OLATHE, Kan. -- As he embarked on a 700-mile trip that would take him from his home in Olathe, Kan., to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for Alabama's summer camp, Braden Smith was worried. Unlike almost any high school football player in his shoes, Smith, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound, four-star offensive guard from Olathe (Kan.) South, wasn't concerned about how he would perform in front of one of the legends of college football. Sure, he wanted to earn a scholarship from Nick Saban, but the pressure of the moment wasn't what troubled him.
Smith's mind drifted to his backyard, where his prized pumpkins, cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumbers, parsley and arugula were growing in the scorching Kansas City heat. Smith was worried his mother wasn't doing things the right way, so he called home every day to ensure she was following his explicit directions.
"He called to tell me exactly how much to water and when," Braden's mother, Jane Smith, said. "He's very protective of his garden. He would ask me 'Did you water? When did you water? You didn't water it too much, did you?'"
Most 17- or 18-year-old football prized recruits don't list gardening as one of their hobbies, but Smith, the No. 127 overall prospect and ninth-ranked offensive guard in the ESPN 300, isn't your typical recruit. He doesn't Tweet. He doesn't Instagram. His father, Dave, intercepts most interview attempts from reporters. In a time when prospects' every movement and social media actions are scrutinized for hidden meaning, Smith, one of the most heavily recruited players in Kansas City history, has taken a different approach to the process. It's a method that mirrors what happens in his garden.
"The whole step-by-step process interests me," said Smith, who turned down more than 50 scholarship offers and has narrowed his choices to Auburn, Texas A&M and TCU.
"You're tending to it, trying to create something from scratch and you get the fruits of your labor. It's kind of like football and recruiting. This player is undeveloped, and then you develop him into something that's great," Smith's coach, Jeff Gourley, said. "In recruiting, you start off having never met somebody, and you're trying to grow a relationship with them and determine if this is the right place to go."
Gourley believes the garden serves as a metaphor for how his star has handled recruiting. Through discipline, attention to detail and organization, Smith has not allowed the distractions that come with being the No. 9 offensive guard and No. 127 player hurry him into making a hasty decision.
"You plant it. You grow it. You nurture it," Gourley said. "It's been the same exact way for him through high school and through the recruiting process. He knows it's going to take time and a lot of hard work to reach his dreams, and just like that garden of his, making a decision that's going to change his life shouldn't happen overnight."
Smith never sat down to talk with his parents about how they were going to handle recruiting. From day one, everybody just understood the simple life suited him the best. His focus would be playing football, throwing shot put and discus in track, lifting weights, doing homework and tending to his garden.
Smith wasn't going to be one of these recruits who crowed every time he got a new offer. He definitely didn't want his coach to post a now-viral video of him bench-pressing 515 pounds three times last month. And he certainly wasn't going to stop for reporters when they tried to interview him as he was leaving his Auburn official visit last weekend.
"I think he's had more of a high school experience and an opportunity to grow as a person more than the ones that get wrapped up in the recruiting process," Dave Smith said. "All of a sudden that takes over, and they forget about being a normal kid. They'll miss out on the things that matter. He's been grounded, and I think he's actually got to enjoy everything about being a senior."
Gourley credits the Smith family for Braden's approach. Dave played both football and track at Kansas. He was set to play at UCLA before his father suffered a heart attack, and he decided to stay closer to home. Jane is a fourth-grade teacher in Olathe and has been teaching for 26 years. Braden's sister, Megan, also went through the recruiting process in track and finished fourth in the shot and fifth in the disc as a junior at the 2013 Big 12 Championships as a member of the TCU women's track and field.
Smith got his competitive side from their father, but it was through his mother he learned to be humble, modest and well-mannered. "I tried to teach him the good sport part of it, and to not brag about yourself and let other people realize it," Jane Smith said. "If you're good, you don't need to say it. Maybe there's a little blend of both of us in him, because his father is really competitive, so I know that's where he gets that from. But I always tell him if I see him running out on the field acting like some of those silly players, I'll be down there in a split second."
An SEC coach involved in recruiting Smith said he wished he had more Braden Smiths on his recruiting list and fewer prima donnas. "If every recruit was like Braden, then our jobs would be infinitely easier," he said.
With signing day around the corner, Smith understands he's finally on the last step of his high school career. He will announce his decision Feb. 5 on ESPNU. The next two weeks will be filled with a round of in-home visits from the head coaches of his final three schools. He's already taken a trip to Auburn, a visit he really liked because of the opportunity to see early playing time and the "great fried chicken." This weekend he travels to College Station, Texas, for a visit to Texas A&M, and he finishes on Jan. 31 with a trip to TCU.
Many have called the Horned Frogs the team to beat because of his sister. Smith said he has gotten to know the coaches at TCU really well during a number of unofficial visits to Fort Worth, but he also points out Megan will only be there one more year, and he has to make the decision that's best for him.
"The opportunity part will be key," Smith said. "I would like an opportunity to play early. They need you, not just want you. I just want to feel comfortable at the school I pick, and of course academics are important because I want a good education for the future. All I know is that it's going to be a really tough decision."
It's a decision Dave and Jane are leaving up to their son. They've provided feedback along the way, but they raised Smith to make the first real big decision in his adult life. "I don't want him saying 'Well, you guys wanted me to go here and it didn't work out,'" Dave Smith said. "You can't blame us. It's you. It's your decision. If he makes a lemon, well, he better make lemonade out of it."
Even though it's the middle of winter, Smith will likely find himself spending some time in the backyard looking at the whiskey barrels and planters that were once filled with pumpkins and other crops. The garden is his thinking place. And he'll need his sanctuary more than ever as he makes the biggest decision of his life. "You can get away from the world when you're out there," Smith said. "Everything is good. There are no distractions. No coaches calling you. No visits to worry about. It's just you, the garden and your thoughts, and I have a lot of thinking to do between now and Feb. 5."