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Decade’s best No. 2: Lewisburg’s Smith was one of area’s top linebackers

High school and college coaches shared a common theme when discussing Brandon Smith. While they loved he way he played the game, they admired the way he conducted himself even more.

He was a warrior, a gentleman, a scholar and a role model rolled into one tremendous football player.

“He’s just unbelievable. He’s brought so much leadership. He’s brought so much maturity to our program,” Penn State coach James Franklin said before Smith’s final home game as a Nittany Lion in November 2017. “He gets up and speaks to the team. I wish fans and media could see how wonderful this guy is when he gets up and talks to our team. (I’m) just blessed to have gotten to know Brandon.”

“I’m proud to say I coached against Brandon Smith the last couple years because he is a heck of a player and a heck of a person,” Montoursville coach J.C. Keefer said during Smith’s 2012 senior season at Lewisburg. “Whether he wins or lose, Brandon Smith is a kid who is going to hold his head high and have faith in God and respect everyone around him.”

Smith has displayed those qualities his entire life and a District 4 audience witnessed them from 2009-12 as he helped ignite a football renaissance at Lewisburg. And maybe the best way to summarize how dominant Smith was is to say this: He was every bit as good on the field as he was off it.

One of the best linebackers in area history, Smith was a first-team all-state selection in each of his final three years. He was a four-year starter who topped 100 tackles in each of those seasons and who went over 500 career tackles, recording a decade-high 458 in his three seasons last decade. He also shined at three offensive positions and surpassed both 1,000 yards receiving and rushing.

A two-time Sun-Gazette Player of the Year, Smith made the difficult appear routine and helped Lewisburg go 42-9 during his four years while winning the first District 4 and league championships in program history. All this after Lewisburg went 10-60 from 2001-07.

“It’s not a surprise he does what he does. He’s a great young man and he’s just a heck of a good player,” Loyalsock coach Justin Van Fleet said in 2012. “He can run, he can tackle and he can cover. He can do it all.”

He really could, whether playing offense or defense. Smith made an immediate impact as a freshman in 2009, helping Lewisburg to 11-2 and reach its first district final. It was in 2010, however, that Smith started making his case as the program’s greatest player ever. He became a defensive force on one of the decade’s stingiest units, making a team-high 188 tackles and averaging 12.5 per game. He also collected six sacks, intercepted a pass and became a HAC-II all-star at tight end.

Lewisburg completed its first undefeated regular season, captured its first District 4 Class AA championship and reached the state semifinals with a 14-0 record before losing to West Catholic. Had it not been for Smith, though, Lewisburg likely would have been one and done. The sophomore played his best scholastic game to that point in tough district quarterfinal against explosive Bloomsburg. Smith made 24 tackles and added a sack and made his best play at the most important time. After the Panthers scored a late touchdown they went for a two-point conversion in the win. Smith did not let it happen and broke up the potential game-winning pass as Lewisburg won, 21-20.

Smith almost always saved his best performances for the biggest games and made a remarkable 84 tackles in five playoff games that year, averaging 16.5 per game. He made 16 tackles in an 18-13 district championship win at undefeated Danville before adding a key interception and sack in a 35-21 state quarterfinal victory against Trinity.

Smith earned the first of his three all-state firstteam selections and appeared destined for a huge junior season. But when Smith injured his back that spring throwing the javelin it looked like that junior campaign would be over before it started. Smith was diagnosed with Spondylolysis, a serious back injury which had ended several athletes’ seasons before. He also was suffering from a bulging disc. The pain grew so bad that Smith finally opted for surgery that August, knowing it would end his season.

As the preseason continued, Smith felt equal pain watching others play the game the loved. He started thinking if surgery could be avoided that point. Maybe he could salvage his season yet.

“There was about a week period where even walking was quite a hassle. It was one of those things when one day you would feel completely normal and then the next day you were walking like an old man who has a bad back and that’s when I was down on the whole situation,” Smith said that year. “A week after I decided to have surgery, I was watching everybody practice and it was killing me watching from the sidelines and the coaches were having difficulty keeping me still. That put the game under a whole different perspective.”

That perspective convinced Smith he should give playing one more shot. Through core exercises and physical therapy, Smith started progressing. He competed in the season opener against Milton and felt good during and afterward. His playing time increased and by Week 5, Smith felt like he did as a sophomore and was no longer wearing a back brace.

Against the odds, Smith played the entire season and helped Lewisburg go 9-3. The thing is, nobody watching would have ever known Smith had been battling a painful injury. He was even better than in 2010 and helped Lewisburg shut out four opponents, averaging 11.3 tackles per game, making 4 1/2 sacks and intercepting three passes. Again he was outstanding against Lewisburg’s toughest opponents, making 19 tackles against district champion Mount Carmel and adding 20 more in a 28-9 win against rival Mifflinburg, which entered that Week 10 game 8-1.

Smith was going to play fullback that season, but coaches wanted to limit his contact so they moved him to wide receiver. It was a new position but the same result as a year earlier. Smith again was one of the best and caught a team-high 26 passes for 501 yards and four touchdowns, breaking loose for a 99-yard touchdown against Southern Columbia.

“It all comes down to whatever is best for the team,” Smith said. “I’ll play any position as long as it’s going to be helpful for the team.”

Smith proved it again as a senior, playing his third offensive position in three years and excelling at fullback. Lewisburg made him the featured ball-carrier following a 1-1 start and Lewisburg won seven of its next games, eventually finishing 8-3. He ran for 1,094 yards and 19 touchdowns and remained a receiving threat, leading the team in catches. Still, he was even better at linebacker, averaging 12.5 tackles per game and making 108 solos. He added three interceptions and three forced fumbles, again helping Lewisburg feature one of the district’s premier defenses.

“He was great in terms of practice. He keeps guys loose, but he also keeps them focused. There’s nothing bad to say about him,” first-year Lewisburg coach Jeremy Winn said that season. “When I talk to recruiters they are looking for more information but I just say he’s a super kid. There are no glaring weaknesses. He’s just one of those players.”

“We were on our 30 and he intercepted a swing pass to a tailback. I don’t know how he did it, he just did it,” Van Fleet said. “He jumped up in the air, caught the ball on a blitz and instead of batting it down he caught it with one hand. It was unbelievable. That’s just the kind of special athlete he is.”

Smith nearly willed Lewisburg to a dramatic playoff win in his final game. The Green Dragons were trailing by 21 in the second quarter and Montoursville was driving again when he recovered a fumble then broke free for a long touchdown a few plays later. Smith led Lewisburg in tackles and ran for 186 yards on 15 carries, but Montoursville won a 37-33 thriller. The Warriors won that night, but Smith was not beaten. He never really has been. Whatever obstacle has been thrown in his path he has attacked it like he would a ball-carrier.

Smith had his choice of Ivy League or Patriot League schools at which he could play college football. But his dream was to play for Penn State so Smith went there as a preferred walk-on. And by his junior season, Smith was a starter who earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. All that qualities that made him so good at Lewisburg made him a key player in rebuilding Penn State into a nationally-recognized title contender. Smith’s senior season concluded with Penn State capturing the Big Ten title and reaching the Rose Bowl.

Throughout his football life, Smith accumulated impressive stats. What made him so good, however, could not be measured with stats. The more athletes playing with Smith, the better off they all were.

“When I got the job people kept reiterating what a great player Brandon is, but I can tell you that with all the accolades he’s gotten as a football player, he’s an even better person,” Winn said. “Some people are rah-rah type guys, but he is a leader by example. He goes about his business and makes everyone better. He’s just that type of special kid.”

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