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November 19, 2012
OLATHE, Kan. -- Braden Smith isn't intentionally distracting his classmates; it's just kind of happening. It always seems to happen around this time. In the back corner of Olathe South High School, the 6-foot-6 mountain of a man-child is about to lie down on the bench press during his first-hour weights class. This, it seems, is some kind of event.
Other students stop what they're doing. Bars are placed on the ground and medicine balls dropped. This is a ritual of sorts. It's time for the show.
Today's lift is light, a measly 250 pounds. Smith throws it up and down effortlessly, as if he's tossing a throw pillow. The crowd is larger and more attentive when he attempts to max. There were actual cheers when he tossed up 450 pounds ... twice ... as a sophomore.
These days, his max is 470 pounds. Smith's high school coach, Jeff Gourley, has the video to prove it. Nobody gets anything done in this classroom when Smith is testing his limits. Instead, students look on in awe. The act never gets old. As one of the top offensive linemen in the country, the junior is used to being the center of attention. And many have an opinion on where he should go to college.
"Everyone says typical kid stuff to me," Smith said. "They're all like, 'Hey, go here.' People have weird things. They want me to pick based on uniforms or something."
People have been staring for years. When Smith showed up for the first time at high school camp as a freshman, Gourley sent an assistant coach to tell him players' fathers are not allowed on the field during practice.
"He came back to me and was like, 'Coach, that's not a dad. That's Braden, the freshman,' " Gourley recalls. "I was like, 'Whoa. Holy (crap).' "
That kind of reaction is common. Smith induces lots of "whoas." Today, he's wearing a dry-fit shirt he received as a throw-in with a protein shake. Aside from the bushy goatee, he has a high schooler's face. From the neck down, however, Smith is no high schooler. Seemingly none of the 270 pounds he carries is from fat. He's as chiseled as he is massive.
If you could tap into the dreams of any football coach in America and watch via closed-circuit television, you'd see Smith on the screen.
In many ways, Smith is the stereotypical offensive lineman from the Heartland. He doesn't do well with attention. He'd rather talk less and hit more. He declined an invitation to the U.S. Army All-American combine recently and won't attend a single national camp. It's not that he's afraid of the competition. It's just that, to him, it seems like a waste of time to travel across the country to hit somebody.
He has more important work to do here, in this weight room.
"A 5-4 record didn't sit well with Braden this year, so he's taken our young kids and has them lifting with him," Gourley said. "He's putting them through his workouts. We call them 'Braden's little groupies.' "
Already there are legends. There's one about how an opposing coach benched his best defensive lineman against South this season because he was scared Smith would hurt him. There's another story concerning the time Smith told Nebraska coach Bo Pelini that getting to the NFL wasn't a big deal to him because he'd just as soon work as a pumpkin farmer after college.
Both are half-truths at best.
There's no way to confirm what happened with the benched player. The pumpkin-farmer thing, on the other hand, is feasible. Gourley tells the story about Pelini, and Smith denies it. Still, the pumpkin-farming thing isn't as farfetched as it seems.
Smith keeps a garden of cucumbers, tomatoes and, yes, pumpkins in his backyard and tends to it between weightlifting sessions in his in-home weight room. In many ways, Smith is as Kansas as it gets. Heck, his favorite class is horticulture.
"Yeah, it's true that I want to be a pumpkin farmer, but after I get old," Smith said. "It seems like something fun to do when you're old."
That's the other thing about Smith. He seems almost oblivious to his standing as a borderline five-star prospect. Part of that is by design. Gourley and Smith's parents shelter him from the building attention by screening his phone calls. They hide his recruiting letters in a shoebox behind Gourley's office door. Only after the final game of the season are they presented to him.
At this time, the mail from Alabama alone measures 4 inches. Gourley verifies with a ruler.
"There were overflowing shoeboxes full this year," Smith says. "But I kind of saw them. They tried to hide them, but I saw some of them and who they were from. Texas A&M did some art school stuff with my name."
Smith visited Alabama last weekend. He's been to Oklahoma and Nebraska. His sister is a track athlete at TCU. He admits that the family tie to TCU is strong, and he isn't skilled when it comes to hiding his obvious interest in the Crimson Tide; but he offers no early favorites. Ask Gourley, however, and the only thing he'll say for certain is that keeping Smith inside the state's borders will be a tall task.
"He's out of here," the coach says while pulling up some of his star's most notable highlights on his office computer.
As for Smith, he's not saying anything. It's not mystery for the sake of mystery, either. Strange as it sounds, he would rather ignore the recruiting process for now.
"That stuff kind of wears you out," he said. "I'm going to take a break from it."
Instead, Smith will just keep lifting. And people will keep watching.