ORLANDO, Fla. -The thought of getting nostalgic prior to Thursday night’s Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State didn’t occupy Irish free safety Harrison Smith’s mind until someone from the media called it to his attention.
“Sometimes I look back on it and it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s been a long time,’” said the fifth-year senior from Knoxville, Tenn. “Then other times I think the time has flown by. I don’t know why that is.
“We joke around like, ‘This is the last time we’re going to do this drill.’ But I don’t think it will really hit until after the game. My parents come to almost every game, my brothers and sisters, too. It’s not like we’re making it out to be the end of the world.”
But it is the end of an era, and for those who sit back in admiration of the distinction in which he has served Notre Dame as its first stand-alone football captain since Jarious Jackson in 1999, it’s natural to look at him as one of the special leaders of the Irish program.
The importance of winning and getting the Irish back to national prominence was always apparent with Smith. His leadership - which didn’t come naturally at first for the shy, soft-spoken, long-haired athlete who seemed to hide his uneasiness speaking publicly behind those long locks - shined through more brightly with each passing season after preserving a year of eligibility in 2007.
By the 2011 season, there were two natural selections for captain of the Fighting Irish, and one of them removed himself from contention through his off-the-field transgressions. Smith was the rock upon which the leadership of the ’11 team was built.
“Anytime you elect somebody captain, you have an expectation that he’s going to lead for you, and (Smith) did exactly that,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “As we look back on it in hindsight, we couldn’t have had a better captain. He’s done all the things that we’ve asked him to do on a day-to-day basis and has developed a great foundation for our football team.”
And that’s why winning his final game in a Notre Dame uniform Thursday night inside the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium is so important to Smith.
“That’s what it’s about,” said Smith, who capped the 2010 season with a three-interception performance against Miami in the Sun Bowl. “All the guys that are playing their last game, we want to make our mark and go out on a high note. Being one of the leaders on the team and being the solo captain on the team, that’s something that I take very seriously.
“That’s what this trip is about. There is a lot of fun stuff that we get to do outside of the game. But at the end of the day, it’s a business trip.”
Smith’s sincerity when it comes to talking about choosing/representing Notre Dame comes through when asked about his decision several years ago to come to South Bend, Ind., instead of remaining in Knoxville to play for the Volunteers.
“When I was coming out of high school, I had a hard decision to make,” recalled Smith, who enters the Florida State game fifth in school history for tackles by a defensive back (217) and second in passes broken up (28). “But when I look back, I don’t even know how it was a hard decision at the time.”
In the days leading up to his final appearance in an Irish uniform, Smith was focused on directing his emotion toward notching one last victory for Notre Dame.
“I’m still a Vol fan to some degree,” smiled Smith, thinking back to that day in February of 2007 when he signed a letter of intent to play football at Notre Dame.
“But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t change where I went. My choice was validated, and that’s the reason I made it.”