MONTREAL – Deep inside an old stadium, on top of a hill, in another country, Troy Smith couldn't see his locker. He knew the wooden cubicle, where he dropped his clothes hours before his Montreal Alouettes lost a football game to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. But the game had been over for a long time now, and because the CFL is not the NFL or even the Big Ten, accommodations aren't what he might expect. The athletic trainers needed to store medical equipment, so they left it in front of Smith's locker.
Not that many years ago, Smith held college football in his hand. He wore a charcoal three-piece suit with a tie in Ohio State colors and clutched the Heisman Trophy. But on Monday afternoon, that New York night in 2006 seemed like it was from another lifetime. He stepped around the medical equipment and slowly began to pull off the uniform he must have never thought he'd wear in those heady days of conference titles and a national championship game.
"It's another chance," he said. "It's humbling. It's a blessing and I'm having fun."
He got his first real chance to play in this strange new league on Monday. Alouettes coach Jim Popp threw him into a game that was quickly falling away in the second quarter and he led Montreal to a touchdown. The scoring pass was a bullet into the chest of receiver S.J. Green, who did everything to hold onto the ball as he fell over the goal line.
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In the next possession, Smith was hit as he threw, the ball wobbled hopelessly into the arms of a Winnipeg defender and Smith's day was essentially done.
Later, as he sat on the cubicle's bench pulling off his pads, the interception lingered, leaving him shaking his head.
"What's that?" a teammate asked glancing at him.
"That interception I threw," Smith said. "I wish I could have it back."
The man nodded. Smith pulled off his jersey, revealing a black T-shirt with the Ohio State logo on the chest. The football memories after college have not been great. The Baltimore Ravens briefly gave him a shot before turning to Joe Flacco. He had a brief glorious run in San Francisco until he was benched for Alex Smith. The UFL's Omaha Nighthawks barely gave him a chance and the Pittsburgh Steelers cut him before training camp in 2012.
In many ways he was done with football at the age of 29. He had returned to Ohio State to get an MBA with the hope of working in the administration at the school where he once starred.
" I want to understand every facet and know infrastructure of Ohio State on all levels," he said sitting in the nearly empty locker room.
But then, at the end of summer, Popp called.
"He laid out a scenario I couldn't pass up in terms of getting back into football shape and a football mindset," Smith said.
Popp has always liked Smith. He spent weeks convincing the quarterback to come back to football and waited for him to finish spring classes before pushing for a contract that runs through next season. The idea has been to prepare Smith for moments like Monday's, when he can play a bit and understand a game with completely different rules than – as he said in the locker room – "down south."
Smith's line on Monday did not overwhelm. He completed 3-of-6 passes for 35 yards with a touchdown and an interception. But he didn't seem to care about the numbers. No boxscore sat at his locker and he didn't ask for one to be handed to him.
"This is about a chance to learn," he said.
The Alouettes hold the Canadian rights to another Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Tebow, who coincidentally was the one who beat Smith in the 2007 BCS Championship game. In a way it is ironic that he probably holds the spot on the roster that Tebow doesn't seem to want. Not that he raised the topic or even seemed to know about Tebow's place on the Alouettes.
Much like Tebow, the NFL is likely over for him. But unlike Tebow, he appears to accept that reality. He would love a chance at the NFL but at nearly 30, working on an MBA with a hope of returning soon to Ohio State, he knows the NFL is not going to be calling.
"Life is life," he said. "Certain things in life happen for a reason. "Life is a lot of experiences that help you become who you are supposed to be."
He continued to undress behind the pile of medical equipment.
Multiple administrators at Ohio State have told Smith who he should be. They have told him he should not limit himself to working in sports. They say he should be more well-rounded. They say he should understand the entire school. He likes that. He likes the idea of people knowing him as something more than a quarterback who won a big trophy and whose life was all about athletics.
So he grasps at the few last strands of a football career before he gives it up forever.
Even if it is in the old stadium on top of a hill in another country.
This is just the way it was meant to be.