Monday, July 14, 2008

Robert Smith Reaching For The Stars

Drive to succeed puts stars in former NFL and OSU star Robert Smith's eyes

July 13, 2008

Bill Livingston

When it comes to science, a small child either looks backward or upward, to the dinosaurs or the stars.

Robert Smith looked up. Today, at the age of 36, he still sees stars, albeit with ever more powerful implements.

"I was a fan of astronomy as a little kid," said Smith, "but I didn't buy my first telescope until my rookie year in the NFL. I was out on a lake at night, fishing, and looking at the sky when it hit me. Shoot, I can afford a telescope now. So I went straight out and bought one."

Smith was one of the amateur astronomers profiled in last year's PBS special "Seeing in the Dark." The show was not about his football career. It was about intellectual curiosity.

The drive to reach the top level consumes most pro athletes and leaves little time for outside interests. Then there is Smith, his eye fixed to a 16-inch, computerized Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, showing the Andromeda galaxy to kids near his south Florida home. No wonder friends call him "Copernicus."

The rigor of scientific inquiry always appealed to him. In "Seeing in the Dark," he said, "When I think of science, I don't just think about discovering facts or observing. I think about it as more of a philosophy, and questioning everything, and examining everything. It takes diligence, not just accepting what you're being told, but carefully examining all angles of any issue. That's the great thing about science. It doesn't start with the conclusion and then try to fit the facts in. It takes the facts and you work toward a conclusion."

It is a splendid explanation of why a rebel is often just someone with more information.

Smith never fit the mold. In the NFL, he criticized what he saw as the religious zealotry of players like the late Reggie White.

At Euclid High School, he was a Steelers fan in Browns country. "Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert," he said, when asked his favorite players.

Because of a difficult home life, he hardly watched college football and thus lacked an appreciation for the voracious, all-consuming monster Ohio State football can be.

Smith incurred the wrath of many Ohio State fans when he sat out the 1991 season, charging assistant coach Elliot Uzelac ordered him to miss two classes. To some, he was a symbol of principle, an unassimilated, independent thinker with his academic priorities in order.

Smith, who had intended to be a pre-med major in Columbus, returned for his sophomore year of eligibility, his third academic year, then left for the NFL. Critics invoked a popular television program of the era about a teenaged medical prodigy and called him "Doogie Howser." Such detractors noted that Smith did not get his OSU degree.

Smith said he has one class left to get a degree as a history major and is taking it at the University of Miami.

"I'm interested in theoretical physics and cosmology, things that intrigued me after I read Stephen Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time,' " said Smith.

Today, he regrets missing the season in Columbus. "If I had it to do over, I wouldn't sit it out," he said. "That meant I let a guy run me out of the program. You look like a whistle-blower if you say it outside the system, instead of staying and saying, 'I'm still here.' "

After undergoing four operations on his knee, he quit NFL football in 2000, following his best season when he was the league's second-leading rusher with 1,521 yards.

The New York Giants' Jason Sehorn called him "Eddie George with another gear," referring to the Buckeyes back who won the 1995 Heisman Trophy. Had Smith played another season, former coach John Cooper always thought he would have won college football's top award, too.

In the PBS film, Smith said he quit because he no longer found the running back position "intellectually stimulating." Some will say that is so Doogie.

"It wasn't like I was bored. But it wasn't as fascinating once the game slowed down for me," Smith said.

What captivates him now is the chance to see time through his telescope.

The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second. When a person on Earth looks at the sun, it's not the sun of that instant. It's the sun as it was eight minutes ago, the time it took for the light to travel 93 million miles to Earth.

The most energetic forms of light are gamma rays, which shoot frantically across the universe after star explosions. By satellite analysis of certain forms of the elements they contain, astronomers can date the stellar event that formed such light. One gamma ray burst in "Seeing in the Dark" was 11 billion years old. That light started its journey before the formation of Earth. Detecting it in the form of a blue dot in a sophisticated photograph was like seeing eternity.

Said Smith, "Suppose 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 light years away, someone had a telescope with the magnification to see down onto the surface of our planet. By the time they see me walking around, I'd be gone for thousands of years. That kind of stuff just blows my mind."

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