Vanderbilt’s Tommy Smith, who’s attending graduate school, joined the team as a walk-on.
By Steven Godfrey
Sept. 9, 2021
NASHVILLE — Tommy Smith’s second child, a daughter, was born July 21. He and his wife, Allison, are already juggling life with a 2-year-old son, and both are on active-duty status in the Navy. Plus there was the move to Nashville for Smith to enroll in Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management for two years as part of a civilian postgraduate program.
So, just for fun, why not walk on to the Vanderbilt football team at 32 years old?
“Honestly, when I started making calls about it, I wanted to say in every conversation with coaches, ‘Don’t laugh at me, but …’ ” Smith said.
Smith is playing SEC football 11 years after he walked on at Notre Dame. Hey, he had one year of eligibility left and some time unaccounted for in his schedule, so why not?
Smith played safety for two years for the Fighting Irish while on scholarship with the Navy ROTC program on campus. After completing his degree, he worked full-time for Navy ROTC training new midshipmen, then went to dive school in Panama City, Fla., and a year of training at Eglin Air Force Base to become an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer.
Smith met Allison, herself a Naval officer and a four-year letter-winning swimmer at the Naval Academy, before the first of three deployments to the Middle East.
Vanderbilt walk-on Tommy Smith played two seasons at Notre Dame.
“She’s the real badass,” Tommy said. “She’s the rock of our family when we need it. There are only 24 hours in the day and I’m gone a lot, but she helps me to not worry about things when I can’t be at home but then also enables me to come right back in when I am home and feel like a part of the family.”
Eventually, he was influenced by Capt. Sam Brasfield, a Navy mentor who worked for Vanderbilt’s ROTC, to attend Owen Graduate School to further his military career.
But even with the demands of a full course load and fatherhood, Smith craved the camaraderie he experienced on deployment.
“I loved being part of a team at Notre Dame,” Smith said. “I got a very similar feeling during deployment, and I loved that. It was reminiscent of being on a football team. I loved the feeling, and this voice in the back of my head kept asking how great it would be to feel it again.
“You know it’s all going to go away at some point. I’ll always be a part of the military, but how long will I be on a small eight-man platoon? It’s just like football; I know it will run out.”
In between his deployments, Smith read about a then-active Navy SEAL named Tom Hruby, who walked on to Northwestern’s football team in 2014 in his 30s as the father of three children.
“I worked with a couple of people who had worked with him, and they had nothing but good things to say about him,” Smith said. “He had a bit of an untraditional path like mine, so I was very interested in how he was able to do it.”
Smith traced Hruby’s path to Northwestern and realized he had NCAA eligibility remaining because he had only played two seasons at Notre Dame.
“As far as the NCAA’s concerned, you only have five years to complete your four [years of eligibility], but the clock on your eligibility stops whenever you’re active duty in the military,” he said. “So I had at least one year left to use one of my two years of eligibility.”
At a mutual friend’s wedding, Smith ran into a former Notre Dame teammate, Nick Lezynski, who’s now an analyst on the Irish staff. Lezynski had worked under new Vandy coach Clark Lea when Lea was the Irish’s defensive coordinator, so he put Smith in touch with Lea’s coaching staff.
“He’s the kind of guy who creates challenges for himself, the guy who hears ‘no’ and immediately starts making a plan and starts executing it. He’s got more perseverance than most normal people,” Lezynski said.
Lea, a rookie head coach who is tasked with rebuilding his alma mater after seven years without a winning season and who is only six years older than Smith, gladly welcomed Smith’s leadership experience.
“If Vanderbilt thought I was crazy, they did a great job not showing it,” Smith said.
Vanderbilt’s Tommy Smith didn’t play in the season opener. The Commodores will play Saturday at Colorado State.
“It’s rare that you have someone with so much real-world leadership experience in team-building join a program,” Lea said. “To plug someone like that into a locker room, particularly on a team where we’re looking for environmental change and culture change, is such an asset. Tommy strengthens the team at all turns, and he knows how to take direction. He grows relationships organically. He’s 32, and he blends in with the guys.”
The next step for Smith: balancing school and fatherhood and possibly seeing the field. He didn’t play when the Commodores lost their opener Saturday to East Tennessee State, 23-3. He’s listed as a tight end but is willing to play anywhere, including special teams.
“I’m usually up at 6, at school around 8 a.m., either in class or studying. I’m usually in class around three hours a day, then study or homework, then I’m in practice and meetings from about 2 p.m. to around 7 p.m., then get home by 8 p.m. Kids might be asleep, give my son a hug, spend some time with my wife and then get some studying in,” Smith said.
He’s even getting “usually” six to seven hours of sleep, which is more than he got when he was juggling ROTC and football at Notre Dame more than a decade ago. He credits the bonus rest to more efficient planning, even with a newborn.
“It’s about finding hidden hours in the day,” Smith said. “They’re all there.”