Braden Smith was a two-star sport at Mattoon High School, playing basketball and football. “His work habits are second to none,” says Troy Johnson, who coached him on the gridiron. “Braden is a tough kid with all the tools and is easy to talk about.”
Smith, a 2016 graduate, went on to play college football at Franklin College, an NCAA Division III school in Indiana. Smith, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound quarterback, recently completed his final season for the Grizzlies, completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 3,226 yards and 28 touchdowns with only six interceptions across 10 games. He also ran 71 times for 284 yards and eight touchdowns, earning first-team honors in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. He finished fourth nationally for passing yards per game, seventh for passing yards and 14th for passing efficiency. Smith will graduate this semester. Afterward, he hopes to keep playing football. He recently spoke with Jeff Owens.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: Tell us a little about Franklin College and the football program.
SMITH: Franklin College football has a deep and rich history. Our rivalry with Hanover goes back well over 100 years. More recently, we’ve been to the playoffs and have been winning conference or competing for a conference title for almost 20 years straight. I had the privilege to play under Head Coach Mike Leonard all four years of my college career. Coach L set the school record for wins in just half the time of the previous coach, Stewart “Red” Faught, another legend that our stadium is named after.
CCS: What led you to Franklin?
SMITH: My high school coach, Troy Johnson, was at a coaching convention in Terre Haute, I believe. He met some of the coaches from Franklin and, from there, I was recruited by them. Visiting Franklin immediately felt like a second home. I knew that I could thrive there. I also knew the coaches would put their players first. I can vouch for that on multiple occasions.
CCS: You were awarded the “Golden Nail” Courage Award for this past season at Franklin. Tell us about the award and what it meant to you.
SMITH: Receiving this award was very meaningful to me. I’ve never been carried away by receiving awards or recognition, but this was an award given by Coach (Dave) Marendt. He was one of our receivers coaches. He would paint nails gold and give them to certain players after playing in tough games, battling through injuries, etcetera. Getting this award, though, was especially meaningful to me because I had broken my right thumb, which was on my throwing hand, in the second game of the season. Some may not know, but it was difficult to come back after just two weeks and throw a football.
CCS: How tough is it to play college football and get a college degree?
SMITH: Playing football is not for everyone, especially in college. There were many late nights, early mornings, and tiresome days feeling sore. Getting a four-year degree isn’t easy by any means, whether you play sports or not. But I think that by playing football, I was able to manage my time much better, even during the off-season. I will never regret playing in college, even if it meant a much busier schedule.
CCS: Can you tell us a couple of highlights from your career at Franklin?
SMITH: Rose-Hulman both my junior and senior seasons. Junior year, we had gone back and forth and found ourselves down by a few points with 22 seconds left. On a fourth-and-10, I threw a touchdown pass to Ben Fleet to take the lead. It was homecoming, so the stands were packed and fans were all around the end zones and the atmosphere was incredible. Senior season, it was two weeks after I had broken my right thumb, at their place and for their homecoming. We were down by 14 on two occasions, but battled back late. I threw a touchdown to Cole Daab on another fourth down. We then decided to go for two. I faked a jet sweep and dove over the goal line to seal the win.
CCS: What are your pro football ambitions?
SMITH: I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be invited to a showcase in Texas this past January. It went very well, as I am now signed with an agent. As of right now, I am trying to get into a pro day; another option is to participate in an open tryout for the CFL in May. Those would be other great opportunities to perform in front of scouts. I have had teams from Sweden and France show interest, and I am open to any opportunity that arises.
CCS: Did you see the first weekend of the XFL? Do you think you could play at that level?
SMITH: I did see the first weekend of the XFL. I hope that the league does well, or at least better than smaller leagues have done in the past. I do believe I could play professionally. Coming out of a smaller school, I was curious to see how I stacked up against guys from big schools. I honestly felt that I was making all the throws and plays as they were.
CCS: If not football, as a Public Relations major what is your career path?
SMITH: If I’m not able to play, I would like to coach. I’ve been in contact with coaches from other schools already, hoping to obtain a GA (graduate assistant) position as well as a master’s degree. If I neither play nor coach, I would like to work in public relations for a professional sports team. This would most likely entail working in the communications department.
CCS: What has football taught you?
SMITH: The game of football has been the source of countless lessons for me. You name it, I can probably relate it to football. Patience, trust, and perseverance are just a few things that football has had a part in influencing my life.
CCS: Looking back at your high school career, what is the most vivid memory playing for the Green Wave?
SMITH: The most vivid memory would have to be my junior year, in the 2014 season, when we beat Effingham for our homecoming. It was cold and muddy but some of the most fun I have ever had. We were definitely underdogs going into the game. It went back and forth the whole night and we sealed the win with Colton Shoot’s diving interception.
CCS: Who are some of your coaches or mentors that guided you to a college football career?
SMITH: My father had the earliest influence on my life, especially regarding football. He coached my friends and me in JFL (Junior Football League) for four years. Troy Johnson, my head coach in high school. Coach Johnson is still a great example of a leader and continues to instill positive values into his players. I learned in college that Coach Johnson really knew what he was talking about. Mike Leonard, my head coach in college. Coach L is well-known throughout Indiana for not only being a great coach but a great man and leader in the community. I have been extremely fortunate to have these three men as well as countless others to lean on and learn from in my playing career.
CCS: What were your strengths on the football field?
SMITH: On the field, I believe one of my greatest strengths was the ability to improvise. When the pocket broke down, I have almost always been able to avoid sacks or losses on the plays. Another aspect of my game has been leading by example. My teammates knew that they could always count on their quarterback giving everything he had.