32-Year-Old Navy Vet Showcases Fighting Spirit Joining Vanderbilt as Walk-on

by Chris Haney

This past weekend, a 32-year-old former Navy serviceman took the field for Vanderbilt University’s football team in their loss to East Tennessee State. The Commodores lost 23-3, but tight end Tommy Smith is an inspiration and someone that truly embodies our own Outsider spirit.

The story of Smith is a long and winding one. In many ways, he walked the path less traveled as an underdog who kept pushing and never gave up. Those are the kind of men and women we celebrate at Outsider, the kind of people who motivate us to keep reaching for own goals.

In fact, Vanderbilt isn’t the first college football team he’s played for, nor is it the most prestigious. In 2010, Smith became part of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish‘s roster when he walked on the team as a sophomore. Recruiters didn’t follow his every move in high school. Instead, he had to grind it out in try-outs to earn a roster spot by battling for his place on the team.

When he made the team, it was the culmination of a dream fulfilled, which he had since he was only four years old. Being a student-athlete ran in the Smith family. His mom swam for Notre Dame. Additionally, he followed in his grandfather’s footsteps who also walked onto the Irish football team. Smith’s fighting spirit runs in the family, and has stuck with him throughout his adult life.

After graduating from Notre Dame, he moved on to a military career. Smith joined the Navy ROTC to work full-time training new midshipmen. He then attended dive school in Panama City, Florida, and followed that with a year of training at Eglin Air Force Base in nearby Valparaiso to become an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer.

Smith Furthers His Navy Career While Making His Return to Football

Eventually, a Navy mentor who worked with Vanderbilt’s ROTC, Capt. Sam Brasfield, influenced Smith to consider going back to school. Brasfield’s suggestion resulted in Smith attending Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management to further his military career. Smith entered as part of a civilian postgraduate program and happened to have one year of NCAA eligibility left. He knew this would be his last shot at playing football, and decided to go for it despite some trepidation.

“Honestly, when I started making calls about it, I wanted to say in every conversation with coaches, ‘Don’t laugh at me, but …’ ” Smith said to the Washington Post recently.

Smith is a family man who is married and has two children. He and his wife, Allison, share two kids together: a 2-year-old son and a newborn 7-week-old daughter. Allison has been a rock for their family, and she’s stepped up around the home to allow her husband to chase his dreams in football and academia. She too is on active duty in the Navy and is a former collegiate swimmer. So she understands his drive and commitment to both his career in the classroom and his passion on the gridiron.

“I loved being part of a team at Notre Dame,” Smith said. “I got a very similar feeling during deployment, and I loved that. It was reminiscent of being on a football team. I loved the feeling. And this voice in the back of my head kept asking how great it would be to feel it again.”

Smith will finish out this last year of eligibility and return to his career in the Navy. We salute Smith not only for his service to our country, but his perseverance on the football field. He’s the embodiment of a true Outsider.