Smith not ashamed of father's name

On Oct. 19, Florida State LB Terrance Smith took the field at Clemson, where his father starred. AP Photo/Mike Stewart

A few years ago, back when Brentson Buckner was still training athletes who were preparing for the NFL, a friend request popped up on his Facebook page. He recognized the name immediately. He'd known Terrance Smith since the day he was born.

Terrance was still in high school, starring at Atlanta's Southwest DeKalb, and he was looking for tips to improve his game. Buckner, a former star at Clemson before a long NFL career, was happy to oblige. They traded several messages before Buckner noticed the photos on Terrance's page, the ones of the lanky football player wearing the No. 24 jersey. The resemblance between Terrance and his father, Terry, was astonishing.

"I'm talking the spitting image," said Buckner, who spent five years at Clemson with Terry.

Terrance hears the comparisons all the time.

He's 6-foot-4, but he's graceful and agile. The way he runs, his grandfather, Terry Sr., said, looks just like his dad.

He's a meticulous dresser, perfectly coordinating outfits with each item neatly pressed. His mother, Angela, remembers Terry doing the same.

His cousin, former Clemson wideout DeAndre Hopkins, modeled his own game after Terry, who finished his career as the school's all-time leading receiver. Still, it's Terrance, now a linebacker at Florida State, who strikes that same look without effort.

"A lot of my family," Terrance said, "they kind of look at me like I'm a ghost."

It's impossible to tell the story of Terrance Smith's life without the details of Terry Smith's death, but it seems unfair. It's an event that still looms over nearly everything Terrance does, but it has never defined him or his family.

"Everybody misses him," Terrance said, "but we don't relive that moment."

Terry had been a superstar in his hometown of Clemson, where he was less a football player than a conquering son.

In a city with about only 13,000 locals, everyone knew Terry. He starred at Daniel High in both football and basketball, and his decision to stay at home for college made him the most popular player on the Tigers' roster before he ever caught a pass.

"He was the guy everybody pulls for," former Clemson quarterback Patrick Sapp said. "He was a humble guy, and the community embraced him."

After his senior season at Clemson, nearly every NFL team told Terry they liked him, but he went undrafted. Angela remembers coming home from class after the final selections had been announced and finding Terry alone, crying.

Terry latched on as a free agent with the Indianapolis Colts, but after two seasons, a knee injury provided a final, unconquerable obstacle. By 1997, Terry's football career was over and his marriage on the rocks. He and Angela argued often, and they had been separated for some time.

"He just had this pressure that he wanted to make it for everybody that grew up in Clemson, that watched him play, that pulled for him," Buckner said. "He carried that on his shoulders, and he worked so hard to get it."

Terry had always made friends easily, but he was quiet. His demons were hidden. Just days before his death, Terry called Buckner, who was in training camp with the Cincinnati Bengals. They talked about old times and made plans to see each other soon. When Buckner got the news of Terry's death two days later, he collapsed into his locker, sobbing.

"It was like I got hit with a baseball bat," Buckner said. "My body was numb. I just couldn't imagine the things they were telling me."

Terry had been having "a tough time," as Angela now tells it, but what drove him to her Atlanta home on July 18, 1997, remains a mystery.

Terry kicked in the door and held Angela at knifepoint as she clutched their 2-year-old daughter in her arms. When police arrived, Terry pleaded with them to take his life.

Police shot Terry to death to save his family. Angela suffered stab wounds and she and her daughter were injured by the gunfire, but they survived. Terrance, 4, was there for it all, but he remembers no details.

Sixteen years later, scars remain, but this is not a wounded family. Terry had been a good man, in spite of his final moments. Angela is a strong woman, never a victim. Terrance is a talented athlete, inspired, not burdened, by his father's legacy.

"I've never been ashamed of who my father was," Terrance said. "I've always kind of felt like he's been there for me, watching over me."

Terrance didn't want to be a football player. On his father's side of the family, football was life, but for Terrance, it meant early mornings in the gym and long afternoons baking under the hot Georgia sun. For a 14-year-old, it seemed like work.

But he lived in an urban area, and without a male influence in the house, Angela worried Terrance needed guidance. She knew, too, how much football had meant to Terry, and she saw an opportunity for her son to build a bond with the father he'd lost so young.

"I guess it was my way of keeping him connected to his dad," Angela said. "I didn't want him to try to be his dad, but I really wanted him to have memories and know his dad was someone he could and should be proud of."

Besides, Terrance just looked like a football player. He was tall and athletic, genetically predisposed to a life on the football field. "You ain't gonna be that big for no reason," Angela told him as he began practice his freshman year at Southwest DeKalb.

