“Change the game.” That’s the slogan that can be found on multiple billboards throughout the state of Kentucky -- the same billboards that made a 6-foot-6, 263-pound man cry.
The billboards, located in Lexington, Louisville and even Cincinnati, Ohio, feature the face of Kentucky defensive end Za'Darius Smith, yelling as he grips a football. Last month, the athletic department sent Smith to see the billboards in person, and he broke down when he saw his giant face plastered on a wall for the world to see.
— Kentucky Athletics (@UKAthletics) July 3, 2014
“How would you feel if you were on one?” Smith asked a group of ESPN writers at SEC media days last month. “If you see your face on a billboard, that just gives you that roller-coaster ride, like your heart drops. Look where I came from, look where I’ve been in my life. I never thought I’d be on the side of the highway on a billboard.”
That’s where “change the game” has an even deeper meaning for Smith. If Smith hadn't changed his game back in high school, he would never have made it to Kentucky and certainly never made it on a billboard.
Smith grew up in Greenville, Alabama, population 8,000. He had always been bigger than his peers, but he never played football. His mother wouldn’t let him. Instead, he was a basketball player, and a good one at that. At 6-5, he was a force at the high school level, consistently dunking over his opponents, but he wasn't quite tall enough for the next level.
Ironically, it was his basketball coach, Earnest Hill, who encouraged Smith to try football.
“I told him, ‘You don’t realize it now, but football will be your meal ticket,’" Hill said.
Hill, who also served as Greenville’s defensive coordinator, convinced Smith to go out for football as a freshman, but after suffering a stinger in fall camp, Smith had had enough. It wasn’t until his senior year that he tried it again and played his first game. By that time, it was too late to teach him any technique. He was just told to chase down the quarterback.
“That year he played, he really didn’t know what he was doing,” Hill said. “He was just out there having fun. He was just like a kid in a candy store out there running around.”
Smith finished his lone high school season with 31 tackles and eight sacks. It wasn’t enough to garner interest from big schools, but he caught somebody’s eye at East Mississippi Community College, which took a chance on him.
“I had to grow up coming out of high school,” Smith said of his time at EMCC. “I only had one year (of experience), so I had to get down to it, learn technique, learn the scheme and learn how to play the game for real.”
He proved to be a quick learner. Smith totaled 47 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss his sophomore season, and just like that, he had offers from top programs like Auburn, Florida State, Miami and Texas A&M.
He signed with Kentucky, however, despite never taking an official visit to Lexington because of the relationship he had with first-year coach Mark Stoops. The decision paid off. He started every game last season and finished among the team leaders in tackles and sacks.
“Z put a lot of faith and confidence in us and what we were doing, so I’m very proud of the fact that he’s come a long way,” Stoops said. “He’s doing everything right. He’s going to graduate. He’s doing well in school, and he’s becoming a great player.
“We always knew he was very talented. He did some very good things a year ago, but I think you’re going to see some very big things from him this year.”
At media days, Smith wore his white suit like he had known for years he would attend. But make no mistake about it: Even he couldn’t believe how far he’d come.
Four years ago, he was a high school basketball player who had never played a down of football in his life. Now he’s a potential All-SEC candidate with the NFL a real possibility. On top of that, he’s quickly becoming the face of Kentucky football. He represented his school at media days, and his billboard is hard to miss when you’re driving through the area.
“I want to thank God for this situation,” Smith said. “He put me in the right position to be a great human being and a great person, and just by coming in and being a leader, being on the billboard means a lot to me.”
Smith has changed the game.