Josh Smith’s career as a kicker in the Arena Football League never even had the chance to get started last season.
Before the 2012 season kicked off, Smith was sidelined with a leg injury that kept him out for all but a couple of games.
But months of determination, hard work and rehab is finally starting to pay off for him. On Nov. 20, Smith signed with the Pittsburgh Power in hopes of fulfilling his AFL kicking dreams.
“I am super determined,” Smith said. “I wasn’t about to end my very short career with a performance like I had. I felt like I let some of my fans and some of the Milwaukee fans down.”
Smith got his first shot in the AFL last season after being signed by the now dormant Milwaukee Mustangs only a couple of weeks before the season began; however, he almost immediately knew something wasn’t feeling right. To avoid the pain in his kicking leg, Smith unintentionally changed the way he kicked and began to tell the team about this injury.
Still, Smith said, they wanted him to keep kicking. Finally, a few days before season was set to begin, Smith and the Mustangs made the decision to shut him down for the season.
“We made the call that I wasn’t able to go just a couple days prior to the first game of the season, but I had been telling them that I was hurt for a week or more, really since our joint practice with Chicago,” Smith said. “It wasn’t really severe. I could walk although it was sore, but the swing of the leg for a kick was brutally painful.”
But as much as hurt him to try and kick, it was equally as painful to Smith to sit out for the season.
“Sitting out was brutal,” Smith said. “Since I started playing football two years ago all I could think about was playing in the AFL. It was my dream. I spent the last couple years really dedicating myself to learning how to be a great kicker and to watch my first AFL contract fade away was agonizing.
“It felt like everything I had worked for was down the drain, especially when everything went so well the season prior.”
In an attempt to restart his AFL kicking dreams, Smith returned to the Mustangs despite the fact he knew he wasn’t 100% ready to.
“I basically lied to myself and to those around me because I didn’t want to pass up what I thought could be my only opportunity to get back in the AFL,” Smith said.
In Milwaukee’s game against Philadelphia in Week Nine, Smith was seven of nine on extra points, made the only field goal and kicked the game winning extra point.
But in the next game against Cleveland, Smith wasn’t as successful. Smith was only four of six on extra points and missed a field goal. He also continued to add to his injury.
“During warm up, I did more damage to my leg,” Smith said. “I barely made it through that game and when I wasn’t on the field I was with the trainer trying to keep it from locking up to the point where I couldn’t move it. That was a painful experience, physically and mentally, and to cap it all off I was instantly let go after the game as soon as I walked in the locker room.”
To the competitor in Smith, being cut from Milwaukee hurt. But instead of giving up, he dug in and worked to get back on the field.
Though the injury would keep him out of the game for the remainder of the 2012 season, Smith has been working and rehabbing his leg since the Cleveland game, including a weekly work out with former Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Mike Hollis.
Smith said his determination to get back on the field came from his “obsession with competing at the highest level.”
“I’m a competitor, always have been and always will be, and I’m not about to quit, especially on that note,” Smith said. “I drive to Jacksonville every Tuesday and train with him for a couple hours.”
Smith’s determination to get back on the field is nothing new to him. Taking a different route than most players do to get to the AFL, he’s been determined and working hard to get to this point the past few years.
After playing soccer at St. Andrews in North Carolina, Smith played indoor soccer for a bit before joining a jump-start indoor team in Orlando.
“I played two unpaid games in the worst arena I’ve ever seen. It looked they use it for livestock or something,” Smith said. “The ceilings were super low and kickoffs were a joke.”
Almost immediately, Smith began to create a buzz about his kicking game.
“We went 9-9 and people started talking to me about playing in the pros,” Smith said. “So I figured, ‘hey what the heck.’ I went to a couple AFL tryouts in Orlando and Tampa and could tell I had an advantage on a lot of the guys.”
But the tryouts went all for naught. Despite winning the National Reality Football League award for longest field goal award with two kicks of 61 yards, Smith remained unsigned by an AFL team.
That’s when Smith began working with Hollis to correct his form. Soon after Marquette Smith of the SIFL team Fayetteville Force brought in Smith.
“He signed me and brought me to camp to go up against an indoor vet,” Smith said. “I was stronger and more consistent but I got the ‘you might freeze up under the lights’ call.”
But Josh impressed Marquette so much that when another team, Richmond, lost their kicker for the season, Marquette recommended Josh for the job.
“He told [Richmond] Coach James Fuller that he should take a look at me because I was pretty good,” Smith said. “Coach Fuller looked at some tape I had on YouTube of me kicking in a field by myself that I taped with my iPhone and then running to go kick it. They signed me on Wednesday, flew up Friday, played Saturday.”
Smith took full advantage of the opportunity. Flying in for the walkthrough on Fridays, playing on Saturdays and then taking the first flight home Sunday mornings, Smith did more than rack up frequent flier miles. He finished the season 61 of 70 on extra point attempts and 15 of 26 on field goals. He set a league single game record with a 12 for 12 night on extra points one game.
That’s when Smith finally got the call up to the AFL with the Milwaukee Mustangs.
After rehabbing his leg and going through all of the travel and uncertainty, Smith said that was a big reason he signed with Pittsburgh this offseason.
“I was signing early, no waiting until the last second to figure it all out like Milwaukee,” Smith said. “With a wife and little boy at home I needed to have a plan as early as possible and of course the fact that I am the only kicker they are bringing in. Finally, I got a really good feeling from Coach Stingley and I am really looking forward to contributing to the Power this season.”
Bringing in Smith is also a big move for the Power. Last season, the Power went through five different kickers who at least kicked one extra point, including three that saw substantial playing time.
Power head coach Derek Stingley said it will be great for the team to have one consistent kicker.
“We know we needed an experienced kicker with arena or indoor experience,” Stingley said. “It would be awesome to not have a revolving door at the kicking position. I truly believe Josh will give us the stability we’re looking to have.”
After the injury he suffered and going out the way he did last season, Smith said he has a lot to prove in 2013.
“I want to prove that I have what it takes to not only play, but to be one of the best,” Smith said. “I want to prove that I am much better than what I showed last season.”
Some of Smith’s goals include being in the top three kickers this coming season, not allowing a kickoff or field goal to be returned for a touchdown and doing whatever it takes for the Power to win.
“I think the underlying message behind what I do is to follow your dreams, it can happen,” Smith said. “Three years ago I was playing indoor soccer with my buddies and going to Predator games or watching them on TV and thinking, ‘I can do that.’ Now I’m on the field actually playing in the AFL which a lot of people thought would be impossible considering I haven’t played since high school.”
Smith knows that there will always be naysayers who will doubt him, but said that it just makes those who support him just that much more meaningful.
“It’s just such an honor to have so many people support my dream,” Smith said. “Arena football has the best fans out of any sport I’ve ever played in and I’ve made friendships that will last a lifetime.”
And when the Power run out onto the field on March 23 for their home opener against Utah, it will be a dream come true for Smith.
“I’ve dreamed about playing in front of my family and friends, looking up into the stands and seeing my beautiful wife and son there cheering me on,” Smith said. “I can’t wait for that dream to come true this season.”