Story of the year: Trey Smith

Marvin Westwestwords

Trey Smith is a good book waiting to be written, an inspirational movie to be made.


The beginning is a few days away. We’ll wait for Trey to choose between entering the NFL draft and returning to Tennessee for his senior season.

Logic says go for the gold but there is a valid question about how much is out there. The pros are supposedly careful or at least concerned about how they spend draft picks and millions – which makes them very picky about physical exams.

Trey has tremendous talent. His history of blood clots in his lungs will raise a giant caution flag. That he played all 12 games in 2019 without obvious incident is strong evidence in his favor.

Tennessee devised a football preparation plan with restricted physicality. Medical experts were compassionate, creative, even intuitive. That it worked tells me the doctors are very smart = or lucky.

A couple of factors were obvious. Jeremy Pruitt said from the start that Trey’s well-being was more important than football.

“The main priority has been and always will be Trey’s health.”

The Volunteers needed Smith on Saturdays. All concerned understood that a light load during the week was to everybody’s advantage.

The NFL is a different world. There is a little less love, a bit more emphasis on investment returns.

I believe Trey Smith, minus health restrictions, would be among the greatest offensive linemen in Tennessee history, not far behind Hall of Famers Bob Johnson and Chip Kell, and in the class with Charley Rosenfelder, Antone Davis, Cosey Coleman, Bill Mayo and Eric Still, all-Americans all.

Henry Louis Smith III is 6-6, 325, the approximate size of a medium-large grizzly bear. He is intelligent, powerful, quick enough, with long arms, big hands and exceptional balance and agility.

He is more than a little bit crusty. I wouldn’t say he is vicious but he gets a kick out of knocking opponents backwards and upside down. In the jargon of the dressing room, pancake blocks with bonus adjectives are sources of great pride and joy.

All that is almost incidental.

The heart of the Trey Smith story is his heart. He loves football enough and has enough courage to risk everything to play. I don’t know of anyone who risked more.

Doctors (not Chris Klenck, team physician) have told me that Smith’s type of affliction can end a life in a heartbeat. Blood clots have the potential to back up vital flow in the brain, like an accident on the interstate blocks traffic. Blocked blood flow could trigger a brain hemorrhage or stroke.

Doctors never determined what caused Smith’s problem. They can’t be sure it is gone for good. Trey kept saying his prayers and, over time, essentially stopped worrying about it. He had a splendid second half of this season.

Trey Smith started playing football in sixth grade. He got his first college scholarship offer at 14, from Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss. Trey’s father, Henry II, thought the coach was confused.

Nope, Freeze knew Trey was not yet a sophomore.

Vanderbilt was next. Then came Tennessee.

What did coaches see? A rare combination of size, athleticism and humility, a good young man, eyes and ears wide open, poised and mature beyond his years.

Smith became a five-star performer at University School in Jackson. He was twice Mr. Football of Tennessee. He won the Bobby Dodd Award, presented to the high school player of 2016 by Touchdown Club of Atlanta. ESPN exaggerated only a little in calling him the No. 1 prep prospect in America.

Butch Jones went after Trey Smith with ever legal resource he could find. Trey’s older sister, Ashley, became the coach’s administrative assistant. She was qualified.

Ashley had earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and entrepreneurship from UT. She had been head manager of women’s basketball under the legendary Pat Summitt. She had worked three years at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. She was finishing her master’s.

UT was very careful not to pressure Ashley to deliver Trey.

“I had to always remember that I am Trey’s sister first, and a member of the Tennessee staff, second,”

Trey did say having Ashley at UT created a comfort zone.

When he announced his commitment to Tennessee, Butch Jones cried real tears – of happiness.

Trey Smith could have gone to a hundred different colleges. That he chose the Volunteers was big news. It made the loop across a marquee in New York’s Times Square.

Coach Jones said nothing was promised or given, that Trey earned the 2017 opening game start against Georgia Tech. He also earned the sledgehammer awarded the top offensive lineman.

Smith took it seriously. He carried the sledgehammer around campus.

“Oh, man, I got some looks.”

Trey started all 12 games. Despite the losing team, he became a freshman all-American. He was clearly on the path to greatness. Alas, he crashed. He couldn’t finish winter workouts. Something was very wrong. The prompt diagnosis was blood clots. In February 2018, he landed flat on his back in a hospital bed.

There were cruel flashbacks. Three years previously, his mother, Dorsetta, had spent her last two months in a hospital bed. She died of congestive heart failure at age 51. Trey was scared.

“It was terrifying, all of it was. I wasn’t mad at God. I guess I was more, ‘What happened?’”

Some thought Trey was finished. Optimists thought it would only take a miracle to get him back on a football field.

Maybe it did.

The best doctors in town put their heads together. A doctor in Boston, an international expert in clotting disorders and chief of cardiovascular medicine at Harvard, got involved. After that, Smith went to Vanderbilt Medical Center for cardiac evaluation.

After six months of anticoagulants and baby aspirins, there were no signs of blood clots. In July 2018, he was cleared to play.

“Carefully” wasn’t part of permission but it looked to be part of the action. Smith wasn’t as good last season as he was his freshman year. He started the first seven games but was shut down when blood clots were rediscovered.

Inside the walls, the fear was that Smith was really finished.

He wasn’t. He did another round of blood-thinners. Clots went away. He got the green flag in August. Contact was limited. He practiced very little with the team.

Trey spoke privately of doubts. He said it came down to just believing in God. He never made a big deal of risks. He never had an excuse for anything.

Henry Smith said of course he was worried but he was also excited for his son to get back to doing something he loves doing – playing football.

“I’ll just pray a little longer and a little harder before each game.”

Trey played well but wasn’t satisfied. Video said he was doing fine. He was Tennessee’s best offensive lineman. Eventually, he started feeling like old times. He was really good against Mississippi State. He has since clobbered people.

There is more to Trey than football. He is a finalist for the Jason Witten Man of the Year Award. It is based on leadership that exhibits courage, integrity and sportsmanship.

Trey never said anything about it but he led a coat drive for the Knox Area Rescue Ministry. He was a member of the 2018 VOLeaders class. Teammates say he is an inspiration. I’m guessing his influence is much wider.

Stay longer or make a move? Book or movie? Great story. Wish I could have told it better.

Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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