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Blair Smith transferred to the New Mexico Military Institute to play football because of a connection he had in his hometown of Mississauga, Ont.
He ended up with a life-changing experience he didn’t expect.
“I’d wake up at 5:30, 6 o’clock in the morning and march to all of our meals throughout the day,” said Smith, the Eskimos special teams captain this year. “We had demerits, we got daily room inspections. A lot of my discipline and cleanliness, it kind of picked up huge going there.
“I just wanted to go in, keep my head down and play my part, but it actually worked its way into my life a lot more than I anticipated. From my experience that one year and a few months in the military, I feel like it would do a lot of people good. The thing is, you have to buy in and be willing to go through the processes.”
Smith, 26, who started out at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., was briefed about what to expect in the military school by a friend who had attended the junior college the previous year, but said it was still “a bit of a culture shock.”
“You’re waking up in the morning, we’re in push-up position,” he recalled. “For the first two weeks, they kick on your door, ‘Everyone get out,’ and you’re lying there in push-up position waiting for the last person from your troop to get out. We were called the ‘Rats’ – Recruits In Training. We had to wear these high socks and goofy caps and walk around in square corners.”
Smith’s friend didn’t buy into the military discipline, so he struggled with the rules.
“The daily room inspections, school, all of it,” said Smith. “They melt it all into one. If you’re not keeping up in one area, they’re going to punish you. You find you get tours – like on your free time, you ended up marching around, and I definitely didn’t want to do any of that – and demerits.”
Smith quickly learned that he could get more leisure time “just as a little reward for doing the right things” while many of his friends were assigned extra study time.
“It really got me on the right path,” he continued. “Having that standard there, always to look at and knowing that you were going to be reprimanded, I think definitely straightened me out. I didn’t want to deal with that and it kept me on the straight and narrow. I had probably one of my best years of schooling. My room was pristine; my mom would have loved it if she was there. I had all the hospital corners and everything. It was beautiful.
“That was a great experience. They have a lot of high-level generals to talk with down there; seeing how much that’s impacted and framed their lives. … With football, it’s kind of created the camaraderie. It’s transferable between football and the military. You share. It’s more like a brotherhood on how you rely on everyone. You’re only as strong as your weakest brother, so you’re always trying to uplift and work together and be on the same page there.”
After one year in Roswell, N.M., which is also known as the site of an alleged UFO crash in 1947, Smith transferred again to Angelo State University, a Division II school in Texas, and then was selected by the Eskimos in the seventh round of the 2015 CFL draft.
As it turns out, Smith also has other connections to military life, which can be “really hard on the families. I have a lot of respect for the guys out there who do it,” he said. The father of his long-time girlfriend, Jessica Jacobs, has lived and worked on submarines.
“I know how tough it can be, second-hand through her, and the stresses it puts on the family,” Smith said about the military lifestyle. “It was really, really tough on her growing up. She didn’t see a lot of her father.”
Now Patrick Jacobs lives in Halifax, but bounces around between Ottawa and Victoria when he isn’t travelling all over the world.
“He’s travelling so much that I haven’t got to spend a ton of time with him, just like she doesn’t get to,” said Smith. “But speaking with him and the respect for the commitment he has to his job, even though it puts a huge strain on the family, they’re still there to support him and love him. He’s doing whatever he can for the family and the country.”
Smith said Jessica’s father told him recent studies discovered “that submariners are operating on the level of a drunk person almost all the time because they’re depleted from the lack of sun and exhaustion because it’s a small crew having to run that ship all the time.
“They’ve got a tough gig,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine going out there on a boat in the middle of the ocean.”
Smith also recently learned that he has a cousin in the Canadian Armed Forces who is based out of Edmonton and was assigned to a base in Ukraine this year.
In addition, Smith worked as a civilian at the supply depot at CFB Edmonton during the off-season last year. He got the job through a couple of connections – a civilian family member at the base and the aunt of former Eskimos player Andrew Johnson. The aunt was doing the hiring.
“My immediate superiors were military,” said Smith. “Yeah, the same thing kind of carries through. You can see how they’re really regimented and they hold everyone accountable.
“I was picking up (parts from) the F-18s that do flyovers, occasionally sending out a cockpit or a wing or something like that. I was in bulk, so we’d be shipping out food, engine parts, boat engines, wings. I got to put on bullet-proof vests and the ballistic eyewear. That was pretty cool. They’ve got ancient things in there, too, some things like old muskets.”
While Smith mostly plays on special teams (kickoff, punt, kickoff return, punt return and converts or field goals) with the Eskimos, he made his first CFL start at weak-side linebacker on July 20 at Hamilton.
“Huge excitement,” he said. “I tried to treat it like another game, because I know any other game I could potentially go in, someone could go down, so you always have to be ready. But that was huge and it was back right near home. My dad lives in Burlington, so he’s right out there.”
Unfortunately, Smith became another victim of the injury bug that has seen four different players start at that position (three of them have been hurt plus Cory Greenwood, who was expected to be the starter this year, tore an anterior cruciate knee ligament on the second day of training camp and will be sidelined for the entire season). Smith pulled a hamstring on a special teams play, kept playing and then had to leave the game just before halftime.
He did get a chance to play defence again in front of family during the Eskimos recent game in Toronto against the Argonauts, making one defensive tackle and a special teams tackle.
The highlight of Smith’s three seasons with the Eskimos was being on the active roster when Edmonton won the Grey Cup in 2015.
As a special teams player, he knows that “you’re not necessarily a big-name guy, but I know I can impact the game. That’s why I take it really seriously and I like to think we all hold ourselves accountable to the level of that higher standard any time you’re on the field.
“We’ve got a great bunch of guys here so we do a wonderful job of covering up for each other and maybe hiding some of those mistakes,” he added. “But, definitely, if you take that militant type of approach to looking at details, that’s really going to set you up for success – on special teams, offence, defence. All of it. You’ve got to be really precise.”