VU's Smith has much to be thankful for

Captain and wide receiver George Smith is nearing the end of one of the longest individual careers of any Vanderbilt football player ever. The great news for George, and for Vandy fans, is that unlike past Vanderbilt seasons, it won't end with the regular season finale (Saturday at Wake Forest, 6 p.m. CT, ESPNU).

For the first time in 26 years, a bowl appearance looms after the season for this bunch of Commodores. The thought is a sweet one for Smith, who has now been on campus for six of those 26 seasons.

"It was a great feeling (after the Kentucky win) to realize we had finally qualified for a bowl," said Smith, who has been hampered by injury for most of this season. Despite that, in a season of ups and downs, Vanderbilt has already achieved its highest win total (six) since 1982, and has put a stop to a long string of losing regular seasons.

Vanderbilt will be looking for its seventh win of the season Saturday at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem. The Commodores failed in their first crack at that seventh win, falling short last Saturday in a 20-10 loss to Tennessee.

Though it seems as though Smith has been on the Commodore roster forever, he says the time has still gone by way too fast.

"Last Saturday was my last game ever to play at 'The Dud'," Smith says, pensively. "I enjoyed every minute of it, except for the end results.

"But it's not discouraging. We learn from losses, and we learn from wins. I think we're going to learn from the Tennessee game."

Last week, the last home game of the season. This week? The last road trip.

"Hopefully we go down to Wake Forest and enjoy a good victory," Smith said. "I know it's going to be sad at the same time, because there are so many guys that I've built a great relationship with. It's going to be sad, but fun at the same time. It's all coming to an end soon."

The regular season finale pits a pair of teams with identical records (6-5) and identical conference records (Wake is 4-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference). Though both teams are almost assured of a bowl, both are looking to improve their clout with the bowls. And both know a 7-5 record is heck of a lot more attractive than 6-6.

Though the excitement of a bowl trip awaits, Smith said the team is trying its best to avoid thinking too far ahead.

"My main thing, and the team's main thing, is to try to stay focused on not thinking about that," he said. "Thinking about that could cause us to overlook what we still have in front of us. We don't want to overlook anyone, because everybody can be beat on Saturday.

"We knew Tennessee was a good team. We know Wake Forest is a good team. We have to worry about them before we can worry about the postseason."

As Thanksgiving Day approaches, Smith realizes he has much for which to be thankful. He's flirted with death twice in his Vanderbilt career-- and survived.

Most Commodore fans are familiar with No. 88's unusual journey-- how he was awarded an extra year of eligibility after a rare disease nearly killed him in 2003-- and how he survived a gunshot wound later in that same year. It's quite common for the NCAA to award players to receive a fifth year of eligibility for medical reasons, but a sixth year is rare indeed.

Academically, Smith graduated last spring with a degree in Sociology, and is taking two courses this fall just to remain eligible. Now, with his football career winding down, his long career is passing in review.

"There are so many moments I remember," he says. "Definitely one of my best memories is when I came back to school after being sick. It just seemed like I was coming back to a family, not a team. It was just one of the best feelings-- everybody was encouraging, helping me get better, get stronger and get my weight back.

"That's why I enjoy winning with this team. It's a family thing."

George Smith poses with his family before his last home game last Saturday. (VandyMania / Brent Wiseman)

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