He climbs the remaining three steps before he strolls leisurely to the field with one shoe left to tie and his jersey hanging around his neck like an oversize ornament.
It’s 100 degrees outside, and the Rock Bridge football team stands waiting on the field. Minutes later, the 6-foot-5 nose guard and defensive tackle makes his way into the huddle, his dreadlocks already sprinkled with sweat. A large, innocent grin is on his face.
He is 17 years old and weighs more than 400 pounds.
“Hey, put your jersey on, T.J.,” Bruins coach A.J. Ofodile screams in an annoyed yet entertained tone.
While the team begins to stretch, Smith stands, struggling to decide whether to tie his shoe first or to obey his coach’s command. He puts on his jersey, which only makes it halfway down his chest, leaving the number scrunched-up and hard to read.
It’s hard to believe someone so big is an athlete.
“Well, just a guy that big that moves the way he moves when he gets it going, he’s an excellent athlete,” Ofodile says. “He’s got great hand-eye coordination. He’s got great body control. I’ve never seen anybody on any level as big as him."
Smith stands on the sidelines with his hands on his hips. He watches the offense run through drills, the relentless sun shining hard on his frame as he towers over his teammates like a skyscraper on the prairie.
“I call him a gentle giant," Smith’s mother, Veronica Sims, says with a proud look on her face. "That’s what he is."
The quiet, soft-spoken Smith hears his number called and trots onto the field for goal-line drills. He effortlessly manhandles the poor defensive tackle who is matched up against him, a teammate who is easily half his size.
To his mother, Smith's extra-large frame is still a mystery.
“He was born, and he was only 6 pounds, 9 ounces,” Sims says. “I have no idea. It’s a freak of nature. His dad is much smaller, so I don’t know.”
She catches her breath for a second, a huge grin cemented to her face.
“We don’t have anybody that big on my side or his dad’s side," she says. "He outshines them all. He’s just a monster. He’s passed everybody we know, so I don’t know where it came from. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches did it. He loved them and lived off of them."
Watching Smith on the field is amusing. While the entire team is running, Smith is jogging. While the entire team is jogging, Smith is walking. For an outsider, it's hard to see his athletic nature.
“You’ll see T.J. in basketball, too, and you will be amazed. I promise you,” Sims says, her laughter once again engulfing the room. "If you’ve never seen him play before, you’ll die."
Smith is back on the sidelines, pausing for a moment to catch his breath. He grabs a drink of water, his body covered with sweat. As he cools down, he is still breathing heavily. Even with all the activities he does, it is hard not to question his health.
“Oh yeah, at some point it’s going to be a huge concern,” Ofodile says. “At some point he’s got to get it. But the thing is, there’s 200-pound kids walking around this school that are a whole lot less healthy than him. I mean he’s a strong kid. He can move."
The Rock Bridge coaches and players seem to take Smith's size in stride and don't outwardly show any major concerns about his health. But the topic is on his mother’s mind.
“Every time we go to the doctor, I’m like 'What’s his blood pressure,'” Sims says. “And he’s like ‘Mom I’m fine,’ which he is fine. His dad’s side has heart troubles and stuff, so we’re always, we’ve got to check this, check that, and he’s like 'Momma, I’m fine. I’m only 17. I’m not dying.' I’m always worried. I’m like, OK, I’ve got to watch him. I’ve got to watch him."
She pauses for a moment, then continues.
“He really doesn’t eat a lot. I mean, he eats junk food. He eats whatever, what everybody else eats, ... but this year he’s lost a few pounds at Rock Bridge, so I’m real proud about that, and he’s happy with that. I guess they’ll get him together, that’s how I figure."
Smith was listed at 415 pounds to start the season, but now he claims to be 409. His mother offers some comedic relief.
“Buying underwear is the biggest difficulty we have,” she laughs again, and shakes her head with amazement. “You can only get them at J.C. Penney. It’s crazy. I mean, no. He can do anything. You would be surprised how strong this kid is. He’s not just big."
Smith is taking on a double team. He gracefully shoves both players aside as the whistle blows. While coaches analyze the most recent play, Smith looks down on them. Their sizes pale in comparison as they correct his footwork and help him with his technique.
It’s his first year playing for Rock Bridge after moving to a new home. Smith and his family moved to Columbia from Sedalia, where he started playing football. Smith also played as a ninth-grader at Oakland Junior High School but did not play as a sophomore at Hickman because he missed the tryout date for the team.
A serious look covers his mother's face. Simply remembering Smith's sophomore year appears difficult.
“And, oh my God, worst year of my life," she says. "One year of sitting out of football could have killed us all. It was just so devastating for him."
Smith is lined up at tight end. The thought of guarding him one-on-one is daunting for whoever is in his path. The quarterback hikes the ball, and Smith bursts out of his stance, hanging to the right side of the end zone with his hands spread open. He’s a target that cannot be missed. The whistle blows, and the coaches analyze. Watching him play tight end raises an obvious question.
“He was never a running back because of his size. But one of the plays they used to run in Sedalia, they’d have the running back run behind him,” Sims said, barely finishing her last word before cracking up again.
“So it was a guaranteed touchdown. I mean, some kids would just fall out. They wouldn’t even try to tackle. I’ve got pictures of him where it’s like nine kids on him, and he’s pushing 'em back, five here and four there. Once he’s in the zone, it’s over for whoever’s in his way. It’s hilarious."
Ofodile has put Smith at other spots on the field. “What he’s going to do is play tight end and goal line and down block on people because he’s a huge guy," he said.
Being so big can be dangerous for his opponents. Back in Sedalia, he did hurt someone.
“Oh yeah. He hurt a kid, and the family wanted his birth certificate and his insurance, you know," his mother said.
Sims pauses and changes her tone, impersonating an angry parent with a raspy voice. “They’re like, 'There is no way, there’s no way he’s 11.' Then he went and apologized. He’s so sweet and won the family over, and next thing you know, him and this boy are best friends and hanging out every day in Sedalia. He’s just like that. He was so sorry."
Smith’s easy-going personality, paired with his athletic ability creates the perfect balance of success in his coaches’ eyes.
“He’s a Division I athlete, especially with offseason conditioning next year (for his senior season,)" Ofodile said. "He’s just got to get into the swing of things at full blast."
Practice is coming to a close, and the team lines up across the sidelines ready for sprints. The whistle blows, and they begin to run, heading toward the opposite side of the field and back in unison.
Smith is struggling.
The booming voice of Ofodile is screaming out 25, 26, 27, 28, as Smith crosses the finish line eight seconds too late. The team lines up again while Smith is barely catching his breath, holding onto his stomach with a cramp.
The whistle blows, and the team is off again, pushing their way through the finish line in 18 seconds, but Smith is still nine seconds behind.
“If T.J. makes it in 20 seconds or less, you all are done,” Ofodile screams.
Smith takes a minute to regroup. The whistle blows and he’s off, running harder and faster than a few of his teammates, pushing through his pain and showing off his agility. He tags the field on the opposing side and turns to sprint back. His teammates are chanting his name with encouragement as Ofodile nears the 20-second mark.
With his dreadlocks flying, Smith crosses the finish line in time. His teammates jump on top of him and slap him on the back in celebration.