NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt sophomore Harrison Smith hasn’t followed an easy path to becoming his team’s starting punter.
And for anyone who knows Smith’s story it would have been more than understandable if at any point in the past few years he would have chosen to hang up his cleats. But that’s not in his family’s nature.
His parents taught him the power of perseverance.
“Because of them two – the drive they had,” Smith said when asked why he continues on his current road. “(My dad) was a neurosurgeon. He would get up at 5 a.m. and go to work and come back at 5 p.m. My mom is a nurse.
“Both of them were driven people and that’s what I saw growing up. That’s how I want to be.”
Smith’s father, Harold Smith, was a former neurosurgeon and a die-hard college football fan. A Texas native and University of Texas graduate, Harold Smith even took his then two-month son Harrison to a Texas football game and snapped a picture in front of the scoreboard while holding up the Hook ‘em Horns hand signal.
But by the time Harrison had reached the age of 8 his father’s health was beginning to sign shows of declining. Harold Smith was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and the illness began to worsen over time – so much so that Harrison and his mother, Amy Smith, had to place Harold Smith in hospice care when Harrison was in middle school.
On Oct. 19, 2016, Harold Smith died at the age of 67 in Nashville.
Also a graduate of Vanderbilt’s medical school in 1975, Harold Smith studied eight more years after that to become an accomplished pediatric neurosurgeon. He practiced for 25 years at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital.
His son is now a Commodore following in his father’s footsteps.
“I’ve always had an interest in medicine,” Harrison said. “I shadowed this past summer, actually, a neuroscientist surgeon. So to get the hands-on experience made it where I knew that’s what I really want to do. Rather than just hearing from my dad I got to see it for myself.”
Harrison was a junior in high school when he lost his father. The following year didn’t provide much respite.
Mother Amy Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer that year. She fought that diagnosis and won. Now she cheers on Harrison during his own battles every week.
This Saturday, when Vanderbilt hosts UNLV at 3 p.m. at Vanderbilt Stadium, the Commodores will honor all those affected by breast cancer, including Amy Smith.
“She’s always pushing me, she comes to all the games, she’s probably the one that’s always like, ‘You got to bear down and get your stuff done,’ ” Harrison said of his mother. “She’s the one that really keeps pushing me in what I do.”
From nearby Brentwood Academy, Smith came to Vanderbilt as a walk-on. He earned the starting job coming into 2019 and the early returns are nothing short of remarkable.
Smith now ranks 20th nationally with an average punt of 45.4 yards. He’s also placed 14 of his 37 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and has booted nine kicks of 50 yards or further.
And while he’s ecstatic to be the team’s No. 1 option at punter, he said his only mindset this preseason was to try to make the special teams unit as a whole get better. From there it was fine-tuning his craft when very few people were around to watch.
“In practice, we’ll get like nine team reps, which is obviously not enough. So it’s a lot of on the side work. Kicking is a lonely position,” Smith said. “We’ll be out there in the summer, just us, getting our work done, just doing our own thing on the side.”
Smith won a pair of state championships and was an all-state and all-region selection at Brentwood Academy. He was also on the wrestling, tennis, and track and field teams.
Now he walks the same West End campus his late father did while playing the game his father once loved, always remembering who ignited his passion for the game – and for the Commodores.
“Usually I write my dad’s initials on my right cleat where I want to hit the ball,” he said. “So every time I hit it, that’s where I want to go.”