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Life after "The Hit"

John U. Bacon

If you’re a casual football fan, or even if you’re not, you’ve probably seen The Hit: one of the most famous tackles in the history of the game.

It was January 1, 2013, when Michigan played South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. In the fourth quarter, with the Wolverines hanging on to a 22-21 lead, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner handed off to Vincent Smith.

Smith, who stands only 5'6", is from Pahokee, Florida, a tiny, impoverished town next to Lake Okeechobee. Pahokee produces two principle products: mud by the truckload, and world-class football players. The kids there race rabbits through the sugar cane – and often beat them.

Smith passed more than a few rabbits himself, and used that speed to score ten touchdowns at Michigan. But on this play, Michigan’s offensive linemen screwed up their assignments. That allowed South Carolina’s star defender, Jadeveon Clowney, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 270 pounds, to run full-speed at Smith, right as he received the handoff.

Clowney knocked Smith’s helmet off, and the ball out of his hands. Clowney picked it up with one hand, and one play later, South Carolina took the lead. After South Carolina won, what everyone was talking about then, and now, was “The Hit.”

Since then, Clowney has played five years in the NFL, been selected twice for the Pro Bowl, and become a multi-millionaire.

Meanwhile, Smith wasn’t drafted, but he graduated on time, then came up with an idea to help his hometown. He said, “We’ve got this rich soil all around us, and all these great athletes, but no place to get healthy food to keep our bodies moving. Why not build our own little community garden?”

Smith worked hard to organize the effort, which converts forgotten lots into urban gardens. In the process, they provide health education, job training, and healthy food for communities that could use all those things.

Smith thought this would be a great way to connect the entire community, not just young or old.

“I wanted to inspire them,” he said.

After Smith’s group, now called Team Gardens, started producing bananas, mangos, and passion fruit in Pahokee, Smith put his old teammate, Martaviouis Odums, in charge. Then he set up a new project in Flint, which requires endless paperwork and a lot of fund-raising to overcome the astronomical cost of clean water there.

But Smith and his group have persisted. They recently expanded to Ann Arbor, where they’re working with senior homes to grow produce on their property. And they’re about to start a new garden in Detroit, at the corner of Grand River and Seven Mile.

“I feel great about it,” Smith says. “It’s so overwhelming hearing the community feedback. It’s the same feeling I got scoring a touchdown in the Big House. I’m super excited about this.”

Looking back on it would he trade places with his nemesis, Jadeveon Clowney?

“If you’d ask me five years ago,” he admits, “I’d have said yes. But now, I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world.”

Smith doesn’t have Clowney’s wealth or fame. But if you’re judging who’s making a difference, the little guy who got hit is the one making the bigger impact.

John U. Bacon is the author of nine books. His latest is The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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