- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Vincent Smith scanned down the list of courses at Michigan over the summer. He needed an elective and wanted to take something artistic, something taking him out of his major and into an area he had never explored.
A dance class? Maybe. A music class? Perhaps. Then he saw something else, a class he had heard his high school and college teammate, Brandin Hawthorne, mention. A class about creative expression through art.
He'd be in a room with majors and non-majors and this -- this was a challenge. He had doodled before, messed around with different things with his name and drawing some fruits during a high school art class at Pahokee (Fla.) High. This turned into something else.
Smith has surprised people throughout his Michigan career. The smallest player on the roster, his teammates also call him the toughest. Despite his size, he is the Wolverines' best pass blocker and pass-catching running back. So he always has had an element of surprise.
Instead of taking the art class this summer, he worked with acrylic paints and found a new passion and hobby.
"I surprised myself a whole lot," Smith said. "Looking back at it, it was my first time painting and I do not know how to draw at all. It was a shock."
The first painting, Smith said, wasn't great as he tried to create a pyramid with tape attached to it. His second one, though, caught the untrained eyes of his family, friends and Twitter followers. Asked to create a collage, he combined a picture of President Obama, an eye, the Sasha Baron Cohen character from "The Dictator," and various flora and fauna.
There was little meaning behind it, just things which caught his eye.
"It was so cool," former Michigan receiver Martavious Odoms said. "If I had done that, it'd be hanging up in my mom's house right now. They are really cool. Stuff like that, they would love to have that in their house, and he painted that himself."
Once again, Smith surprised, but beyond a new hobby, it also helped spawn an idea for his future. He saw what Odoms had done for their hometown in Florida, with plans for an urban garden and continually trying to give back to the community which gave so much to them, to the place where they thrived before leaving the humidity of "The Muck", as locals call it, for the cold and snow of Ann Arbor.
Smith still had a senior season to play, but he already knew what he wanted to do. He, too, wanted to give back.
"Wherever the help is needed, I want to help in my community and come up with some fun days, something like that," Smith said. "I'm open to whoever is in need and to be a voice and inspire some of the youth. Give them some positive feedback."
Even though he couldn't become involved with Odoms' first project, the close friends bounced ideas off each other. They had seen a world so different from the one they knew growing up in South Florida.
It started with Odoms, who came to Michigan a year before Smith under former coach Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez opened the pipeline which brought Smith, Hawthorne and Richard Ash to Ann Arbor and five years ago inadvertently set in motion a chance for Odoms and Smith to give back to the community that had given so much to them.
"That's like one of our main things to do," Odoms said. "Where we come from, there's not that much stuff to do, especially when you go to other places. You see certain things, from the restaurants and stuff, like places to go, enjoy, sit down and have fun. We don't have that much stuff in Pahokee.
"When we were outside of Pahokee, it's a whole different world and you want to see your city like that, see people grow businesses and people giving back, giving the youth some things to do."
Both Odoms and Smith credit Michigan for helping them on their way, giving them the education they needed to make it happen now and in the future.
Odoms started with a garden and already has plans to expand his vision. Smith is looking at another option. He would like to be a school principal, where he can be around kids every day, helping to shape their futures.
But first, he figures he can start with something that he had no idea he could do a year ago. He could start with art.
"Just give it more hope," Smith said. "More hope and that I can do this, like [Odoms] did it so I can do it, too. Just inspiring the kids. I was thinking about taking my painting thing and one day the kids will all just have some supplies and have a painting day.
"Like express your art and things like that. Have a fun day."
It starts with a day. Then a week, a month, a year and soon, things can start to change. Things can improve. Odoms showed him that.
Smith is on the verge of being a college graduate, and he's about to start giving back.
In some ways, though, Smith has been painting all along. His canvas? Himself.
"I sit down and think sometimes where I came from and where I am now," Smith said. "I accomplished a lot.
"Still, there's so much more I have to do and can do."
That, well, that should surprise no one.
34mBy Ian O'Connor