When the Arizona Bowl is played, the pride of Tucson’s south side will have some skin in the game.
Michael Smith is a former Utah State running back. The Aggies play New Mexico State at the Arizona Bowl on Friday.
Smith’s career started on the football fields in Tucson. He played at Sunnyside High and in his senior year gained 1,920 yards while scoring 24 touchdowns. He also collected a state championship in track, as part of the 4x100 relay and was the Class 5A South regional champ in the 100.
His next stop was Eastern Arizona College, where he earned All-Western States Football League honors his sophomore year, with 131 rushes for 1,002 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In his senior season in 2011 at Utah State, he carried the ball 114 times for 870 yards and nine touchdowns. He earned the MVP in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, running for 157 yards and scoring two touchdowns.
His quickness got the attention of the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Smith in the seventh round of the 2012 Draft.
He ended up staying two years with the Bucs and one year with the New York Jets before hanging up the cleats because of injuries.
His next stop? Back with his college coach, Gary Andersen, who by then was at Oregon State. Smith became a graduate assistant and eventually move into his current role as strength and conditioning coach.
At the end of the year, this former Aggie will be looking for a new job, as earlier this season Andersen walked away from Oregon State. A new staff with former OSU quarterback Jonathan Smith at the helm has been hired.
While Smith isn’t sure what’s next, he talked to the Star about growing up in Tucson and his time as an Aggie.
What do you remember about your bowl game in your senior year? You lost by one point to Ohio.
A. “We lost that game, but we left it all on the field. I don’t regret it. I remember talking to the team in the fourth quarter to revive them about what the game came down to. It was sad after the game.
“However, the game that stands out to me that season is Hawaii. Everything turned around for us. No one believed in us to that point. We were down by two or three touchdowns. It was like a switch went off and we jelled. Making plays and flying around. It was a big stadium and the fans were talking and beating us down.
“We just started rolling, getting good blocks. We beat them at their home stadium and it was amazing.”
What did you learn from your high school coach, the legendary Richard Sanchez?
A: “Pride in three things: family, school and football. If you take care of the first two, football will take care of itself.”
What stands out in your mind about Tucson and Sunnyside?
A: “I remember working outside in the summer when it was 100-plus degrees for no reason. Actually, there was a reason to make it easier. Running was beyond brutal in that heat. My shoes would be melting and I had good shoes, Nikes. It was hot. But it was worth it. It made us stronger. Not a lot of teams were running outside in the heat. It built character and was the foundation we needed.
“At Utah State, we practiced in the snow to get adjusted to the climate.”
Was it hard for you to transition to coaching?
A: “My first love is playing. Then, it’s all about being able to serve others and help them reach their dreams. I was always a true teammate; I always sacrificed. To get my master’s and show that a kid from the south side of Tucson can advance over obstacles, I am thankful to Gary Andersen. He is a great coach.”
Do you think Andersen will coach again?
A: “He has a passion. If I was him, I wouldn’t hang it up. I still see life in him. He still inspires me. I don’t know if he wants to.”
Your older brother, Xavier, played football for Arizona. What did he teach you about the game?
A: “Well, he picked on me when we were little, but that’s OK, it was brotherly love. He is my best friend and was my best man. He taught me a lot. I took his strengths, he taught me footwork. How to read holes and work ethic. He also taught me about being a true student-athlete. I got my degree. You can only play football so long and you have to bounce back on your education. I am thankful for that.”
If you were to give this Aggie team a pep talk before the Arizona Bowl, what would it sound like?
A: “Seize the opportunity. Nothing is given, everything is earned. Let it be you. We all bleed blue. Aggies for life. Leave it all on the field. If you make a mistake, learn and grow as fast as possible. It’s how fast you can make the adjustment. Be humble.”