Perseverance: continued effort to do something or achieve something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success. The majority of Zach Smith’s football career can be summed up with that one word — perseverance.
Despite constant adversity and facing obstacle after obstacle, Grandview’s Zach Smith has continued to stick to his dream of playing quarterback at the professional level. And after the NFL passed him over this past season, Smith now has an opportunity in the United States Football League after the New Orleans Breakers selected him in the Inaugural USFL Draft on Tuesday night.
“It’s huge. It’s huge for me and my family,” Smith said. “I’ve been praying about it this whole time. Certain stuff in college didn’t go the way I hoped it would and certainly this last year didn’t, feeling like I didn’t get the opportunity to show what I could do in the NFL or wherever else. I’m so pumped to get this opportunity. God’s good. I never quit working out and throwing. I’ve been staying sharp. If you never quit, you don’t fail. I’ve been getting after it and finally God’s given me this opportunity. I’m ready to take a hold of it and run with it.”
After leading Tulsa University to only its second winning season in the past eight years — guiding the Golden Hurricane to a 6-3 season and a bowl appearance in 2020 — Smith didn’t hear his name called in any of the seven rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft. And even more surprising, not one of the NFL’s 32 teams signed Smith as an undrafted rookie free agent. Smith spent a couple days with the Buffalo Bills in a rookie mini-camp, but that was it.
Despite being passed over by the NFL, Smith didn’t give up on his dreams. He kept working on his game. He kept hope alive. He persevered.
And now he finally has an opportunity to show what he can do as a pro QB.
“He hasn’t had it easy but at the same time it’s made him who he is and I believe this is the way it’s supposed to go for him and he’ll prove to everyone that he should be an NFL player,” said Cleburne Head Football Coach Casey Walraven, who coached Smith at Grandview. “He’s a professional athlete now and that’s something that Grandview and all of Johnson County can be excited about. They’ve got a pro quarterback representing the county and Grandview. What a great opportunity to be able to go play for Coach [Larry] Fedora in New Orleans. I’m really proud of him.”
The USFL Draft was unlike any other professional sports league draft, which made selections by specific position round by round with teams selecting in different slots each round. Smith wasn’t one of the first eight quarterbacks picked in round 1 Tuesday night. New Orleans drafted quarterback Kyle Sloter with its first-round selection. But when round 12 came — the second round to draft quarterbacks — Smith was the first quarterback picked (ninth QB drafted overall) by the Breakers.
Smith said he had talked with New Orleans Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone a couple times over the last several weeks, but that was also the case leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, when more than 15 teams reached out to Smith leading up to the draft, only to not be selected or signed. So Smith and his family weren’t sure what to expect this week.
“I’d talked to him several times over the last couple weeks and he was kind of telling me they were interested in me and they really liked my film and that Coach Fedor liked me,” Smith said. “I’ve heard stuff like that before and things not pan out so I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. When Coach Mazzone called me [Tuesday] night, I was filled with joy and was pretty ecstatic.”
Walraven said the past year has really shown how mentally strong Smith is.
“Zach had a great upbringing from his parents and they’ve instilled great values in him and a couple of those are mental toughness and perseverance,” Walraven said. “He puts that on display constantly. In our society, I think we’ve grown to overlook those values a lot in athletics, unfortunately. But they’re still at the top of the list, mental toughness and just being able to overcome obstacles. I think he’s going to show the world what he’s always done.”
Smith said he’s grateful for the opportunity with the Breakers and plans to attack it as he always has.
“I’m going to go at it 100% and hold nothing back,” Smith said. “I’m going to put everything I can into preparation and film study and give them 100% every day. Whatever happens, happens but I’m pumped to have the opportunity that I can go out there and showcase my abilities. I’m going to attack it with a full heart and clear eyes and go make the most of it.”
Smith has thrown thousands upon thousands of passes over the past year with no fanfare — only a couple people watching — as he tried to stay sharp while keeping his dreams alive. Most of those throws were with Walraven watching and Cleburne Offensive Coordinator Daniel Spencer, a former Grandview Zebra and Division I standout himself, on the receiving end of Smith’s throws.
“Even when he was in college he would come up here to throw,” Walraven said. “But he’s been coming really consistently for about three days a week since before the NFL Draft last year. Once he got home from Tulsa, he was coming up consistently. Coach Spencer gives him a great look as a receiver with his athletic ability. I’m able to help him at times and film him and try to give what my advice would be. But he’s getting to the point now where the student is becoming the teacher and he’s helping me as much as I’ve ever helped him.”
