. Good enough that he was recruited by just as many schools for that sport as he was for football. When he and his Ft. Thomas Highlands teammate Lorenzen signed with UK, they were to provide the foundation for the next wave of excitement in the Hal Mumme Air Raid Attack. He was told by the coaching staff that he would be able to play basketball for Tubby Smith as well as catch footballs for Mumme. No one would've ever guessed how it would all turn out.
Even though it was his favorite sport, and he would have seen playing time on a numbers-depleted basketball roster, Derek Smith chose to only play football. The 2000 season was his best, as he caught 50 passes and was named All SEC, even though the Cats stumbled to a 2-9 record.
Then recruiting violation came out, Mumme was history, and Derek Smith was one of the loudest voices lobbying for Guy Morris to replace him. The 2001 season was one of constant struggle for Smith, as he dropped passes, complained about the offense, caught only 30 balls, and fought rumors of behind-the-scenes problems with Morris and Offensive Coordinator Brent Pease. The off season was full of rumors about redshirting and grade trouble, and then the surprise announcement of declaring for the NFL draft. He was not drafted, signed as a free agent with the Colts, and lasted until the final-week cuts. It wasn't supposed to end like this, but where did it all go wrong?
There's blame to go around here. Mumme and the football coaching staff apparently deceived Smith about their supportiveness of his desire to play basketball. Now, due to their highly publicized reversal, high school stars like Michael Bush of Male are requiring coaches to put it in writing they will be allowed to play both sports.
Supported or not, the decision was still Derek Smith's to make. And he chose football. He chose it because he thought he had a pro future in it.
As much as we romanticize college athletics, this was a money decision on all sides. His wreck of a 2001 season can be traced to his dissatisfaction with the offense, that just as often required him to block as well as go out and catch passes. Despite being told by the coaching staff that he needed to work on his blocking to be an NFL tight end, Smith thought he was ready to take the next step. Apparently, the NFL did not.
While Dennis Johnson validated his early departure with a third round selection in the draft, Smith was not drafted. It could be said that the new coaching staff did not utilize him properly, but if Smith had followed the lead of Lorenzen, worked hard and supported his teammates, perhaps his season could have been saved.
Smith should have been a preseason All-SEC member preparing for a big senior year at Kentucky. He also should have been preparing to tie up his high tops and help Tubby Smith overcome the loss of Jason Parker by providing a big, athletic body in the middle.
Derek Smith made the choices. He chose to play football and not basketball. He chose to complain about the offense instead of working to improve it. He chose to defy the advice of nearly everyone and declare for the draft.
He chose all of this over one last time to be on the field with the team he sweated and worked with for three years.
Derek Smith never defeated the University of Louisville. He was 0-3 in his career. He should have been on the field celebrating. He should have been holding the Governor's Cup. He should have been on the front page of the Monday morning newspaper, not page eight. There are a lot of things that Derek Smith should be doing. Sitting in a hotel room in Indianapolis, contemplating what to do now with a professional career that could be over before it ever started, is not one of them.
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