An informal shirts-versus-skins basketball game following a lifting session at
South (Olathe, Kan.)
last spring prompted Olympic Weightlifting Club coach Mike Jasiczek to utter perhaps the most impressive compliment ever paid to a high school athlete.
"He looked like Ivan Drago from Rocky IV," Jasiczek said.
The "He" was then 6-foot-6, 265-pound freshman lineman Braden Smith
, a physical specimen who compares favorably to the 6-5, 250-pound Russian superhuman portrayed Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren.
Not only is Braden massive for a sophomore who won't turn 16 until March, but he's remarkably nimble, having followed a strict stretching regiment as a child that has only been enhanced by his dedication to track and field.
Watching Braden on film, his height and explosiveness make him pretty hard to miss. However, tucked away in northeastern Kansas, which averages 35 citizens per square mile, he's remained virtually invisible on the national football scene.
In fact, Braden Smith may be the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2014, and virtually nobody knows about him. That will likely change Saturday when his 11-1 Falcons take on Heights
for the Kansas 6A state championship
While raw numbers only tell a part of the story when it comes to evaluating recruits, Braden's numbers speak volumes to his corn-fed, big country status.
He bench-presses more than 400 pounds, boasts a wingspan that exceeds 7 feet, maintains a body fat percentage somewhere between 8 and 10, and possesses a 6-6, 265-pound frame that will be capable of adding another 30 or 40 pounds with relative ease. According to South head coach Jeff Gourley, he bears little physical resemblance to any normal 15-year-old.
"He's the best-looking kid I've ever coached, anywhere," said Gourley, who believes Braden could be the best sophomore lineman in the country. "He's a full-grown man at 15 years old."
In his spare time, rather than hopping around the camp and combine circuit to get noticed or taking unofficial visits to colleges to get to know the coaches who will soon be wearing out the path into Olathe, Smith has a simpler hobby: pumpkin farming.
"I'm a very good gardener," he said. "It's a fun responsibility."
In Olathe, a suburb of Kansas City, Braden is still relatively unknown. Put him in Houston or Los Angeles or Miami and you have a mega-recruit of enormous proportions.
South coach Jeff Gourley declined MaxPreps' requests to do a feature on Braden until the middle of his sophomore season, when he felt he had accomplished enough at the varsity level to warrant the attention. While he has a MaxPreps player page, he does not have a profile on any other major recruiting website.
Olathe seems to be a perfect setting for Braden. Despite his superhuman-like abilities, he's a very human 15-year old. He was nervous during his first-ever interview, stumbling over words at times and coming up blank on others.
Signs of teenage acne belie his Hulk-like appearance. Perhaps most humanizing, like 600 million other people, Braden uses Facebook.
However, those around him insist that in an age where young people often endure criticism, coaches view Braden as a pillar of what teenagers should be.
"Things that a lot of people complain in society that kids are disrespectful and things like that, this is a kid that's not," said Olathe South assistant Jasiczek, who coaches the team's offensive line as well as the school's USA Olympic Weightlifting club. "He's very respectful and nice. Unless you're on the opposing team."
Though his parents dealt Braden a loaded genetic hand, it was his upbringing and his relationship with his sister that turned him into a quiet, determined competitor who resembles Ivan Drago in temperament more than appearance.
Groomed for greatness
Dave and Jane Smith gave birth to Braden, their second child, in March of 1996.
Dave, a UPS worker who stands 6-4, has a family lineage steeped in athletics. He participated in both football and track and field at Kansas. His father played middle linebacker at Texas Tech in the 1950s despite being recruited to Texas A&M by Bear Bryant.
Jane, a fourth grade teacher, is 5-8 and has two sisters that are 6-0 tall.
Not only was Braden genetically predisposed to unusual physical prowess, but Dave groomed him at a young age to be different than most kids. Although both Braden and his sister, Megan, grew up around the weightlifting in their family's home, it was a different physical activity that has proven critical in their development: Stretching.
At least three times a day as kids, Dave had both children do a full stretching routine to help increase their flexibility and ward off a family history of muscle pulls.
"I could figure out they were going to be big," he said. "But I made them both do a lot of stretching. It really helped with Braden."
Braden has seen the impact it's had on his physical development.
"It makes me able to move better," Braden said. "You have to move if you're big. If you can't, you're no good."
Although Braden stood out physically from his peers, within the Smith household it was his sister's sports prowess that initially cast the longest shadow.
