Telvin Smith leads by example

Telvin Smith Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMI

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In a few moments, the dam would burst, the energy and emotion would erupt from the locker room, spill onto the field and swallow up the utterly overwhelmed Florida Gators, the latest in a succession of opponents vanquished by a Florida State team now poised on the brink of the BCS National Championship.

But first, Telvin Smith had to finish his speech.

The senior linebacker is a master orator -- part preacher, whipping his congregation into an exuberant frenzy, and part wartime general, rallying his troops for the battle ahead.

"This is our destiny," Smith announced.

The crowd roars.

"This is our season," Smith proclaimed.

The team clamors for more.

"Nothing can stop us," Smith implored.

The fervor reaches its apex.

Suddenly Smith's attention turns to Nick O'Leary, the star tight end who garnered national headlines months earlier thanks to the horrific video of his motorcycle colliding with a city bus near campus. The accident looked gruesome at the time, but O'Leary escaped with only minor injuries.

"Look at O'Leary," Smith barked. "They tried to hit him with a bus, and he's still here."

In an instant, the rabid aggression transforms into roaring laughter. All of the tension and nervous energy evaporates with Smith's punch line. The weight of the moment was made clear, then lifted. It was a vintage performance by Florida State's unquestioned leader.

He's a very special guy. And he's infectious. In a good way.

--Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher

"He's a very special guy," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "And he's infectious. In a good way."

Smith has always been a talker. In the weight room, he brags about his workouts, pushing teammates to match his effort. On the practice field, he talks trash, daring the offense to make a play against him. Playing video games in his apartment, he talks smack to his roommate, Gerald Demps, who has been listening to Smith's rhetoric since high school.

On any given day, Smith is the white noise that filters through every corner of Florida State's domain.

"It's like having a kid," left tackle Cameron Erving said. "You learn to mute it out."

Smith was born a talker, but it was at Lowndes County High School where it became an art form. There, he played on the same defense with Demps, Tyler Hunter and Greg Reid, four teammates who would go on to define the culture in Florida State's locker room.

Lowndes coach Terry Quinn preached about pride and hard work and unwavering determination, and he had a captive audience. For players like Smith and Reid, those traits were second nature. In Valdosta, Ga., football was a religion, and no one took the game more seriously than they did.

"We're not faster than other guys. We're not stronger," Reid said. "We just have heart for the game."

At Florida State, Reid became an instant leader, and Smith was his trusted lieutenant. They talked, and teammates listened. They worked, and teammates kept pace.

Still, Smith's early career at Florida State was a mixed bag. He carved out a niche at linebacker, but failed to crack the starting lineup. His teammates were family, but he shouldered the emotional baggage of his father's sudden death during his freshman year. He worked tirelessly on the field, but off it, there were distractions.

"He's always been vocal," cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said, "but he had to back it up."

At times, Smith's academics suffered, and coaches worried about his future, but it turned out to be Reid's career that would come to an abrupt end in summer 2012.

Reid was arrested on charges of marijuana possession in Valdosta that July. It was a misdemeanor, but he'd run afoul of team rules before. Now he was out of chances. Just days before the start of fall camp, his career at FSU was over.

Reid was devastated. He'd heard the warnings, but he hadn't understood how tenuous his grasp on success really was. It was a lesson Smith needed to hear, too.

On Reid's final day at Florida State, he called his old friends from Lowndes and told them to meet in Fisher's office. He explained why he was leaving. He apologized for letting them down. He begged them not to make the same mistakes.

"It was very emotional. It was all the things you hear from leaders," Reid said. "I wanted them to feel what I was feeling at the time."

Reid was dazed, but Smith was crushed. They'd played together since they were kids. Smith got his start on teams coached by Reid's parents.

"We never expected to get this far. We never expected to be watched by thousands or millions of people," Smith said. "But in the snap of the finger, it was all taken away."

Reid wasn't simply Smith's anchor. He was Florida State's leader. If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone. The gravity of the situation overwhelmed Smith, changed his perspective on his life, his future, his place on the team.

"It was that moment when I was letting all those tears go, I was letting [Reid] go," Smith said. "It teaches you, you can't take anything for granted, and that still drives me."

Smith dedicated himself to school and football. The nights out at the club disappeared. The nights with his nose in a textbook took precedent. The Lowndes contingent adopted a mantra when it came to off-field distractions, Demps said. "If you've got to think about it too much, you don't need to do it."

Losing Reid wore on Smith, and teammates noticed. But a few weeks into the 2012 season, Smith called a team meeting to clear the air.

There were things he'd done in the past, he said. He wasn't going to do those things anymore. There were jobs he'd neglected before, but he swore they'd be a priority now. The opportunity he had at Florida State was rare, and he promised never to take it for granted.

"I had to step up and be a leader," Smith said. "And not only talk about it, but show them that, OK, I'm willing to do this, lay all this aside, and I'm willing to take it this far if y'all are willing to follow me."

And they did. How could they not? Smith sells his philosophy with the confident swagger of a TV pitchman, convincing his audience they simply can't live without it. That comes easy now, because he truly believes every word of it.

"He's doing what he's screaming on the rooftops and everybody's following," Joyner said. "He's living by every word he speaks."

After his dismissal, Reid transferred to Valdosta State, but before the 2012 season began, he blew out his knee. Surgery repaired a torn ACL, and Reid prepped for the NFL draft, but he pushed too hard too soon, injuring the knee again.

Smith was with Reid in Miami on draft weekend in April. They'd hoped a team might take a flier on the once promising talent, but Reid knew better. He was just glad his oldest friend was there for support; there to be reminded once more that nothing in life is guaranteed.

The funny thing, Reid said, is Smith didn't need the reminder.

"He's a wonderful leader, and he's a man upon himself," Reid said. "I can tell the type of player and person he's becoming."

Now nearly two years removed from the playing field, Reid is rehabbing his knee again and living vicariously through this season's Florida State team. Smith is the Seminoles' leading tackler, the keystone on the nation's top-ranked defense. He was honored during Florida State's senior day festivities two weeks ago, a moment Reid never got the chance to experience.

"That's had an effect on me," Reid said. "I'm not going into a corner and giving up. It motivates me. It's crazy how things switch like that, but they do."

Motivation comes easily for both players.

Before each game this season, Smith takes a marker and sketches "G5" onto his wrist tape, a tribute to Reid. Then he gets up in front of his teammates, offers his truth to a horde of rabid believers, and he marches out to the field to enjoy another chance to do the one thing he loves above all else.

"I think about Greg, and that he wishes he could be out here," Smith said. "I think about what my dad would do if he was out here watching me. That influences me and makes me say it's time to take advantage of what you've got right now and the people that surround you, affect them in a positive way. I think about all the factors of my life and let it go on the field."