Smith's volunteer work doesn't exactly square with prevailing opinions of his character, opinions he's helped create with several well-chronicled off-the-field indiscretions. But real life is often more complicated than it seems, and Smith's story is a case in point.
I have very good friends in this town. My football coaches, my teammates, my family, my girlfriend, my friends — they all know I'm a great person. People tell me that on a daily basis, said Smith, a fifth-year senior center.
But as an athlete, when you do something and get in trouble for it, it's going to get flashed up there on the front page of the newspaper or on the news. When you do something good, it's on page C-9 in the bottom right-hand corner.
Smith talked openly Wednesday about his past problems, admitting that he had made some stupid choices and some bad decisions. He missed the 2003 season because of an alcohol-related suspension, and he was in jeopardy of having to sit out his senior year because of his involvement in the so-called arrowgate incident this past January. Suspended by the university, Smith wasn't allowed back on campus until the start of the fall semester. It was uncertain whether he would ever play football again, but he returned in late August and has gradually worked his way back up the depth chart. Heading into Saturday's game at Michigan, Smith is listed behind senior Lance Antolick at center.
The January incident painted Smith in a particularly unflattering light. This was more than harmless college mischief. A number of arrows were fired through the wall of a campus apartment into an adjoining unit. Although no one was hurt, the episode alarmed the campus community. Implicated along with teammates Tyler Reed, Andrew Richardson and Scott Paxson, Smith took responsibility and accepted his suspension. It looked like it might be the end of his football career.
I didn't know for sure what was going to go on, Smith said. Coach [Joe] Paterno gave me some stipulations I had to follow to get back on the team. That was the only guarantee I had after the whole situation went down. He told me if I followed certain guidelines and got back in school he was going to give me a chance to graduate.
Paterno told Smith to get a full-time job in State College, stay in shape and check in with the coaching staff regularly. He did as he was told, working as manager of the Pebble Creek miniature golf course over the summer.
After enrolling for the fall semester, Smith sat out Penn State's nonconference games. He returned to action in the Lions' Big Ten opener at Northwestern, seeing extensive action in relief of Antolick.
Despite Smith's problems, Paterno saw something in him that he admired. He felt that Smith, the son of a football coach in Concord, N.C., deserved a chance to redeem himself.
We are in the business of trying to help kids grow up, Paterno said. E.Z. has never been a bad kid. He has never done anything malicious to hurt somebody or anything like that. You kept hoping that he would get himself straightened out with the couple of little problems he had. I was glad that everything worked out and he could get back in it and do it, because he is going to be a fine person.
Smith said he was grateful to Paterno for giving him another chance. He is set to graduate in December.
Paterno said Smith is a good player but not a great one. It's possible this is his last year of organized football.
If that's the case, he's bidding a memorable farewell. With the Nittany Lions unbeaten and his playing career under way again, Smith has no reason to regret his decision to remain at Penn State. He could have transferred after Paterno warned him that he might not play a single down for the Lions, but he didn't want to give the impression he was fleeing from his past.
I wasn't going to tuck tail and run out of town, Smith said. I wanted to show people that I was worthy of being here and deserved to be here. I'm glad I stuck around.