March is the time of year the best in college basketball rise and make their case to be a part of the 68-team NCAA tournament field. Not only are the games a crucial part of the tournament, the back stories that highlight the players are as fascinating as some of the games themselves.
This year, one of the most compelling stories comes from a player who won’t play a single minute during the 2014 NCAA tournament, but he did all he could to make sure his team had a spot in the field.
Wofford Terriers senior forward, Aerris Smith, gave one of the most inspiring postgame interviews after his team clinched the Southern Conference tournament title and an automatic berth to the big dance after beating Western Carolina 56-53. The speech has made its round on various websites and sports talk radio shows across the U.S. since then and made Smith an overnight sensation in the process.
Smith came into the 2013-14 season fresh off his junior campaign where he averaged a career best 24.7 minutes per game and was on track to play as much, if not more heading into his senior year.
A knee injury he originally suffered in practice that Smith said he thought nothing of at first turned into something bigger.
“I was at practice, got hit, and originally thought it was just bumped knees, nothing really serious, but later that night it really started to swell, to the point where it was very difficult to bend it or walk on it,” Smith explained about his injury. “That’s when I went to the doctors the next day to get it checked out and get an MRI to see if there was more than just a bruise or swelling.”
After affirming his injury was serious he faced a difficult decision: Get surgery now and maybe miss the entire season or tough it out and make the best of his knee in its current state. He chose the latter.
“Basically when I found out about the injury I had two options. One was to have surgery and sit out more like half the year so I could recover and get back into shape or I could play through it and maintain my strength,” he said. “Immediately, as soon as I heard I could play I wanted to do that and be able to stay on the floor to help my teammates out.”
Staying on the floor was easier said than done for Smith, as for him to play a far more reduced role than in his previous season, Smith would have to put in extra hours of physical labor to ensure his knee was in playing shape.
With his knee condition, Smith’s knee would get weaker faster than normal, so finding ways to work his knee out without hurting it more, Smith turned to a non-conventional method to keep his knee in good enough shape to play.
“One of the other things was when I could practice, some would last 30 minutes while others could last two hours and even longer depending how my knee would act that day," Smith said. "One of the things I had to do every morning at 6-6:30 (a.m.) is go to my local YMCA and go swimming. That put no pressure on my knees at all and it was a great way to maintain my cardio. So if I did have a practice where I could go 30 or 35 minutes, I didn’t feel bad because I still put in the work for that day, I still would be in shape to play for that game.”
Smith’s labor of love paid off, as he was able to play in all but one game for the Terriers this season, averaging 8.8 minutes per contest, something he attributes to all the work he put in outside of the court.
With the uncertainty that came with his injury, he put so much effort into making sure he could play this season was largely in part to him not knowing when he career could come to a sudden halt.
“I’ve been told this for years; you never know when your last game is going to be," Smith said. "I was fortunate enough to have this injury and still play. One of the things that really drove me was going into every game I didn’t know if it was my last game or not.”
Every step of the way his teammates had his back and always made sure that he was in good spirits has he pushed through his injury, something that helped inspire his journey.
“Every day in practice and every day in the locker room they would ask how I was doing and make sure I was OK," he said. "Even my coaches and my family all supported me, so it was very easy with their support.”
As the final seconds of his final game ticked away Smith didn’t think about his college career coming to an end, he thought about just how proud of his team he was.
“Basically what was going through my head was that we finally did it. We’ve earned this. We deserve this,” Smith said. “I have seen what this team has done day in and day out in practice and the way they played and the way these coaches have believed in us from Day 1, and it was the best feeling to know that we finally got something that we really deserved.”
After the game when Smith gave his now infamous speech, where Smith grabbed four rebounds in 10 minutes of action, he said he was speaking in the moment and had no idea the effect it would have in the days to come.
“Honestly I was completely shocked. I want to say the next day I had a few of my fellow peers walk by and say ‘We heard your interview, it was great,’ and I thought that was just going to be the end of it,” Smith stated. “Then I started to receive messages, emails and calls from everywhere, from all over and it was just overwhelming. I was so surprised and so shocked because in my interview I was just expressing how I felt at the time and never expected any of this.”
Smith is scheduled to travel with Wofford to its second-round matchup against the Michigan Wolverines to be held in Milwaukee, Wis., on Thursday to offer the support he has fought so hard to give the team this season.
With all that Smith has been through during the course of the last year the lessons he learned that he can reference later on down the road are the ones that stand out the most.
“The biggest thing I will take away is that this whole injury is that it really has opened my eyes about toughness and never giving up and just perseverance to push me through anything,” Smith said. “This year has definitely been a difficult year for me, basketball and everything, mentally and physically it was very draining."
Mick Akers is an analyst for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained firsthand via phone interview.