Garrison Smith’s emotions, play peak for Bulldogs

Garrison Smith — also known as Captain Waterworks or the Leaking Lineman — is but a few days away from his final game as a Georgia Bulldog.

You might think this would elicit at least a sentimental sniffle from the player who has worn his emotions more outwardly than anyone. After all, that’s 300 pounds of raw competitive passion we’re dealing with here.

Crying in football? There’s more than you think. The Bulldogs’ defensive end/nose guard teared up on multiple occasions this season. Against Florida, he launched into a series of fiery sideline monologues and met the media afterward with dewy eyes and a catch in his voice.

“That was just wanting to win,” he said. “We were doing so well in that game — we were supposed to run ’em. For us to start making all those self-inflicted wounds and letting them back into the game, man, that hurt me. That hit a button in me and just made me go off. I wasn’t about to lose that game.”

He broke down again when he suffered an ankle injury against Georgia Tech, the natural rival where his brother, Greg, once was a receiver turned A-Back.

“I wanted to be out there so bad. That game meant a lot to me. Not being able to destroy them, how I do every year; that just hurt. I just wanted to beat up on that team,” he said.

But with the coming of the final game, against Nebraska at the Gator Bowl on Wednesday, Smith strangely does not sense that he is on the emotional ledge.

More than maudlin about the end of his collegiate career, Smith said he is excited about preparing for life after Georgia and for wherever the winds of the NFL draft may take him.

Beyond any regrets for the tough losses this season — both on the roster and the schedule — he seems quite at peace with the strides he made as a player and the response of his teammates to the trials of 2013.

“No tears,” he said. “I did everything I set out to do. I left with a good legacy, as a good football player and a good man of character. I’ll smile when the last game is done and will move on to my next step in life.

“I love this place, but I don’t have a sad feeling about leaving. It will always be a part of me. That’s something I’ll be happy about.”

It is a short trip from Atlanta to Athens, but Greg and Cynthia Smith’s youngest son has come a long way since leaving Douglass High for Georgia.

He had this idea that he wanted to do something special in college. He, after all, comes from a household of high expectation — both brothers have master’s degrees. But how exactly would he go about it?

Not being a knucklehead would be a good start. That was not exactly a given for a kid who was labeled something of a rabble-rouser in elementary school (Smith said he just liked to argue). He still remembers being 10 years old and having an adult tell him he would never amount to anything. In a way, that misguided grown-up did him a favor.

Smith made a conscious decision not to show up on a police report — because too many others on the team were. And too many of his friends back home had fallen out and fallen into trouble. This was his chance to model some different choices, to break with the cliches that spring from both big-time collegiate athletics and the inner city.

He eventually grew slightly evangelistic about spreading a message of responsibility. Smith found the family digs in Atlanta to be an especially nurturing setting for such seminars.

“Every once in a while, he brought guys home who were on the edge, just to sit them down and talk to them, to try to get them to go right,” said Smith’s father. “He’s always tried to help people.”

One thing he certainly didn’t do was try to show up a referee during a game. He never would be one of those players who barked at every striped shirt. Because the senior Smith wore one, working games for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Even when Greg Smith was at another game, unable to see his son play, he had an extensive network of spies who filled him in.

He wasn’t there when his over-amped son leaped on the back of a South Carolina offensive lineman after a crucial fourth-down stop. Within an hour, though, one of the refs working that game had called Dad to spill all the details.

“Yeah, Garrison was trying to be Superman,” Greg said, still mildly perturbed.

In the end, Smith needed no grand plan to fulfill the goal of being noteworthy. Just doing the right thing more often than not seemed to work pretty well. They don’t, after all, give the title of defensive captain to just any empty uniform.

When it was time to defend his teammates against a four-loss season, he was one of the leaders who could do it with ease.

“I was proud of how we fought to the end,” he said. “With all the injuries we had, we could have given up and had a real bad season. One of those seasons where you don’t even go to a bowl game. But nobody gave up.”

When it was time to play some of his most inspired football, he produced. Smith was twice named SEC defensive lineman of the week — after a nine-tackle, three-sack game against Florida and coming up with two more sacks and two forced fumbles against Kentucky. Traditionally players in his position mostly occupy blockers while the linebackers swoop in for the tackle. Yet Smith, who had one sack in his first three seasons, had six this season while leading all Georgia linemen in tackles.

“I look back on everything and see how good this game has been to me,” he said when asked to wax retrospective.

“I’m just thankful for it. I just had to give my all. This game took me a long way. So many of my friends went off on different paths, didn’t stay focused. They’re in bad places now. When I see how far this game took me — that’s why I have so much passion and love for it.”

Whether he can take that kind of profound sentiment to his final college game and still not spring a leak is yet to be determined.