Damien Wimes noticed the size, too. Wimes was the defensive coordinator when Terrance arrived, and he took an immediate interest in the big kid who was so ferocious in the weight room yet so graceful on the field. "We're going to have fun with this one," Wimes told his fellow coaches. It was only later that he learned of Terrance's exploits in the classroom. He was an honors student who had scored high enough on the SATs in ninth grade to gain admission to nearly any college he might choose to attend.

Before football, Terrance hadn't taken much interest in his father's legacy at Clemson, but now they had common ground. He began to dig into Terry's past, watching YouTube clips of his best plays and sifting through magazines and photos his mother had given him.

They called his father "Touchdown Terry" because of his penchant for finding the end zone, but Terrance wanted to play linebacker. Still, he changed his uniform number to 24 as a sophomore, the same number Terry wore at Clemson, and he got a tattoo of his dad on his right arm. It's a picture of Terry, dressed in that No. 24 jersey, his hands resting on Howard's Rock with the wings of an angel outstretched from the sides.

"Even though I didn't grow up with him, I always felt like I had a connection with my dad," Terrance said. "I just wanted to have a piece of him with me."

Terrance doesn't have a tattoo of his mom, but she's his rock.

After Terry died, Angela became the family's sole provider. She worked long days but never missed a football game. She bore the scars, mentally and physically, of a horrific tragedy, but she talked of Terry often. She always wanted her children to know they had a father who loved them. She raised three kids in Atlanta without a man in the house, and the first two are now in college on scholarships.

"I think the only plan I ever had after this tragedy was that I never wanted my children to use this as an excuse to feel sorry for themselves," Angela said.

Angela never hid details of Terry's life or his death from her son, but the truth is, Terrance rarely talked about it. He's quiet, like his dad. Even now, Terrance rarely opens up about his family's history, even to close friends. His teammates, he said, know his dad died, but he's never discussed the circumstances. He keeps mementos to his father, and before each game, he writes "RIP Terry" on his wrist tape, but he doesn't spend much time considering what he has lost.

His mother always pointed him toward the future.

"My mother is my hero," Terrance said. "Most people who have hardships dwell on them. They never get past them. It affects their lives in a negative way, and that never happened to us."

Still, rarely a week goes by that Angela doesn't think about Terry -- a joke or an old story, something that makes her laugh. Terrance provides constant reminders, everything from subtle facial expressions to the way he eats a Snickers bar, nibbling around the edges before gobbling up the center, just like his father did.

The day he died is not a taboo subject in her home, but there are so many other memories that take precedent.

Terry fell in love with her before they'd even met. They were freshmen at Clemson, and school had yet to begin. Terry was sitting around the dorm with Buckner, watching students mill about campus when he spotted Angela from a distance.

"I think I've just seen my wife," Terry told Buckner, before running after her.

My mother is my hero. Most people who have hardships dwell on them. They never get past them. It affects their lives in a negative way, and that never happened to us.

--Florida State LB Terrance Smith

Many Clemson fans may have been anticipating Terry's arrival on campus, but Angela had no idea who he was. She'd grown up in the small town of Orangeburg, S.C., and she'd attended football games only to see the halftime show.

For Terry, it was love at first sight, but Angela needed to be convinced. Terry arranged his schedule so he could bump into her between classes, and he made sure to turn up at parties where Angela might be a guest. He invited her to football games, where the crowd sung his praises.

It didn't take long for Terry to win her over. He could make her laugh without effort. He was a vivid storyteller. He could fix anything.

"He was my Superman," Angela said.

In November 1993, four years after they'd met, Terry made good on his promise. The couple was married in a courthouse on their way home for Thanksgiving.

It's hard sometimes, knowing what they've lost, but Angela never let her children doubt what kind of man her husband was.

"If I live to be 100 years old, I'll never understand truly why it happened, but it did," Angela said. "I never had any animosity. I was sad for a long time. I loved my husband, and I hated that I couldn't help him. But from the first time they were old enough to have a memory, my children have never had a bad memory of their dad."

Terrance may not have known his father, but he knew where his father was from.

Terry's family still lives in Clemson, and they're still die-hard Tigers fans. There's a game room in Terry Sr.'s house, packed with trophies and awards from Terry's playing days.

"I've got pictures of [Terry] all over this place," Terry Sr. said. "It wasn't hard for [Terrance] to digest the magnitude that Terry had at Clemson University."

In the aftermath of Terry's death, the bonds between Angela and Terry's family were strained at times. But as the years passed, any lingering discomfort between the two sides of the family faded. Angela talks with Terry's mom several times a week now, and Terrance remained a fixture in Clemson.

"Any time you have a tragedy like that, it brings emotion into the situation," Terrance said. "But any time I'm back home [in Atlanta], I take the trip up to Clemson to see them."

When Terrance was a baby, he was a fixture in the Clemson locker room. Players called him "Little Snoop" because his long, braided hair made him look like the rapper Snoop Dogg. Terry lavished attention on his son, rushing home from practices and shrugging off dinner plans with teammates so he could spend time with his family.

