Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
That Daryl Smith wound up at Georgia Tech was a story. That he is back -- and preparing for a final exam -- might be an even better one.
He grew up loving Florida State, which rolled under head coach Bobby Bowden after entering the ACC in 1991. And Bowden wanted the 6-foot-2, 225-pound linebacker. Florida State was 88 miles from home. Georgia Tech? 182.
"That was a process, the recruiting process. I had a lot of offers, recruited by pretty much everybody and it ended up coming down to Georgia, Florida State and Tech, and just looking at everything -- I grew up a FSU fan, but it just wasn't the right fit," Smith said.
"I had a great relationship with [Georgia Tech defensive coordinator] Ted Roof, and we were on the way up [as a program]. It was the best fit for me education-wise, football-wise, coming to Atlanta. It was an awesome decision, the best decision I made."
It was no wonder that Smith earned first-team freshman All-America honors in 2000 after racking up 96 stops to lead the Jackets in tackles. He also had 10 tackles for lost yardage, four sacks, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions in his still-wet-behind-the-ears season on The Flats.
That freshman season was nearly magical after the first game, at Virginia Tech, was canceled by lightning. The Jackets beat Central Florida a week later, and then pushed No. 2 Florida State to the limit before falling 26-21 on the way to finishing second in the ACC behind the Seminoles.
After an overtime loss at North Carolina State, Tech won seven straight games, including an upset at No. 5/4 Clemson, to land in the Peach Bowl against LSU. Starting quarterback George Godsey tore his ACL in that game, and the Jackets finished 9-3.
"That was a game," Smith said of the Clemson contest. "[Head coach] Tommy Bowden was there, and I remember they had an exciting offense, and the first time being in that environment, Death Valley is a loud place. It was a tough battle, and we ended up getting the win."
There was serious linebacker talent around Smith, who entered the program under head coach George O'Leary at the same time as fellow linebackers Keyaron Fox of Atlanta and Ather Brown of Macon. They followed Blakely, Ga., native Recardo Wimbush by a year.
However, it was Smith who was the anchor of a Georgia Tech defense that limited Tulsa to minus-56 yards rushing -- still a Tech record -- in his final collegiate game, the 2003 Humanitarian Bowl.
He still ranks fifth in school history, and first among linebackers, with 48 tackles for loss in his career -- highlighted by 29 stops behind the line of scrimmage over his final two campaigns alone.
Somehow, Smith never earned more than honorable mention status when the all-ACC teams came out, yet the Jacksonville Jaguars and defensive coordinator Mike Smith -- later head coach of the Atlanta Falcons -- selected him in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft. An immediate starter, he played from 2004-12 for Jacksonville, where he remains the second-leading tackler in franchise history with 678 career stops.
After three seasons in Baltimore, the idea of retirement came up in the winter of 2015-16.
Then his first NFL defensive coordinator called. The Bucs' defensive coordinator wanted him again.
"I wanted to play 10 years," Smith said. "I was kind of on the fence before going down to Tampa, and right after Baltimore released me, Mike Smith said we'd love to have you. That took me to 13 [NFL seasons], but I had been preparing myself mentally that it's coming to an end.
"After the  season, I gave it a little bit of thought. They called to see if I wanted to come back and I was like, `Football is a young man's game.'"
So Smith left the NFL to pursue a path generally reserved for even younger people -- college student.
After a 13-year professional football career that included 190 games, 184 starts, 1,101 total tackles, 12 interceptions, 15 forced fumbles, 30.5 sacks, seven fumble recoveries and two touchdowns scored (one off a fumble, one off an interception), as well as the financial security that comes with it, Smith returned this semester to take a computer science class with the goal of graduating with a degree in business administration.
"I always knew I was going to finish at Tech," he said. "I took one [class this fall] to get my feet wet and this spring I'll take four to five classes . . . I didn't want to overload my first semester."
He was also back in Bobby Dodd Stadium this fall, as an honorary captain for the Jackets before their Sept. 30 game against North Carolina. It was his first game-day experience on The Flats since he played for the Jackets.
"I was actually excited about that. I still love the game. I have to watch every game, whether it's high school or college, I have to watch," he said.
If the Jackets had given him a uniform, he might've strapped it up. It was close to déjà vu when Smith walked out there as an honorary captain before the Jackets whipped North Carolina.
"Oh yeah. [I] got a chance to walk out on the field and be the honorary captain. I kind of locked in and started focusing like I was a player, and then I realized I don't have a uniform on," he said.
"Just being in the building, being there when the fans are there, seeing the [Ramblin' Wreck] come out, and the guys run in, it definitely brought back a lot of good memories."
The memories are good for Smith and Tech faithful alike.