Cover Story | How loss ignited Josh Smith’s burning desire to be great

It’s Opening Day 2018 and the clock is trudging toward midnight. Everything is pretty quiet at Alex Box Stadium. Seemingly the only people left in the building are a crew of workers preparing for the next day and a press box full of writers clacking away on their rewritten game stories.  

A refresher: LSU hadn’t lost a season opener since 2001, but that 16-year winning streak was on life support. Visiting Notre Dame had raced out to a 6-0 lead, but LSU stormed back, first with a grand slam and finally with the game-winning, three-run bomb in the eighth inning.

The sellout crowd had long since dispersed from the stands, sent home happy by the heroics of one Josh Smith.

An hour or so later it became apparent that Smith was neither home nor happy as he made his way out to shortstop on an otherwise empty field. There he proceeded to take an entire hopper worth of ground balls off the fungo bat of a student manager.

Before the dramatic home run, Smith had committed two errors. That didn’t sit well with him. This wasn’t just opening day for LSU, it was his debut as the team’s full-time shortstop. It represented the fulfillment of a dream Smith had chased from the time he could walk.

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Watching Smith quietly grind after hours felt reminiscent to the great LSU shortstops that came before him. He appeared primed to ascend to that level and become the kind of star player that LSU needed him to be.

Instead the unthinkable happened.

Three days later Smith was diagnosed with a stress reaction on his vertebrae, an injury that would cost him at least half the season. It proved to be far worse as Smith missed all but six games in a season that turned into an injury-plagued grind without him.

“He was ready to be the shortstop at LSU,” says Scott Smith, Josh’s father. “That’s what you dream of as a kid, and it came true just to be taken away from him.”

Baseball always seemed to come easy to Josh Smith, and it was always there when he needed it. The game became both his passion and his outlet when things weren’t so easy away from the diamond.

And by losing it, even temporarily, Smith lost himself for a bit, but in the process he found a more intense drive to be great than ever before.

IT’S KIND OF funny that Smith was out there taking extra ground balls after that two-error night. Defense was always his calling card, as Scott Smith remembers. It came so naturally to him. Hitting was always the part of his game that seemed to require work.

Maybe it was genetic. Scott himself was a solid high school player, and Josh’s mother, Jenny, is said to be a neighborhood legend growing up the sister of five brothers. Brett, Josh’s older sister, is more of a fashionista, but his younger sister Carsyn is an athlete too.

Baseball entered the picture not long after Josh took his first steps. His Godparents bought him a tee to hit off of for Christmas when he was 3 years old. He started playing tee ball that next spring.  

“As soon as he could walk, pretty much, and that’s not exaggerating,” Scott says. “He was coordinated enough to catch it if you threw it to him. Most kids can’t do that, so I knew he’d at least be ok at that point.”

Courtesy of the Smith family

That dexterity allowed Smith to play with older kids from a young age. He was never particularly big, strong or fast for his age, but he could play. He was the youngest kid to make a select travel ball team coached by former LSU infielder Trey McClure.

Josh always wanted to play at LSU, but his parents tried to stay grounded as best they could. It became more real when McClure, an All-American in his day, told them that Josh had what it took to play at that level. McClure’s father had coached Austin Nola in travel ball a few years earlier.

That quick ascent continued into his career at Catholic High. He started his ninth grade season as the team’s third baseman, and it didn’t take long for Brad Bass to realize Smith needed to be moved over to shortstop.

“He was our starting shortstop as a freshman on a team that won the state championship,” Bass says. “The only other person to do that before him was Austin Nola. That’s a pretty rare thing at a school like this. He also led off for us and was the catalyst for that team.”

Catholic High advanced deep into the state playoffs every season that Smith was on the team, but they only won the one championship. The Jordan Brothers and some loaded teams from Barbe High were a big reason why.

Bass remembers telling former LSU recruiting coordinator Javi Sanchez about Smith as a ninth grader. He drove him to his first college showcase, and though Smith bombed on that day, the staff offered him a spot not long after.

Courtesy of the Smith family

“He adopted the nickname J Smooth over here,” Bass says. “That’s what his teammates called him because he’s just got a knack for playing the game. He’s got that rare ability to anticipate where the ball is going to be. There were some instinctual things he did that high school kids just don’t do.

“We as coaches have gotten a lot of credit for the things he did, but the truth is he made us all look good.”

