This time last year Kevin Smith was loading packages onto FedEx trucks.
He had that job in South Gate, a city seven miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles near his childhood home, from November until seven months ago. That was after a brutal two-week stretch in June 2014 when Arizona released him before Jacksonville signed and released him. And it was after the Seahawks had released him in August 2014.
This time three years ago Smith was just getting back to his career with the Washington Huskies. He’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee days before UW’s 2011 Alamo Bowl.
And all that was after he played just two years of organized football, at Centennial High School in Compton, California.
No wonder Smith’s smile was as wide as the practice field he stepped on Wednesday for the first time as a member of an active roster in the NFL.
“It’s awesome. Blessed. A dream come true,” Smith said a day after Seattle promoted him from the practice squad to play all three wide-receiver spots and on special teams.
He’s the second undrafted Huskies wide receiver on the Seahawks’ roster now. The other is his former UW teammate and friend, Jermaine Kearse of Lakes High School in Lakewood.
Smith’s pro debut will be Sunday when Seattle (4-5) hosts San Francisco (3-6).
Smith got the promotion call from the Seahawks Tuesday morning. They chose his determination and resiliency on the practice squad and his ability to play all three wide-receiver spots over the unfulfilled promise of 6-foot-5 wide receiver Chris Matthews.
Matthews cleared waivers Wednesday, 9½ months after he burst into international, one-day fame with the first four catches and touchdown of his NFL career in Super Bowl 49.
“If the central theme is competition, you’ve got to do what you say,” Carroll said in explaining why the team promoted Smith. “We’ve always tried to stand for that and give guys opportunities … and sense when that hunger is really right for them to take advantage of the opportunity to excel.
“If you say that, you have to act on it. … That’s why he’s up.”
Few Seahawks have more reasons to be hungry than Smith.
After the Seahawks released him last August he pulled out all the business cards of the coaches and scouts that attended his UW Pro Day in the spring of 2014. Then he called them. Not his agent.
“I called the scouts myself,” Smith said. “Probably like six or seven teams that were looking at me before the draft. Just trying to get in there, get my foot in one of them doors.
“Some of them I didn’t get a call back. Some of them I did. They said they were going to send it back to the office to see what happened, but nothing really happened.
“At least I made the effort.”
He’d been one of the most popular, fun-loving players in the Huskies’ athletic department, a wide receiver with a constant banter and humor — and a painted-gold streak down the middle of his dark hair. Off the field he was beloved by kids and staff as a down-to-earth student teacher at Green Lake Elementary, near the UW campus in north Seattle.
“Teaches with heart. Plays with heart. Congratulations!” his school sponsor, former Green Lake teacher Jamie Matthews, tweeted upon Smith’s promotion Tuesday — with the hashtag #itsabouttime.
But on Christmas Eve 2011 Smith’s knee buckled when he was running a crossing route with no defense on the wet field at Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio, where Washington practiced for that year’s Alamo Bowl.
“I had a thousand thoughts in my head,” Smith said of watching his knee balloon.
He had reconstructive surgery in January. By the end of that month, he was off crutches. He watched Huskies spring practice in April, but by mid-August he was sprinting downfield in practice-play celebrations with UW teammate Kasen Williams — who is now the practice squad Smith just left. By September 2012 Smith was catching four passes at LSU.
“Going through the process, it’s hard. ACL injuries are hard to get back from. But during that time I learned a lot about myself,” Smith said. “Being patient and positive got me through it, really.”
Those traits have come in handy while being cut by three different NFL teams in the last year and half.
“That’s what’s gotten me through this,” he said. “Those are my go-to things. That helped me get through a lot of adversity.”
He’s following exactly the same path Kearse took from UW to the Seahawks’ No. 2 wide receiver. Kearse went from undrafted in 2012 to a trusted target of rookie classmate Russell Wilson who’s had a knack for big plays in the postseason. He is earning $2,356,000 this year on his way to free agency next spring.
“Day One since I came to UW, he’s been there for me,” Smith said. “His path has been successful and I’d love to follow him in that way.”
Jack of all trades
Kearse thinks Smith’s versatility is why he’s on the team. There’s a reason Smith has that.
He grew up a basketball player, and a great one, while wanting to follow in the athletic path of his older brother. He transferred to Centennial High School in Compton, just south of Los Angeles, and became his league’s most valuable hoops player as a junior.
Smith credits then-coach Steve Sarkisian and his UW staff for preparing him to play not only the flanker, split end and slot wide-receiver positions but also running back and even tight end, if need be. He finished his Huskies career fourth all-time at UW in kickoff-return yardage.
That versatility, and his impressive preseason, caught Carroll and his staff’s attention.
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell says the coaches call Smith “One a Day,” like the daily vitamin, because he seems to have a big play or score a touchdown in each practice. But that had been while running the upcoming opponent’s plays while on the scout team.
“It means a lot. You’re out there for the practice days, those three days,” he said of Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays on the scout team each week. “You compete with the ‘one’ defense and getting them prepared, and see the offense get prepared.
“It’s a dream come true coming down on Sunday that you really get to play in that one game.
“Your first game.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
SUNDAY: San Francisco (3-6) at Seattle (4-5), 1:25 p.m., Ch. 13, 710-AM, 97.3-FM