November 20. 2011 1:00AM.
John Niyo Comeback Kevin Smith carries the day for Lions
Detroit— Second chances? You don't want to mess those up.
That's what Kevin Smith said when he began this encore performance with the Lions a couple weeks ago.
And that's what he was saying again late Sunday afternoon, just before he walked out of Ford Field cradling the game ball after the Lions' 49-35 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
His is the comeback story wrapped up in another comeback win for the Lions, the team that drafted Smith right before it hit rock bottom in 2008 and then discarded him — as so often happens in the NFL — just when the fortunes were starting to turn this past spring.
And while I'm not sure what Jim Schwartz said to Smith when he pulled him aside for a congratulatory hug on the sideline late in the fourth quarter Sunday, I do know what the Lions' head coach told us at the start of his postgame press conference.
"There's a lot of great stories in the NFL, and I'm sure there's a lot of storylines today," Schwartz said. "But I think the NFL would be hard-pressed to find a better story than Kevin Smith."
He'll get no argument from me on that. So here goes.
A guy whose once-promising career was derailed by injuries and the terrible fortune of being drafted by the worst team in NFL history, among other things, found himself unemployed after the NFL lockout ended this summer.
But after his old team was in danger of seeing its own promising season derailed by injuries in the backfield, he got a phone call for workout. And after an impressive showing there, he got a contract offer. And after he'd had a chance to reintroduce himself to everyone in Allen Park, he got a chance to play — reallyplay — in a crucial, can't-lose game Sunday.
And wouldn't you know it, there Smith was standing at the podium afterward, answering questions about how he'd gone from castoff to celebrated — from lost to found, sort of like the Lions' rushing attack — in such short order. The surprising hero
It was Smith who jump-started the Lions' offense Sunday with a 43-yard run on the first play of the second quarter — Smith's longest run since a 50-yarder at Minnesota during his rookie season in 2008. And it was Smith's 28-yard touchdown catch on the ensuing play that finally got the Lions on the scoreboard.
But it was Smith's play in the fourth quarter — nine carries, 73 yards and two touchdowns — that helped seal this victory as the Lions rallied from a 24-7 deficit.
Whether or not he's the starter now with Jahvid Best (concussion) out remains to be seen. (Best did return to the game-day sideline for the first time Sunday, which is a hopeful sign.) But Smith, who still could fill a third-down role — or more — even if Best returns to form, finished Sunday's game with 16 carries for 140 yards and four catches for 61 yards, as well as the career-best three touchdowns.
Not bad for a guy running with a huge chip on his shoulder, right? Not so fast, says Smith, who, by the way, does look a bit faster now that he's fresh and healthy for the first time in a long time.
"I really had no chip," he insisted, while giving due credit to his faith and his offensive line Sunday. "This is going on my fourth year in the business. And I've learned, if you're available and you've got talent, you'll play. If you have talent and you're not available, you won't play."
He had enough talent for the Lions — albeit Matt Millen's Lions, at the time — to draft him in the third round back in 2008 after a record-setting collegiate career at Central Florida. He had enough talent to rush for nearly 1,000 yards on an awful 0-16 team as a rookie. And he had enough guts to remain the starter in 2009 — playing through some seriously debilitating injuries right up until he tore his ACL in December — and again in 2010 before eventually landing on injured reserve again.
And yes, he was available, certainly, ever since the Lions opted not to tender him a restricted free agent offer in March. But despite a few NFL tryouts and offers from the Canadian Football League that he understandably dismissed, Smith remained unsigned two months into the season.
He says his daily routine this fall consisted of a 7 a.m. wakeup call, a morning-long workout regimen at Bommarito Performance just north of Miami, and then the rest of his day spent playing with his young son.
Not a bad life, obviously. But hardly what Smith, 24, whose draft class included the likes of Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte at running back, had in mind when he began his NFL career. He's back!
Smith called it "humbling" when he re-signed with the Lions two weeks ago. Sunday, though, he shrugged it off, refusing to call this "redemption."
"It's not really tough, if that's your will," he said. "I've always believed in myself and my ability. I've had some tough breaks injury-wise. But I believe in myself. When I was getting up and going to train, and I'd kiss my son and walk out the door, there really was no motivation. There was nobody to say, 'Come on, a team's gonna come calling.' It just took me to keep going five days a week, to go to some workouts and not get a job."
And it just took him to make the most of this opportunity when it came knocking, back in Detroit, of all places.
"It's a feel-good story," center Dominic Raiola said. "But I don't think he's looking for any sympathy."
No, just a little daylight is all. Sunday, he finally found some — and ran with it.
From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20111120/OPI ... z1eL1ZRT00