In the early hours of New Year’s Eve morning, Preston Smith sat awake in his hotel room in Memphis. The Mississippi State defensive end was in town for the Liberty Bowl and the game was that afternoon.
But his daughter was being born that morning: Lauren Marie Smith, his little princess. Had she come a few days sooner or later, he might have been able to make it. Under the circumstances, Smith sat there with his phone in his hand listening as those at the hospital passed their phone around and took turns telling him how beautiful she was. They sent pictures of his newborn daughter. The first time he saw her she was popping up on a screen.
“She looks just like me,” Smith later admitted. “I can’t deny it, no matter what. My mom loves her.”
He loves her, too, expectedly. And like any father, his life changed that day. Permanently. Life will never be like it was before New Year’s Eve and he’s OK with that. Smith calls baby Lauren, now eight months old, his good luck charm. His life wasn’t in need of a turnaround, but he got one anyway.
Smith’s private life remains relatively private, but as an SEC football player, his soon-to-be-professional life is very much in the public eye, and it’s due largely to his daughter that Smith has received so much attention.
That night, on the high of becoming a dad, Smith was named Defensive MVP of the Liberty Bowl. In the three games played since, he’s earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors for every single one.
In the four games since Lauren’s arrival, Smith has two blocked kicks, two interceptions, four quarterback hurries, two sacks, a forced fumble, three tackles for loss, 15 tackles and even a touchdown.
He’s done OK.
“He took his game to a different level,” teammate and senior defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls said.
And Smith credits that to motivation from Lauren.
“I want to provide for my daughter what I didn’t have as a child,” Smith said, alluding to a career in the NFL. “It’s one of those life things that my mom probably couldn’t afford it because she was a single parent. I just want to provide her with everything she wants and spoil her. She can be my little princess and I’ll give her a kingdom wherever we may land.”
Smith has always had talent on the field. He was good enough to play as a true freshman in the SEC, after all. But the need to provide for someone other than himself has added a bit more seriousness to what he does, despite the fact he never stops smiling off the field.
His defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has seen the change in the little things.
“Everybody sees the flashy plays,” Collins said. “The thing I’m impressed with is every singe play. The fundamental plays, the technical plays, he’s making those plays. In the past he had the flashiness, but now the routine plays, he’s making those at a high level.”
While those watching from the outside have really only seen the change the last few weeks, those on the inside had more than an inkling of what was coming for Smith. Sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones hasn’t been even a little surprised by his elder’s success.
“No,” Jones said. “The beginning of the year, I told Preston, ‘You’re gonna have an outstanding year.’ We’ve been talking about it a lot. I told him, this is gonna be his year.”
And, so far, it has been.
But that smile Smith has stuck on his face when asked about his awards gets somehow bigger and brighter when he talks about his daughter.
Technique, motor, energy, fundamentals – there are plenty of words to be thrown out as reasons for his success. And they’re accurate. But the reason they came is where the truth lies. Baby Lauren.
“She means the world to me. That’s my first child. I brought her into the world,” Smith said. “She brings so much joy to my life. Every time I see her, she smiles so hard. When I went to pick her up from daycare this morning, she was just waking up. She looked at me and smiled so hard and reached out for me to pick her up and hold her.”
Lauren got to see daddy play for the first time when MSU hosted UAB earlier this month. With her as motivation, she’ll likely be watching him play for years to come.