When Purdue football coach Joe Tiller was preparing to play Notre Dame last year, he watched highlights of the Fighting Irish's victory over Navy in 2002. Tiller asked one of his assistant coaches which Navy player was wearing the No. 33 jersey. "Where's he from?" Tiller asked.
A Purdue assistant admitted that Navy free safety Josh Smith was from the Boilermakers' backyard. Smith, who has led the Midshipmen in tackles in each of the last two seasons, was a star football and basketball player at Attica High School in Attica, Ind. Smith's parents' home is about 25 miles west of the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, Ind.
"How did we let him get away?" Tiller barked at the assistant.
The Boilermakers weren't alone. Indiana University, about 100 miles south of Attica in Bloomington, never called Smith to make a recruiting pitch. Neither did Illinois, only 65 miles to the west, or Notre Dame, about 175 miles north. Even Ball State, at the time the losingest football program in the nation, didn't have room for Smith on its roster.
"I don't know what the deal was," said Dave McDonald, Smith's football coach at Attica. "None of those schools have been any good at all for years, and he could be starting for any of them right now."
Instead, Smith will begin his third season as a starter in Navy's secondary when the Midshipmen host Duke at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium on Saturday. If Smith leads the Midshipmen in tackles this season, he'll become the first player since Andy Ponseigo (1981-83) to do it three consecutive seasons.
"I'm sure all of those schools would like to have him now," said Amy Smith, the player's mother.
Purdue and the other schools that didn't recruit Smith can't say he fell through the cracks. He was one of the most accomplished athletes in Indiana high school history, leading Attica's football team to the 2000 Class A state championship game, and winning a state championship in basketball later that year.
As a senior running back, Smith scored 449 points in football -- an average of 29.9 points per game and only four points shy of the national high school record -- and rushed for 3,004 yards and 63 touchdowns. In the football state championship game in the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Smith ran 42 times for 230 yards and two touchdowns in Attica's 29-21 loss to Adams Central. In the basketball state championship game, Smith scored 19 points and helped his team overcome a 14-point deficit in the final 61/2 minutes of a 64-62 win over Blue River Valley.
"Josh, without a doubt, is the best overall athlete I've ever seen come out of Attica High School," McDonald said.
Yet most college recruiters didn't notice him. Purdue had actually asked him to walk on its football team and pay his own way, and Boilermakers basketball coach Gene Keady invited him to walk on the basketball team, too. Finally, former Navy football coach Charlie Weatherbie asked Smith if he'd be interested in attending the academy. Without any other scholarship options, Smith told Weatherbie he would play for the Midshipmen.
"I'd never even considered the military," Smith said. "After high school, I thought that was it as far as sports."
Navy Coach Paul Johnson, who replaced Weatherbie after Smith's freshman season, said he isn't surprised schools overlooked Smith, despite his gaudy accomplishments. At 6 feet 2 and 201 pounds, Smith isn't the fastest or biggest player at the academy.
"We didn't find him, either," Johnson said. "When we first got here, they had such a large number of people on the team that Josh kind of got lost. He's not a guy that's going to blow you away with testing numbers or anything like that. He just makes plays."
In the two-stoplight town of Attica, Smith wasn't sure he could claim the title of best athlete in his home. He and his brother, Jeremy, were inseparable while growing up. Even though Jeremy was two years older, they shared the same friends and interests, mainly sports.
"There was a competition when they were growing up," Amy Smith said. "It started from when Josh wanted to walk as fast as Jeremy when they were babies. It just went on from there."
When Jeremy was a junior at Attica High, Josh made the varsity football team as a freshman. With Jeremy at defensive end, and Josh playing linebacker and running back, the Red Ramblers became one of the top high school teams in Indiana. The brothers lifted weights together every morning before school.
So perhaps it should be no surprise Jeremy joined the Army two years ago, and a younger sister, Jessica, joined the Marines this year and is attending military police school in Missouri.
"I was the first one to do something in the military," Josh said. "My brother and sister decided they wanted to get out of our small town and see what was out there."
It was a decision that nearly cost Jeremy Smith his life. On Aug. 28, 2003, two days before Jeremy was scheduled to depart for Iraq with the 82nd Airbone Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., he was trying to complete a seven-mile conditioning test. Soldiers on the base not-so-affectionately call it "The Death Run." Even though Jeremy was running at 7 a.m., temperatures were already climbing. Near the five-mile mark, Jeremy was feeling light-headed, and his legs felt heavy.
"You don't quit in infantry," Jeremy said. "You just keep going."
But Jeremy collapsed on the dirt trail, and the soldiers he was running with threw him into a nearby creek to cool him off. The soldiers carried Jeremy back to the base and when he arrived at the infirmary, his body temperature was 107.2 degrees. When Jeremy woke up a few hours later, doctors told him he had suffered a severe heat stroke and heart attack. Doctors also told the 23-year-old his military days were over.
"I was about as close to dying from a heat stroke as you can be," said Jeremy, who will be medically discharged from the Army in December, and plans on attending classes at Indiana State University.
While his older brother's military career is ending, Josh's is only beginning. He plans to apply to flight school after graduation from the academy but isn't sure if he'll try to fly jets for the Navy or Marine Corps. He flew on an F-14 Tomahawk while stationed on the USS Enterprise off Norfolk for three weeks this summer.
For at least 11 more weekends, the 3,500 or so residents of Attica can listen to Navy football games on the only radio station in town.
"It means a lot to me," Smith said. "I don't forget where I came from."