When he was 9 years old, Rahshaun “Shaq” Smith told his mother, Shenika Brown, he wanted to be a football player. But not just any football player — the No. 1 player in Maryland.
As a fourth-grader, Smith towered over the rest of his classmates and was even taller than the principal, Brown said. There was only one problem. Though Smith (now 6-foot-2 and 251 pounds) was by far the largest player on the football field, he was hesitant to tackle other kids. His mother had always taught him to never hit another person.
Brown, a single mother who had moved her two sons from High Point, N.C., to Baltimore, knew little about the game of football. She came up with a simple solution: tackle the family’s green Baltimore City-issued trash can.
“I said, ‘You need to learn how to tackle. You can’t hit me so hit the trash can,'” Brown said. “We learned football together.”
The unconventional tactic paid off. Smith was considered one of the elite prospects in the state after playing two years at Calvert Hall and another at St. Frances. He finished his high school career at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., in 2015. He was the No. 3 inside linebacker in the country, according to 247Sports, and had his pick of the country’s top football programs: Clemson, Auburn and LSU.
Smith briefly flirted with attending Maryland, intrigued by the prospect of playing for a former assistant coach at Calvert Hall, Cory Robinson, then a staffer for the Terps. Two other high-profile local high school recruits, Good Counsel linebacker Keandre Jones and Bullis quarterback Dwayne Haskins, had also been mulling the possibility of playing for their home state school.
But Robinson and then-interim coach Michael Locksley were not retained by Maryland after the 2015 season. Robinson went to Rutgers, and Locksley left for Alabama.
Smith chose Clemson. Haskins and Jones departed for Ohio State.
“Me and Dwayne and Keandre, we were all on board on staying home. When Coach Locks took the job at Alabama, that made the rest of the guys … disperse,” Smith said.
Smith, and Maryland football fans, can only wonder what could have been. After three seasons — and two national titles — at Clemson, Smith earned his degree in parks, recreation and tourism management. He returned home to Maryland as a graduate transfer. He joined Locksley, now the head coach, and Robinson, Maryland’s defensive backs coach.
“It was fate that all three are back together,” Brown said. “Cory is a mentor [and] kind of big brother to him.”
Brown, who had moved back to North Carolina to be close to Smith while he was at Clemson, was initially upset when her son told her his plans to come to Maryland. The six-hour drive would make it difficult for her to see him, she said, but she eventually warmed to the idea because she knew it made him happy.
Despite her misgivings, Brown was his biggest supporter as he mulled his future. She told him to follow his heart.
“She just stayed in my corner and we prayed about it and we just came to an agreement that I got everything I needed at Clemson,” said Smith, who was the first in his family to earn a college degree. “I went down there, I became a better man, I graduated and I won two national championships.
“I felt like, ‘What more could you ask for from that level?’ I just felt like now it’s time for me to actually get on the field and play. Throughout the process, I was thinking why not go do it for your home state and do it for your hometown?”
While Robinson and Locksley played a part in Smith returning home, playing time weighed heavily into her son’s decision, Brown said. During two seasons at Clemson, Smith played in 28 games, totaling 30 tackles, an interception and a sack.
Smith has certainly gotten his wish to see more of the field when he’s been healthy enough to play. He totaled three tackles — one for a loss — and a sack during the team’s season opener against Howard Aug. 31
Smith is one of several upperclassmen transfers — including Jones, tight end Tyler Mabry and quarterback Josh Jackson — who were drawn to Maryland in part due to Locksley’s hiring. Smith’s experience and leadership have been critical to a defense in dire need of playmakers after ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in sacks and rushing yards allowed in 2018.
“With Shaq, Tyler, Josh and Keandre, … what has been really impressive to me is the off-the-field [experience] they bring from a maturity standpoint — the habits and behaviors,” Locksley said. “These aren’t guys who have come in with the egos [saying,] ‘Hey, I’ve played for a national championship’ as much as, ‘These are the things I’ve done and where I’ve been.'”
Smith and Jones have led Maryland’s revamped 3-4 defense as the outside linebackers. The two have known each other since they played Pop Warner against each other in middle school.
When Smith arrived in the summer, he was surprised by the talent Jones and his other new teammates showed. It was a sign that some people may be overlooking the Terps, who finished 5-7 last year and missed out on a bowl game for the third time in four seasons.
“The world has no idea how much talent is on this team,” Smith said. “I had no idea how much talent was on this team until I got here. Something special is going on in this locker room.”
Despite the long drive, Brown said she plans to attend as many Maryland home games as she can. More than 20 friends and family members were in the stands to watch Smith against Howard Aug. 31.
Brown admits she was initially skeptical that Smith would become the best player in the state when he told her his plans more than a decade ago. But as any mother would, she encouraged him to make his dream a reality. Now he’s getting to show off his hard work in front of his hometown fans.
“I didn’t believe he would go and get it and do it,” Brown said. “I am amazed at seeing the process come to pass.”
This has been updated. A previous version indicated Cory Robinson was formerly the head coach at Calvert Hall. He was an assistant with the Cardinals.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
Issue 257: September 2019