“I never heard of no fuckin’ East Mississippi,” Smith said now. Sharon had never heard of Scooba, either. Buddy Stephens, the East Mississippi head coach, showed her on a map how to get there from Greenville.
EMCC’s then-defensive line coach, Freddie Roach, arrived in Greenville not long after the school expressed interest in Smith. Blackmon brought Roach to a high school class in session and pulled Smith into the hallway.
Roach stood in awe of Smith, a towering figure with endless athletic potential somehow falling right into his lap.
He offered him a scholarship the next day.
Smith closed the door to Brittany Wagner’s office behind him and started crying.
Wagner was East Mississippi’s academic advisor who also acts as a mother for most players who are isolated on campus away from family, and this was Smith’s first year there.
He didn’t know how much longer he could take Stephens’ aggressive coaching since he’d never been pressed so hard (Stephens compared his initial relationship with Smith to that of a soldier and a drill sergeant, in that soldiers never like their sergeants even if they want the best for them). And Smith had flunked his last two algebra tests.
The night before Smith approached Wagner, he had called his mom. She could tell he was distraught. They prayed together. Smith told her he didn’t know if he could sustain the tough coaching while he struggled in school. Give it one more shot, she said, and if you fail the test again you can come home and work at a local business that distributed plants around Greenville.
Unsure of what his future held so soon after he started a new chapter in his life, Smith broke down in Wagner’s office the next morning.
“I can remember him wanting to quit,” Wagner said.
“I can’t do this shit,” Smith told her, to which she responded, “Just give it one more shot for me, please.”
“From then on out, man, that stuck with me,” Smith said. “The grace of God just put his hands on me and I toughed it out.”
On the field, Smith still didn’t know much. EMCC was only allowed eight out-of-state recruits per year, Wagner said, typically high-profile names expected to contribute right away. Smith was supposed to start at defensive end along with Denico Autry, now a Colts defensive lineman, but he still didn’t know the sport.
“I could handle not one thing,” Smith said. “I couldn’t start because I didn’t know football.”
Coaches stayed hard on Smith. He didn’t tell his mom because he knew she’d drive to Scooba and reprimand them (she confirms that, yes, she would have done just that had she known how demanding they were of him). Smith later told his mom he “cried across that football field” in Scooba.
Stephens used Smith almost exclusively as a third-down pass rusher while he learned proper techniques. Gradually, he looked more like an actual football player. He stayed on campus instead of driving home to Greenville and, when he and his teammates weren’t racing golf carts down dirt roads at night, buried himself in the playbook and sculpted his physique.
“I was the strength coach in Scooba as well,” Roach said. “He busted his ass in the weight room.”
Smith hadn’t yet blossomed into a leader, unequipped to teach others because he was still learning the basics himself. He was naturally reserved and even “a little shy,” said Wagner, who remembered a big body not yet confident enough to be a leader. “Off the field, he’s kind of a big teddy bear.”
But again he caught the eye of coaches and teammates because of how rapidly he improved after only having three months of football experience entering junior college, thanks to a tireless work ethic in practice and a genuine interest in learning his position.
In the 2011 junior college national championship game, Smith registered a sack as the school won its first-ever national title. It was clear this small school had found something special in Smith.
“Za’Darius was a superhero learning how to use his powers,” Stephens said. “It was so much fun to watch the kid. … Every other day, he was wowing you with something different.”