Megan's athletic success drove Braden early on. A powerful, pliable field athlete and three years older than Braden, she finished her high school career as one of the top shotputters in the state last season. When she was a sophomore, Braden began throwing the shot and a natural rivalry developed.
"I started (throwing) because it was what my sister did," he said. "I pretty much did what she did."
Dave recalls Braden's respect and admiration for Megan, who is considered one of the most dominant athletes that South has ever produced. Her throw of 50 feet, 2 inches last season was good for third nationally. When Megan practiced with the 8-pound weight, Braden tried to top her throws with the 12-pound shot used in boys meets.
It wasn't until Braden's eighth-grade season that he was able to surpass Megan's throws. By that time, Megan was already a state champion and a coveted recruit who ultimately selected TCU.
"The driving force for him is his sister," Dave said. "He's looked up to her, seen all the letters she got (from colleges.)"
Jasiczek joked with Dave about the disappointment he felt that the Smith family lineage would end with Braden.
"After seeing what a great athlete Megan is and what a great athlete Braden is, I offered to buy them a romantic dinner somewhere," he said.
Though he enjoyed competing against Megan, Braden appreciated the solitary aspect of throwing the shot put: man versus ball, versus himself.
"It's really relaxed," he said. "You set your own marks. You keep improving. You don't need to worry about anything else happening."
Braden debuted last spring as a freshman throwing in the mid-50s according to Greg Wheeler, South's field coach who also manages the football team's defensive line. Wheeler said he's never seen a freshman that looks like Braden, let alone performed like him. Braden finished sixth in Class 6A, the state's largest, most competitive classification.
Not bad for a 15-year-old who still doesn't have a driver's license and spends six months of the year solely focused on the gridiron.From track and field to football field
The skills that allowed Braden to succeed in field events have also given him the opportunity to develop into a dominant high school football player with a unique ability set: Tremendous strength with uncanny agility and technique. Though he may seem like a natural now, he struggled early on.
"I wasn't very good my first year," he said. "My first year they put me at offensive tackle. I didn't even know what that was. They just told me to hit someone."
Last season, Braden debuted on the defensive side of the ball, only after injuries paved the way for him to see varsity action. He was disruptive in limited action, but blossomed playing both defensive tackle and offensive guard this season as a sophomore.
"There are a lot of kids that are really strong but slow. There are kids that are quick but not strong. Braden has both. White muscle fiber and red muscle fiber and a lot of both. And he can do it for a long time," said Jasiczek.
Braden plays with a remarkably low pad level for someone his size. His explodes off the ball and is tenacious in his blocks. Even to the casual observer, he leaves his mark on a game, to the point of becoming a common topic of conversation at the dinner table between Jasiczek and his wife.
"She'll say, ‘Did you see what Braden did? He picked a kid up and dumped him in the end zone,'" he said.
Opposing coaches have also taken notice. Lawrence head coach Dirk Wedd, whose team lost twice to South this season, said that Braden is impossible to ignore and predicted a bright future for the sophomore.
"He's a big-time player," Wedd said. "If he keeps up the same work ethics the next few years, he's going to be a rich kid."
Bracing for a recruiting whirlwind
Though the NFL draft is years away, the college recruiting process has already arrived and will only gain steam this offseason. He's already received mail from Penn State, Arkansas, Iowa, Oregon and Nebraska. Like his father, he grew up cheering for Miami.
Braden remembers his first recruiting letter that he received as a freshman. He checked to make sure they had the right name on the envelope. Now, he's beginning to prepare for the looming recruiting firestorm.
"Coach Gourley has told me it gets complicated," he said. "There will be a lot of colleges, it will take up a lot of time, but you have to keep focused."
He'd also like a chance to participate in track and field at the next level, something that could potentially complicate his recruitment. According to Wheeler, his potential in the sport is "so high", as is his passion for it.
"He lives for football, but he loves track," Dave said. "I think he's going to be phenomenal at track."
There's also speculation that he could play on the defensive line on the next level, though Braden says he prefers offensive tackle. He also insists he has no favorite college at this point.
Right now, having already been named a two-way all-conference player, Braden is focused on helping South capture its first state championship with only Wichita Heights standing in the way.
The time will come when he will need to declare offense or defense and how track and field fits in the picture. Until then, Braden quietly will continue to train and improve, and the doors to his future will remain open.
After all, Ivan Drago would look good in any college uniform.