Olathe South senior Braden Smith has made a name for himself planting opposing players on the football field, but away from the gridiron it’s an entirely different kind of planting that piques his interest.
Smith, a two-way star for the Falcons who projects as an offensive tackle at the next level, is one of the most highly recruited players in Kansas City history.
Stories about Smith’s exploits sound more like mythology than biography — picking up a future NCAA Division I defensive end on a kick-out block as a sophomore, then carrying him to the sideline. Or pancaking a highly touted defensive tackle, then pinning him to the ground before stopping an eager-to-assist teammate cold in his tracks with one arm and lifting him off his feet.
Falcons coach Jeff Gourley relays the last tale, which he insists happened during a summer scrimmage, with childlike glee.
“We don’t have it on film, but I wish the world we did,” Gourley said.
There’s a Paul Bunyan-like quality to the wonder and awe Smith — a 6-foot-6, 296-pound quiet giant — inspires even among those no longer fazed when he bench presses 545 pounds or reps 595-pound squats.
Of course, it wasn’t football that consumed Smith’s thoughts as he drove to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in mid-July for a workout at two-time defending national champion Alabama.
Instead, Smith, who helped the Falcons open the season with a 33-20 victory Thursday against Lawrence, worried about his garden back home.
“He’s an extreme gardener,” Braden’s father, David, said.
There used to be a patch tilled up in the Smiths’ backyard, but it became overgrown by trees.
“I reseeded our backyard last fall and told him he wasn’t going to be able to grow anything back there anymore,” David said. “He was kind of depressed about that, so we came up with the idea to cut some whiskey barrels from Home Depot in half and planted them all over the backyard.”
Braden grows watermelons, pumpkins and cantaloupe.
“And he’s actually had quite a bit of success with that,” David said. “He put them out where they’d get good sun, and he tends to them every day.”
Making certain that his mom, Jane, remembered to water his plants was Braden’s primary concern during the 700-mile trek to work out for Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.
“He called every day about that — ‘Did you water? You didn’t water too much, did you?’” David said. “I have no idea where it came from. One day, he just started a garden, but it requires discipline, and that’s right up his alley. He’s very meticulous and organized.”
Braden also is intensely focused and averse to distractions, including the recruiting process. He’d prefer to concentrate on playing football, lifting weights and tending to his garden — the simple life that suits him.
“Recruiting sometimes gets a little crazy, but I don’t let it get to me,” Braden said. “I’m just doing what I do every day still and working hard. I’ve got to focus on high school, and I’ll worry about college later.”
According to various recruiting services, Braden has 25 confirmed offers, and it’s an impressive list — Alabama, Arkansas, Clemson, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kansas State, Miami (Fla.), Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Stanford, Tennessee, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M, USC, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Gourley said even that that list is incomplete and that Braden has received closer to 50 offers, which has been pared down in recent weeks to limit unnecessary distraction.
“He’s got a few schools that he really wants to take a hard look at — Texas A&M, Alabama, TCU, Notre Dame, Ohio State and possibly Georgia,” said David, who played rush linebacker at Kansas during 1984-85.
Braden — whose late grandfather, Jim, played at Texas Tech — doesn’t like to talk about his recruitment and no longer bothers looking at the recruiting-service rankings.
“When you get to college, it doesn’t matter what your ranking was,” Braden said. “You start from ground zero and have to prove yourself to the coaches again, so the rankings just don’t matter to me.”
Braden lets him game speak for itself, and the message is savage.
“He’s not mean at all, but he’s dedicated to finishing the job and, yes, he is dominant,” Gourley said. “I’ve told him 100 times, ‘Leave no doubt.’ That’s why he’s being recruiting to the top schools in the country, because he’s left no doubt.”
It’s also made him a target sometimes. Opposing players have been known to go after Braden’s knees or employ high-low blocks, but Braden shrugs it off.
He had a tougher time shrugging off last season when the Falcons, who won the program’s first state title in 2011, went 5-4 and missed the Class 6A playoffs.
Despite the fact that Olathe South is young and lacks experience, Braden doesn’t want to repeat those struggles. He remains a man of few words, but he’s tried to sharpen his leadership skills as he closes out his high school career.
“I’ve been getting groups of guys and bringing them to the weight room,” Braden said. “That was a big step for me going into a leadership role.”
It’s one Gourley thinks will serve him well wherever he lands next season.
Braden, who will defend his state championships in shot put and discus next spring rather than graduate at semester, even skipped Nike’s famed The Opening combine to participate in the Falcons’ summer camp.
“I want to finish out my last year and enjoy it fully before I go off to college,” Braden said. “College is all business, so I want to enjoy my last days where it’s still more about fun.”