As a teenager in Atlanta, however, Terrance looked to his coaches for guidance. Angela made sure Terrance had everything he needed to succeed, and but he relied on his coaches at Southwest DeKalb to offer direction, both on and off the field.

Terrance and Wimes grew close over the years. Terrance could go to him with questions about football or girls or life as a teenager, and Wimes became the point man during Terrance's recruitment. Wimes was consistently amazed by how grounded Terrance was in spite of his circumstances.

"I've dealt with kids like that before, and a lot of them just kind of shut down," said Wimes, now the head coach at Miller Grove. "In a way, I think he really just wanted his dad to see him play. I think he still wants to please him, please his memory."

For Terrance, only a few out-of-context images of his father remain. That's why those trips to Clemson mean so much.

Terry Sr. relishes his grandson's visits. He misses his son, but in Terrance, he found some comfort.

"They're so similar, sometimes it scares me," Terry Sr. said. "It really helped to see him, but you never adjust to the fact [that Terry's gone]. You sort of -- almost. There's that almost factor that follows you until you die."

For years, Terry Sr. held on to his son's ACC championship ring. He knew he wanted to give it to Terrance one day, but he was waiting for the right time. Terrance needed to be old enough to appreciate it, to hear enough stories to know what kind of man his father had been.

And then, one day, Terry Sr. walked into his game room where Terrance was watching sports on TV, and it hit him. "It's time," he said to himself, retrieving the ring. They cried, and they hugged and "I actually felt like I was hugging my son," Terry Sr. said.

The ring is one of just a handful of his father's possessions Terrance has now. He keeps it in his room at Florida State, right next to the ACC championship ring he won with the Seminoles last year.

Terrance said Saturday's game in Death Valley was a homecoming. Most of his family never left Clemson. Hopkins was a star receiver there before being selected in the first round of this year's NFL draft. Another cousin, D.J. Greenlee, is a freshman tight end with the Tigers now.

On a recruiting trip to Clemson during high school, Terrance showed Wimes the back roads through town to miss all the game day traffic, and the coach felt certain his prized student would end up wearing a Tigers uniform. But as much as Terrance feels the weight of Terry's legacy, he never wanted to follow in his father's footsteps.

"I wanted to leave my own legacy, do my own thing," he said.

Terrance built a bond with former FSU assistant Dameyune Craig during the recruiting process, and Jimbo Fisher sealed the relationship by winning over Angela. When Terrance announced he would play for Florida State, Terry Sr. was disappointed. He'd hoped his grandson would play close to home, but he admits that's not how Terry would've wanted it.

"He'd have wanted him to go wherever he wanted to go, and he'd be super-happy for him," Terry Sr. said. "Terry would've been pulling for Florida State on Saturday night."

Terrance was dressed to play when Florida State visited Clemson in 2011, but he was injured during warm-ups and never took the field. The year ended with a medical redshirt, and he saw only limited action in 2012, too.

This year, his role has increased each week. Terrance has put on weight, gotten stronger. Fisher raved about his progress, praising his natural athleticism. Terrance said he has modeled his game after teammate Telvin Smith, but his work ethic is genetic.

"We've talked about things, how he came up," Telvin Smith said. "He comes from a strong family, and that's why he's determined. That's what's going to make him great."

Terrance secured 13 tickets for friends and family to Saturday's game. There were many more he couldn't fulfill. Angela was in the stands, rooting against her alma mater.

Terry Sr. watched the action in his game room along with more than 30 friends, all pulling for the team wearing orange and one player in a white No. 24 jersey.

But it's not really about the uniforms. They're rooting for Terrance, rooting for him to be the man his father would've wanted him to be, the man who overcame obstacles that might have crippled another family.

"What happened, happened. There was nothing in this world I could do to change it," Angela said. "I just keep pressing forward. I'm not a victim, I'm a victor. I choose to live because God spared my life for a reason. I'm here for a reason, and it can't be anything other than to help my children succeed. And they're making me so proud you can't begin to imagine."

On Saturday, Terrance Smith rode a bus through streets he knows like the back of his hand, sharing the ride with teammates who know little of how he got there.

Like he does before every game, he thought of the man whose image is tattooed on his arm; a man he knows intimately, but doesn't remember meeting.

He arrived at the stadium where his father was a champion, sketched out Terry Smith's name on his wrist tape, and played with the same pride and ferocity his father always had.

Florida State won in dominant fashion, 51-14, and Terrance finished with five tackles. Afterward, he dressed in an impeccably pressed suit, found his mother near the team bus and asked her how he looked.

"It was an amazing night," Terrance said. "A lot of people in Clemson know me as Terry Smith's son. I think after that night, they knew me as Terrance Smith."