(Editor's Note: The following feature, written by Khalil Garriott, is reprinted courtesy of NFLPlayers.com.)
In the NFL-a world full of uncertainties for players-one thing is certain: There are no guarantees. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Clifton Smith, that rang all too true during the 2009 season.
With the highs come the lows. To get the sweet, you must also taste the sour, as they say. Clichés abound in the life of an NFL player. Smith realized-the hard way-that what is given today is not promised tomorrow.
During his rookie season in 2008, Smith averaged 27.6 yards per kick return and was the only player in the NFL to return a punt and kickoff for a touchdown. Emerging from undrafted free agent to practice-squad player to all-star, he made the Pro Bowl as the NFC's kick returner. He called being selected a Pro Bowler "a true blessing" and "an honor."
Sharing the stage with players like Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner, Ray Lewis and Brian Dawkins-stars he grew up admiring-felt surreal to Smith.
"I took pictures of everybody and I got some helmets signed," Smith said of his Pro Bowl experience. "I invited my family down during one of the practices and had them take pictures with the players."
In Smith's sophomore season, he accomplished more personal bests. He recorded a kickoff return average of 29.1 yards, the second-best mark in team history. Then, his season ended Dec. 8, 2009, when he was put on injured reserve after suffering two concussions in a seven-week span.
In many ways, he had to start from scratch. Smith, who turned 25 on July 4, had a taste of NFL success that was too fleeting for his liking, so he's doing everything he can to return to that level. He's incorporated boxing into his offseason conditioning program, doing it two to three times a week, with the hopes of reclaiming his place as a rising star in the league.
"Being able to experience the Pro Bowl in my first year makes me even hungrier," he said. "I want to go back there because it was a great experience. It was one of those things where you never know if you'll ever make it, so I'm out here working my tail off to get back there."
In college, a series of serious injuries prompted some doctors to predict Smith might never play football again.
"To hear that, it put me in the tank a little bit," Smith said. "Then one day, the light switch kicked on ... I can't let the people that look up to me see me give up in anything I do. I just pushed myself to the limit, pushed myself to the max, and the rest was history."
He overcame growing up in Fresno, Calif.-an area with plenty of distractions and temptations for young athletes-but Smith said he wouldn't have changed anything. A gifted athlete, he was drafted to play baseball by the Los Angeles Dodgers coming out of high school. He relishes the fact that his NFL stardom generated needed positive publicity for his hometown.
"We've got some great athletes out here," Smith said. "For me to go out there and do what I did, and help put Fresno on the map, that was a big thing for me."
A fan of the University of Southern California as a boy-Smith has several family members who are Trojans alumni-the running back admits playing college football at Fresno State was somewhat of a "second option" for him. But by going through the requisite adversity, Smith appreciates his journey that much more.
He said, "You can never forget where you came from. You can never forget your struggles. You can never forget the way you were brought up. You appreciate it a lot more once you get to where you've got to get to."
It's a message he gladly shares with children when he speaks to youth groups in and out of the Fresno area.
"It is hard to overcome things, but you know what, you can overcome them," he advised. "You can get past those obstacles. Maybe you could give [kids] some kind of hope and dream for him or her to keep pushing on and accomplish their goals in life."
As he prepares for his third season in Tampa, Smith said he's not going to beg for more carries at running back. His approach is one of controlling what he can control, performing his role to the best of his ability and working as hard as possible.
Still, if given an opportunity to carry the ball like he did in college, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Smith knows his set of skills for the Bucs in 2010.
"I always felt like I had great vision," he said. "I had great vision and I could make a couple of guys miss. Being as small as I am, somehow I was able to push the pile forward. I was never one of those guys that liked to get taken down by the first person."
Even on a team of mostly young players, Smith has a role model in cornerback Ronde Barber who made the Pro Bowl once and then had to fight his way back to the all-star game after a several-year absence. Barber eventually went to the all-star game five times (and perhaps counting). Smith calls Barber "a great teammate and friend," and with that friend by his side, Smith seems poised to reclaim his place among the game's elite.