Professional scouts took notice as Smith grew bigger and stronger as a prospect, but his focus never shifted. Like so many boys growing up in Louisiana, his dream was first to play shortstop at LSU and then to worry about pro ball.

“Even after he became a possible pro prospect, I knew he was coming here,” Scott Smith says. “If he would have been 6-1 and ran the best 60 time, he would’ve been a bigger pro prospect, but I think he still would have come here. It was his goal from when he was a young kid.”

Playing shortstop at LSU is what he’d always dreamed of doing. That’s what made losing it so much more difficult just as he was set to make the position his own.

YOU COULDN’T SCRIPT a better freshman season than the one Smith had. He occupied third base for a year because Kramer Robertson came back unexpectedly, but Smith played the position at a Freshman All-America level on a team that made the College World Series Finals.

He did it all playing with a heavy heart.

It started with the great flood of 2016. Smith grew up in Greenwell Springs, the epicenter of the destruction, and his family house set right next to a lake. Josh was going to move into his apartment at LSU the next day, so he wanted to go visit some friends. Luckily his parents said no.

“It happened out of nowhere, which was the crazy thing,” Josh says. “I remember like a day before I was going to my friend’s house and my mom said ‘No, it’s going to flood here.’ I didn’t believe it. I woke up the next morning and water was flowing into our house.”

The family acted fast to move what they could upstairs. They were lucky to only get about 10 inches of water in the house, as Steve recalls, but other parts of the neighborhood were under six feet of water. There was a current strong enough to be observed through a window.  

Like so many others around Baton Rouge, they were stuck until a boat came for them. Steve remembers sending his wife, daughter and 81-year-old mother-in-law on the first boat while he and Josh stayed behind to wait for the next one.

“We ended up leaving in a boat down the same street we usually drive down, so it was pretty surreal,” Steve says. “I remember seeing an aerial shot of our neighborhood and everything was under water. It was tough.”

“It was like a scene from a movie,” Josh adds. “It was crazy. Our whole neighborhood looked like a lake with houses sticking up.”

The family was actually luckier than so many from that area. In lieu of hiring a contractor, Jenny organized the cleanup efforts and hired some people to subcontract under her. The Smiths were back in their house some five months later, just in time to enjoy baseball season.

It turned out to be nothing compared to the pain that followed a few months later.

BASEBALL PLAYERS WRITE all types of things inside the bill of their cap. Some scribble motivational messages. Others prefer something calming like an inside joke to keep them centered when the pressure is on.

Ever since he was a freshman, Josh Smith has had this inscribed on his hat: RIP DD.

DD is Denver Ross Denison, a classmate of Smith’s at Catholic High. Adults and classmates alike remember Denison as a larger-than-life figure on campus. He was named Catholic High’s Man of the Year at one point. He starred on a football team that won state and wrestled.

Denison took his own life on Dec. 5, 2016. He was 19 years old.

Denison’s passing is still felt by everybody who knew him. His gravestone remains the cover photo on Josh Smith’s Twitter profile to this day.

“He was one of those guys that always brought a smile, always had a smile on his face,” Josh says. “Every game I think of him and every day his family means a lot to me. It was tough man. I’ve had a pretty emotional college experience, but I’m not the type of kid to get down. I think I’ve been raised by the right parents. They’ve always helped me out when things got bad. Everything happens for a reason and I know Denver is looking out for me. He was that kind of guy.”

Smith tweeted this photo during LSU’s
2017 run at the College World Series

“He was a dear friend to Josh and to so many others at this school,” Bass says. “Everybody was taken aback when we heard the news. Everybody who knew him still holds it close to their heart. They all still treasure that relationship with him. A group of friends should never have to deal with that. Denver was a great kid and he’ll always be remembered here. He’ll always be brought up by his best friends.”

Josh and Denver didn’t go to elementary or middle school together, but they grew close at Catholic High. Scott Smith got to know Denver during his senior year because he showed interest in becoming a nurse anesthetist, which is Scott’s line of work.

“Denver was a brilliant kid,” Scott says. “He made a 30+ on his ACTs and was a 4.0 student or close to it. So he came and shadowed me one day and I told him ‘Look man, I like what I do. It’s noble work and the money is good, but you could probably do much more.’ But he liked what I did, so that was cool, but then this happened. It hurt Josh like it hurt a lot of kids. This kid touched a lot of lives.”

