LOVE & FOOTBALL

Oct. 04, 2013 @ 11:11 AM

There is such a thing as tough love.

And then there’s a mother’s love.

“When I was 7 and my brother was older, she kicked both of us out the house,” N.C. Central fullback Gabe Smith said about his mother, Gail. “She was like, ‘If you want to be men, all right, be men.’

“My mom has always been tough like that.”

Tough love. Smith said that and learning to stand up for himself after a kid stole his bicycle during his formative years in inner-city Washington, D.C., shaped him to become NCCU’s bruiser out of the backfield.

“He’s a hitter,” NCCU interim coach Dwayne Foster said.

Smith (5-11, 275) would tell you that he can run the ball, too, although he’s only touched it twice this season, a couple of catches for 15 yards against Towson.

Those grabs, in fact, were the only times the senior has had the ball during his two years at NCCU. Not one handoff for that guy.

“Fullbacks can move, too,” Smith implored with a smile, angling for some carries. “Once or twice won’t hurt.”

That’s not happening, NCCU running backs coach Roy Jones suggested, sitting nearby at Café Renaissance grinning and emphatically shaking his head in the negative.

Smith played a year at Hampton and then at ASA, a junior college in New York, before arriving at NCCU.

What Jones knows, though, is Smith figures to play a vital role toward NCCU (2-2) possibly establishing some consistency in its running game on Saturday at Howard (1 p.m., NCCUEaglePride.com).

“He sets those blocks. He gets to those ’backers, the strong safeties,” Jones said. “What Gabe told me when he first came here was he’s a fullback in a lineman’s body. So his mentality is he wants to finish the blocks.”

The wonder is how mentally tough Smith will have to be this weekend when he returns to the nation’s capital.

College players generally look forward to going against teams in their hometowns, because those are the games that provide opportunities for them to perform in front of folks who knew them when they were little guys.

Smith said at least 30 family members and friends will be at William H. Greene Stadium to watch him work.

But one person will be missing — the firm lady who showed love by kicking him out of the house.

Gail Smith died of cancer days before NCCU’s season opener against Duke.

“It’s going to be really, really tough, honestly. Just to know that she’s not going to be there, it’s going to be tough,” Smith said. “Me and my mom bumped heads a lot. A lot. It’s just the fact that we love each other so much that we can’t be around each other.”

It’s complicated, but Smith said he and his mother had an understanding. Like how she didn’t want him to play football and end up like his cousin, a fullback, who temporarily couldn’t walk after hurting his spine running around between the painted lines, Smith said.

But Gail Smith let her son put on the pads after he convinced her that football could help him get a college education.

Smith started playing organized football in tenth grade. Prior to that, his mind was on basketball. One of his high school coaches explained that there’s no market for 5-11, 200-pound centers in college hoops. So Smith put on shoulder pads.

It’s been about a month since Gail Smith died, and Gabe Smith said he tends to put on a good face and act like everything is OK, but he’s hurting.

Jones has counseled his fullback to let that pain come out. The coach spoke from experience when he told Smith, “I lost my mom six years ago, so I understand what you’re going through.

“I know it looks real bleak right now, but, trust me, there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Jones said. “I honestly know what he’s going through, what he went through having to bury your mom.”

NCCU didn’t have a game last week. Smith said he needed that extra down time to get with himself and process his loss.

“She pushed me away when I was a little kid or whatever just to make me stronger,” Smith said. “It forced my dad to step up.”

Smith said he and his brother were homeless for a couple of days, literally on the streets of D.C. in search of their father.

“We had to go find him,” Smith said. “Luckily, I have good memory.”

Jones said Smith returned from his mother’s funeral as a more focused student with a renewed vigor to be an even better father for his 2-year-old daughter.

Love is tough. Love hurts, and it teaches. Smith said he got all of that from his mama, a lady whose love was just as strong when she put him out of the house as it was on the day she first placed him — Baby Gabriel — in a crib.

“It was no love lost, because once I figured out why she did it, it was like, OK, I understand,” Smith said. “She wanted the best for you, but she had her way. It might not have been the right way, but it was her way.”