E'Monte Smith

Junior end E’Monte Smith has team highs of seven tackles for losses and 3½ sacks for No. 1-ranked UMHB.

BELTON — To hear E’Monte Smith describe it, the Mary Hardin-Baylor defensive end has a pretty straight-forward daily routine.

“If I’m not out here playing football with my brothers, I’m studying with them,” the junior engineering major said. “That’s my life — football, studying and eating.”

It’s a lifestyle Smith doesn’t take for granted, and one for which he’s even more thankful after a medical scare last year.

It was partway through his sophomore season when Smith felt a lump on one side of his neck that grew larger as the days went by. A visit to a doctor and an ultrasound led to a round of oral antibiotics that didn’t help.

“That week was crazy. I woke up one day sweating a whole bunch and was late for weights. The coaches said, ‘What’s up? This isn’t like you,’” he said. “Then on Friday morning, we were leaving for the game and everybody said I looked like a zombie. I said I was ready to play, but they told me I had to go to the hospital.”

He was admitted on the spot and given antibiotics through an IV, also to no avail as doctors tried to figure out the problem and a solution.

Was it an infection? Was it a tumor and, if so, was it benign or cancerous?

“It wasn’t very pleasant,” Smith said. “I would wake up every morning at 6 or 7 because that was when all the doctors and nurses would get together and look at yesterday’s tests, and they couldn’t give me an answer.”

After trying to avoid surgery for a few days, doctors eventually had no other recourse than to perform an operation.

“They knew the surgery was the last resort. They did it and found out it was a lymph node infection and nothing more serious than that,” Smith said. “I was in the hospital for what I thought was four days, but I’d lost track of time and it was actually five.”

Finally out of the hospital and back with his teammates, Smith was weakened by the whole ordeal but counting his blessings that it wasn’t more serious.

“I was already thankful for getting to play football, but that made me more thankful for everything. It made me realize how blessed I am,” he said.

Now back at full-strength and emboldened by a new starting role, Smith is wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. Despite not moving up to the first string until the third game, Smith leads the Crusaders in tackles for losses (seven) and sacks (3½) heading into this afternoon’s battle between No. 1 UMHB (4-0, 3-0 American Southwest Conference) and East Texas Baptist (2-2, 2-1) at Crusader Stadium.

Strictly a backup through his first two seasons and the first two games of this year, Smith has taken his opportunity as a starter and run with it.

“He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s been a guy since his freshman year that’s had lots of potential, and the light bulb kind of came on during this year’s fall camp. When he got an opportunity to be a starter, he has taken advantage of it,” UMHB defensive line coach Mark Carey said. “It’s great to see a guy who has been here two years and stuck with it and trusted the process get to reap the benefits.”

Smith — a 6-foot-3, 215-pound product of Pflugerville Connally — is another in a long line of quick, agile ends for the Crusaders, who have long benefited by their front four’s ability to pressure the quarterback, diminishing the need to gamble with blitzes.

Of UMHB’s 15 sacks this season, all but two of them were recorded by linemen.

“It takes quickness, strength and agility. I think I have those things, but the main thing that helps me is my coaches teaching me where I need to be and when I need to be there,” Smith said. “Our team functions as a unit. Without all of our other guys doing their jobs, I couldn’t do mine.”

Smith has certainly taken care of his share of the workload of late. In last week’s win over McMurry, he had 3½ tackles for losses and 2½ sacks, including one on which he forced and recovered a fumble.

It’s all part of a day’s work for a guy who eats, sleeps and breathes football, with plenty of studying in between.

“I know I can trust my coaches and my teammates,” he said. “We don’t play on Saturdays for our parents or anyone else. We do it for the guys next to us on the field. It’s a brotherhood.”