The Smith and Denison families were actually brought closer together through the tragedy. The Denisons regularly go to LSU games to see Josh play.

Prior to every game, Josh looks up at his hat and reminds himself that Denver is watching, too, up there with the best seat in the house.

“He’s been a big motivation for Josh,” Scott says. “He always told Josh he was going to be his agent if he made it big time. His father says that Denver will be his agent from Heaven now.”

SMITH AND ERIC Walker have been roommates throughout their time at LSU. Last season, their apartment felt more like a MASH unit as both rehabbed in relative anonymity. A far cry from their collective heroics as rookie sensations.

Walker spent a year recovering from Tommy John surgery while Smith dealt with his back troubles. They were kind of each a support system for the other. They hung out a ton and watched games together when LSU went on the road.

However, there existed a subtle-but-important difference in their situations. Walker was on a fairly routine timeline and knew he’d be back healthy to start the 2019 season. Smith had to deal with the uncertainty that comes with back trouble, particularly after his midseason comeback attempt failed.

Smith returned to the lineup with great fanfare against Lamar on April 24. He started three games before departing the lineup for good. Smith didn’t want to admit he was still in pain, but LSU coach Paul Mainieri could see he wasn’t himself during a game at Ole Miss that weekend.

“I was getting pretty high about coming back and I tried to push through it too hard,” Smith says. “I might’ve hurt it a little bit more. It was pretty scary for me because I didn’t know how long it would take. Honestly I didn’t know when I was going to be able to play again. It went through my head that it could take years.”

Keep in mind that Smith had been an iron man to that point in his career. He played in all 72 games during his freshman season including 71 starts at third base.

His exploits at Catholic High became the stuff of legend. He could play through injuries and illness without slowing down.

“He never misses,” Bass says. “He’s a tough kid. I remember one time he was sick as a dog and would run out to shortstop for us. He was throwing up between innings. He actually missed pregame, and before the first pitch he made his way down from the press box bathroom just to get out to shortstop. He ended up having a great day for us. He is as tenacious and tough a player as we had.”

That’s what made sitting out so much of the 2018 season so difficult. Smith tried to be around the team as much as possible to maintain a presence, and he turned to video games like Fortnite as an outlet for pent up competitive juices.

Photo by James Moran

As hard as Smith tried to put on a brave face, those close to him could see that the injury and the uncertainty that came with it were weighing heavily on a guy who’s usually as even keel as they come.

“He wasn’t much fun to be around, to be honest with you,” Mainieri says. “He was grumpy. He didn’t smile much. There were times when he didn’t even want to be around the team, and I’m sure it was hard for him, but he wasn’t a very likable kid last year. He was never in a good mood. He was very sullen. You never saw him smiling. I totally understood. You can’t be mad at him. Who is going to be be-bopping around when they want to be playing?”

The best and worst thing about baseball is the fact that it is played every day. It’s an obsession for those who play it and a companion for those who watch.

For someone like Smith, losing the game can lead to a tailspin toward depression.

“I went home every night and I couldn’t sleep,” Smith says softly “People say they lose sleep over stuff, but I was literally awake for hours at night thinking about when I could be able to play again.”

Smith credits the constant support of his parents and sisters for help keeping him grounded through the darker days. Walker and other teammates pitched in as well toward keeping him upbeat. They all implored him to keep working and not lose faith.

Still, deep down, everyone could tell Josh was hurting far worse than they were.

“I think he kind of held a lot in,” Scott Smith says. “He never got overly emotional. I could sense it in his voice. I could picture him through the phone fighting back tears, but I never saw that. We talked about it a lot. We’re religious people, and God has a plan for everything. You have to have trust, and he did.”

THEIR PRAYERS WERE answered this summer when LSU trainer Cory Couture returned from a critical fact-finding mission. Mainieri dispatched him to research different non-surgical methods for treating a recurring back injury like the one afflicting Smith. 

LSU had tried just about everything, but Couture found Smith a magic bullet in the Watkins Spine Program. It’s essentially a list of eight core stabilization exercises like dead bugs, partial sit-ups or wall slides aimed at strengthening core muscles to take pressure off the vertebrae.

Couture prescribed Smith complete the regiment five times a week for five weeks. Smith felt better by the end of it and continues to follow the plan as a preventative measure.