Smith said he’s grateful for a strong support system that has backed him and believed in him even when things didn’t look promising at times.
“I’ve been unbelievably blessed with the support group I have with my family and friends always supporting me and never giving up on me,” Smith said. “Coach Walraven is the one who started me out in high school and he’s been with me ever since. I’ve been going over and throwing with Coach Walraven and Daniel Spencer. He’s been running routes for me the majority of the time over this last year. I’m unbelievably blessed with the support system I’ve got around me.”
Smith’s father, Shawn Smith, said while the past year has been disappointing and frustrating at times, he believes things worked out this way for a reason.
“I think the Lord planned it out this way,” Shawn Smith said. “It gave him a year to get healthy and all he has done is work out and prepare for this opportunity, and now it’s all come to reality. We’re proud of Zach and grateful for this opportunity.”
Walraven said he remembers watching the USFL when he was a child in the 1980s and he believes this league will be a great way for Smith to showcase his abilities.
“He’s going to attack it like he’s always attacked every opportunity,” Walraven said. “He’s not going to sit back and evaluate where he was drafted. He’s going to get the [starting] job and I have no doubt in my mind that that’s what will happen. I’m excited about this league because when I was growing up in the ‘80s, the USFL was around and it was an exciting league and they competed with the NFL.
“If you look at the XFL, it was going pretty well before COVID hit. I think there’s a market there for [a spring pro football league] and I think it’s a really good opportunity and a different opportunity than the CFL. The CFL is a great deal and has been around forever but this is a little closer to how the NFL plays and I think it will continue to expand. If Zach needs to be there five years, he’ll be there five years but I expect he’ll tear it up. I think he’ll get more opportunities as he continues to shine.”
Following a record-breaking, All-American high school career with the Zebras, where Smith was one of Texas high school football’s top-10 leaders in career passing yards and passing touchdowns, his collegiate career took several unexpected turns.
Smith committed to Baylor as a sophomore in high school and he graduated from Grandview High School early to take part in spring practices with the Bears in 2016, planning to redshirt and be a backup for another year or two. Shortly after Smith stepped foot on campus in Waco, the Art Briles scandal erupted.
Smith was one of just a couple of Class of 2016 signees to stay at Baylor after Briles was terminated, and after an injury to senior starter Seth Russell midway through the 2016 season, Smith was thrust into the starting quarterback spot as a true freshman. Even though Baylor struggled down the stretch as a team, Smith played well during his freshman campaign, including leading the Bears to a Cactus Bowl victory over Boise State in a game where he completed 28-of-39 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns.
After the hiring of Matt Rhule as Baylor’s head coach, Arizona transfer Anu Solomon was named the Bears’ starting quarterback to open the 2017 season. After an ugly 0-2 start, which included losses to Liberty and UT-San Antonio, Smith was named starter and again played well for Baylor, including a memorable performance against No. 3 Oklahoma where he outplayed eventual Heisman winner Baker Mayfield in a 49-41 loss. Smith completed 33-of-50 passes for 463 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
But a minor injury the following week sidelined Smith and he never started another game for Baylor as Rhule went with freshman Charlie Brewer the rest of the season, ultimately resulting in Smith transferring to Tulsa to play for Philip Montgomery, who originally recruited Smith to Baylor.
After sitting out the 2018 season due to NCAA transfer rules, Smith won the starting QB job for Tulsa and he threw for 3,279 yards, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. As a senior in 2020, Smith threw for 1,947 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in nine games, guiding Tulsa to a berth in the conference championship game, where the Golden Hurricane suffered a loss to No. 8 Cincinnati on a last-second field goal.
Smith’s final college stat line includes 8,223 passing yards, 54 touchdowns and 34 interceptions.
The USFL, which is owned by Fox Sports, is scheduled to kick off April 16. Each team will play a 10-game schedule leading into the playoffs. Each USFL team will carry a 38-man active roster, plus a seven-man practice squad, and players will receive base compensation ($45,000 for active roster players) and be eligible for victory bonuses, including a $10,000 bonus for winning the championship.
In the inaugural season, all eight teams will play in Birmingham, Alabama, rather than operate out of home bases and deal with travel expenses as the league gets going.
The first game will feature the New Jersey Generals against the Birmingham Stallions at 6:30 p.m. on April 16. That game will air on both FOX and NBC, making it the first scheduled sporting event to air on competing broadcast networks since Super Bowl I in 1967, which was shown on both CBS and NBC.