Vyncint Smith was a college sophomore when he had an ambitious idea.
The South Carolina native had no inkling at the time that he would wind up briefly washing cars, years before his arrival in the NFL and experiencing the thrill of catching a touchdown pass last Sunday from Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Following a promising season at Division II Limestone College, Smith was dissatisfied with his partial scholarship. He left school with intentions of walking on at South Carolina.
“I was paying too much money,” the Texans’ speedy rookie wide receiver said Wednesday.
The situation took an awkward turn, though, when Smith learned that his release from his scholarship prevented him from transferring to any college within the state of South Carolina.
So, Smith missed a semester of school and got a job detailing cars in his hometown of Columbia, S.C. It wasn’t a glamorous job. Washing and waxing cars, Smith took pride in his temporary profession.
“I was the best,” Smith said. “I was just working. I did that all semester.”
When Limestone hired former Detroit Lions wide receiver Mike Furrey as the new head coach, Smith’s fortunes and future took a major turn. He received a full scholarship.
“Shoot, I didn’t have to pay anything,” Smith said.
The return to Limestone ultimately paved a path to Smith emerging as an all-conference selection who caught the Texans’ eye during a workout at, of all places, the South Carolina campus where he had wanted to play football. With New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and the majority of the NFL teams watching last spring, Smith ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds.
The Texans recruited Smith hard, bringing him in for an official visit prior to the draft. Wide receivers coach John Perry called during the later rounds of the draft and general manager Brian Gaine stayed in touch with Smith’s agent, Adam Seifer, reminding him about the opportunity the Texans were offering.
Smith chose the Texans over several teams, including the Chicago Bears, whose receivers coach is Furrey, the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills. The Texans made Smith their prize undrafted free agent, signing him to a three-year, $1.72 million contract that included $35,000 guaranteed through a $10,000 signing bonus and guaranteeing $25,000 of his base salary.
“Houston took the time during the offseason to bring me in and talk to me,” Smith said. “I felt comfortable.”
Now, the Texans and Smith are feeling even better about that decision.
When five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, acquired in a midseason trade from the Denver Broncos, ruptured his Achilles tendon on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, it ended his season. The injury also created a need for Smith to begin playing opposite All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Smith caught a 35-yard pass from Watson, tapping his cleats inbounds in the back of the end zone to briefly give the Texans a lead during the fourth quarter of a 32-30 loss to the defending Super Bowl champs.
The touchdown showed off Smith’s speed, concentration and hands. It proved he’s absorbing a lot of knowledge from Hopkins, Thomas along with Will Fuller before he tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
“Vyncint is a guy that’s been quiet,” Watson said. “A rookie that has learned so much from the guys that’s been in that locker room that have played a lot of ball. Vyncint has been watching and improving each and every week. Hasn’t said a word, hasn’t had one complaint, just kind of been working and has been patient.
“Whenever his opportunity came on Sunday, he took advantage of it and he made a big play for us. He’s a guy that we’ve all been watching and knew that whenever his opportunity came we could trust in him and he knew what to do.”
Indeed, Smith did. He caught the football in stride. And his telephone and social media have been exploding ever since with congratulatory messages.
“My phone has been on fire,” Smith said. “Friends I haven’t talked to in years. Mom and dad, my parents, they’re excited. They always believed in me.”
Lightly recruited out of high school, Smith got letters of interest. He had no scholarship offers. He heard from Richmond, Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State, UNC-Charlotte and South Carolina, but nothing concrete emerged.
So, Smith made the best of his situation at Limestone. He caught 153 career passes for 2.371 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Prior to the NFL draft, Smith built some buzz. He visited the New York Jets and worked out privately for the Atlanta Falcons, Lions and Dallas Cowboys. He had private meetings with the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Chargers, Baltimore Ravens and Seahawks.
Texans coach Bill O’Brien credited Gaine and his staff and assistants for discovering and wooing Smith.
“In my opinion, level of competition is part of the evaluation,” O’Brien said. “So, a guy that’s played in the SEC for three or four years, relative to a guy who, with all due respect, and I love Limestone – but a guy that played at Limestone, it’s just different. It’s going to be a different level of competition relative to getting ready to play professional football.
“Since the day Vyncint walked in here, he’s a very hard-working guy. I don’t think he’s ever missed a practice, takes notes in the meetings, pays attention. Great guy, really a focused individual, and he’s improved because of that.”
Limestone is a private Christian liberal arts school in Gaffney, S.C. They list 1,012 students as of this semester.
And Smith is the only player in the NFL from Limestone.
“It’s really cool,” Smith said. “All my teammates I had from there, they look up to me in some way, somehow and say I’m doing something that was hard to imagine.”
Surrounded at his locker stall by cameras and reporters Wednesday, Smith smiled and expressed hope that his first NFL touchdown is just the beginning.
“I hope it springboards trusting me,” he said. “Giving me more chances to make plays.”
Watson is already a believer. He didn’t hesitate to lob the football in his direction in the clutch.
“For him, being able to step up in that moment, I think it gives him a lot of confidence to be able to know that he can come in and perform at this level,” Watson said. “This is what he’s been working for his whole life. All the time and hard work he’s been putting in since training camp, throughout the season, is finally getting to show and his opportunity’s going to come.”