Smith is regularly the first player to the Box this spring — or the last one to leave — so he can find 30 minutes to complete the core workout before or after practice and team lifting sessions.

“I give so much credit to our trainer,” Mainieri says. “That program was something that really turned Josh around. He talked to so many people around the country before he found the magic wand. But the magic wand required a lot of work and dedication by Josh under Cory’s tutelage to allow him to heal.”

Smith has been working like a mad man ever since. He resumed baseball activities over the summer and was fully cleared for the start of fall practices. He also changed his diet and worked himself into the best shape of his life.

Photo by Terrill Weil

“Something kind of clicked and it felt so good to be back,” Smith says. “It felt like I hadn’t played in three years.”

It felt a little awkward the first time he got back in live action, Smith says, but baseball can be like riding a bike once you knock off the rust. He points to an exhibition scrimmage LSU played at UNO late in the fall as a turning point of sorts for him to start feeling like his old self.

Every conversation still starts with the status of his back, but Smith insists he feels stronger than ever. This latest comeback isn’t like the ill-fated one in the middle of last season. He took his time, worked tirelessly and got himself right for the long haul.

Mainieri is of the opinion that Smith is set to take his game to an entirely new level this season. It’s not based on the way he’s played in scrimmages, but because of the way he’s seen him work and grow as a leader.

“In Josh’s baseball career, things have come relatively easy for him,” Mainieri says. “Sometimes, when something comes easy to you, you can take it for granted, but when it gets taken away from you through no fault of your own — it wasn’t his fault he got hurt — I think he developed a greater appreciation for baseball and how blessed he’s been. It kind of lit a fire under him, to be honest with you. A fire that needed to be ignited.”

Mainieri has been formulating this opinion since Smith was a freshman at Catholic High. His son Tommy was also on that state title team, so the coach watched Smith play before the hype made its way across town.

As good as Smith was during his Freshman All-American season in 2017, Mainieri believed he could have been better. Making the game look easy is a wonderful trait to have, but the coach wanted more of a burning desire to be great.

“Now as I see him this season, his third year, I see a completely different kid,” Mainieri says. “I see someone that displays a real love of the game. He’s clearly a leader among the team. He’s not just a looking-for-fun type of guy. He’s committed and he’s dedicated. So I’m starting to see more of the traits like an Alex Bregman displayed. I’m starting to see those in Josh now where I didn’t before.”

He continues: “I felt that he had it in him, but his priorities weren’t quite right. Not that he was ever a bad kid, but I just wanted to see that hunger and that passion for the game. Now he’s showing all of those things, and I think the fact that he wasn’t able to play last year ignited that flame that burns in his gut now.”

THANKS TO HIS hard work, Smith has returned his career to the point it was before he got hurt. He’s again the starting shortstop for LSU, and now also the lynchpin of a team that begins the seasons either No. 1 or No. 2 in every major preseason poll.

National writers like Kendall Rodgers of D1Baseball.com are throwing Smith out there as a legitimate dark horse for National Player of the Year. He’s got a chance to be a top-50 prospect in the 2019 MLB Draft if he puts together the kind of season experts are projecting.

“I want to win a national championship,” Smith says. “I’d like all that stuff to happen too, but I came here to help bring a championship back to Louisiana. I think we’ve got the team to do it, but before that we’ve got a lot of hard work to put in first.”

None of that is on Smith’s mind as the season draws near. Mainieri has forbidden his players from talking about Omaha or national championships from the first day of practice on. The coach wants everyone solely focused on the here and now.

Photo courtesy of LSU Sports Information

That’s helped Smith, who kind of feels like time is pulling him in two different directions. He’s simultaneously dying to play in a real game again and trying to slow life down and appreciate every day he has left at LSU.

“Growing up I always wanted to come here,” Smith says. “It feels like two weeks ago I was a freshman and now I’m a junior.”

His time at LSU has been anything but dull. He’s been rescued from his own house, played in a College World Series, lost a cherished friend, became the starting shortstop and lost the job to a back injury.

Through the highs and lows, Smith is adamant he wouldn’t trade his roller coaster ride for the world. Everybody at LSU and at home is rooting like hell for a storybook ending.

About James Moran 1206 Articles
James Moran was named Editor of Tiger Rag in August 2018. He previously served as the associate editor since 2014. He covers LSU football and baseball and is a graduate of the LSU Manship School of Journalism.

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