The Herald Bulletin

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December 9, 2010

An incredible journey

ANDERSON, Ind. — Taj Smith’s road to the end zone Sunday was much longer than the two yards he was credited for after blocking a Dallas Cowboys’ punt at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Smith, whose full first name is Tajiddin, was one of the few heroes in the Indianapolis Colts’ 38-35 overtime loss. Ironically, a week earlier he’d been doing the same thing as the fans who cheered him so lustily when his block gave the Colts brief hope.

“I was home watching games,” he told reporters, “and eating Sunday dinner.”

Home is Newark, N.J., but Smith is the type of player for whom the term journeyman might have been invented.

He was primarily a defensive star at Newark’s Weequahic High School — the alma mater of Richie Roberts, portrayed by Russell Crowe in the 2007 film “American Gangster.”

Smith recorded 91 tackles and five sacks and returned two fumbles for touchdowns during his senior season, but he landed at Bakersfield (Calif.) Community College and became one of the top receivers in the program’s history.

He set a career record with 95 catches during his two years there and left ranked second on the school’s lists in receiving yards (1,670) and touchdowns (16).

It was enough to catch the eye of Syracuse recruiters, and Smith had a solid career with the Orange, catching 56 passes for 1,049 yards and eight touchdowns.

Ever the underdog, he then went undrafted by the NFL in 2008.

The Green Bay Packers signed Smith as a college free agent, but he was let go in August.

The Colts picked him up and took him to training camp in 2008 and 2009. He spent parts of both seasons on Indianapolis’ practice squad but never reached the field in the regular season.

This summer, after another preseason run with Indy, a hamstring injury led to his release Sept. 4. Indianapolis gave him an injury settlement, and league rules barred the Colts from re-signing him before late November.

On Nov. 30, with rookie Brandon James struggling and depth at wide receiver thin, Indianapolis signed Smith to the active roster for the first time.

In preparation for the Dallas game, head coach Jim Caldwell made a prescient statement.

“He’s been a guy that is really, really familiar with what we do from a special teams standpoint,” Caldwell said, “and someone that we’ll count on.”

Smith’s big moment came early in the fourth quarter.

With Dallas leading 27-21, Cowboys punter Mat McBriar prepared to kick from deep in his own territory. Smith came unblocked around the end, got his hand on the ball, watched it bounce toward the end zone and pounced on it for a touchdown and Indianapolis’ only lead.

“Once I got clean off the block,” he said, “I just read his steps and extended my hands to block it.”

Defensive lineman Keyunta Dawson engulfed Smith in the end zone as the crowd roared.

It appeared as though he’d stolen momentum away from the Cowboys, and a comeback victory was within the Colts’ reach.

But quarterback Peyton Manning’s fourth interception set up Dallas’ game-winning overtime field goal instead.

“It’s hard because we didn’t pull out the win,” Smith said. “We fought hard and continued to play well. Unfortunately, we got the L.”

There still is nothing promised to Smith.

He’s aware if and when the Colts’ receiving corps gets healthy he could be reassigned to the practice squad or cut free altogether.

Again.

But he knows this much: If he’s asked to leave Indianapolis again, it won’t be for lack of effort.

“It’s something that I have been working at,” he said. “You can’t predict the future, but I have been doing my job 100 percent.”

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