Browns WR Jarvis Landry placed on injured reserve

Vanderbilt's Tommy Smith, a 32-year-old Navy officer, might be the best story in college football

Joseph Spears
Nashville Tennessean

Tommy Smith isn't a typical college football player.

While a majority of Smith's Vanderbilt teammates are just coming out of high school or are in their early 20s, Smith has experienced more  life than most of them could imagine.

Smith is a 32-year old walk-on tight end for the Commodores. He first played college football at Notre Dame, served in the school's Naval ROTC program and has served in multiple overseas tours.

He remains on active duty and is married with two young children. Smith is a family man who does his duties as a father, serves his country, practices college football all while studying in Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management as part of a civilian postgraduate program.

"I knew I had some eligibility remaining and a way to play as far as the NCAA was concerned," Smith said. "I reached out to a close friend of mine, Nick Lezynski, who I played with at Notre Dame and is an analyst on Notre Dame's staff. I told him that I knew I had some eligibility left and wanted to play at Vanderbilt so he put me in contact with Coach (Clark) Lea's staff. 

"I felt like I was up to the task and knew how to take care of myself and be a smarter player. I had something left to give and after some talks with people, they gave me that opportunity."

Vanderbilt tight end Tommy Smith practices with the team during the offseason.

Smith is from Connecticut, but family ties to Notre Dame ultimately led him to South Bend. He went there and walked onto the football team for two years. 

Once he was finished, Smith worked full-time for the Navy ROTC, training new midshipmen. He went to dive school in Panama City and spent a year of training at Eglin Air Force Base to become an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer.

In the 10 years prior to coming to Vanderbilt, Smith was stationed on three tours in the Middle East. He also met his wife Allison, who also serves in the Navy, during that time.

Calling her the "rock" of their family, Smith said Allison takes care of their son and daughter while he's at school and at practice. 

With Allison handling things on the home front, Smith is back in a familiar situation on the football field. 

"It's similar in the fact that I now know what to expect," Smith said. "I have that perspective from before about preparing for games but it's also very different in ways. Balancing school and football, it was more of a grind for me then and that's how I looked at it. 

"Now I have the perspective of going into the real world so to speak and coming back to being a student-athlete again. I treat it much more with the perspective that I get to do this and it's a privilege a lot of people don't get to have."

Smith plans to finish this season and the MBA program the following year before serving again. He recently was promoted to lieutenant commander. 

For now though, Smith said he's excited for one last year of playing college football, even if he doesn't play much. He did not appear in the Commodores' season-opening loss to East Tennessee State, and he did not travel with the team to Fort Collins, Colorado, where they will face Colorado State on Saturday.  

Still, he calls the football team his family away from his real family and that he's excited for the future of the program, as it reminds him a lot of what happened at Notre Dame. 

"I see a lot of the changes and the culture that Coach Lea is instilling around here and that's very reminiscent to when Coach (Brian Kelly) came to Notre Dame and instilled that culture there," Smith said. "I've told the guys here that and that I'm excited for them. I remember what that was like at Notre Dame and it was a blast.

"Selfishly, I'm excited to get to experience that with Coach Lea for a year and I'm excited for the guys to experience that going forward."

Reach Joe Spears at jspears2@gannett.com or 731-343-4923. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @joe_spears7.