Smith’s “long, lovely road” leads to Hawaii

HONOLULU — The question posed to Texans defensive end caused him to pause, look down beneath his white AFC Pro Bowl visor and wipe his right brow with his left index finger.

Almost as soon as he took down his hand as if to start speaking, Smith picked it back up and wiped his brow a few more times before finally looking up with a composed smile.

“You almost made a ninja cry right there for just a second,” Smith said.

The question posed to Smith, a first-time Pro Bowler and self-proclaimed “Ninja Assassin,” was about what Texans coach Gary Kubiak had said about him a few minutes earlier, after the AFC’s Thursday morning Pro Bowl practice at the joint Pearl Harbor-Hickam Air Force Base.

“I’m just very proud of him,” Kubiak said. “He’s come a long way from us picking him up a couple years ago (as a free agent) to now sitting here playing in the Pro Bowl. I had a great moment with him last night at the little (luau) they had, just telling him how proud I am of how far he’s come as a pro. It’s what you want as a coach. You want to see guys like that do well.”

Kubiak’s original relaying of that message a night earlier clearly struck a chord with Smith.

“That’s like, one of the best things you could have as a player, is to know that your coach is proud of you and he’s got your back, and that’s one thing that he let me know last night is that he was proud of everything I did,” Smith said.

“I remember the first time I got here (in 2009), me and him, we bumped heads about working out in the stadium. (He said), ‘Well, you know if you maybe come to offseason workouts, you might be in the Pro Bowl by now!’ And I never really forgot that. And now I see. I’ve been coming faithfully every year since I’ve been here with Ced (strength and conditioning coach Cedric Smith), and it paid off.”

Smith is one of three Texans players at the 2012 Pro Bowl. He finished second on Houston’s second-ranked defense this season with a career-high 6.5 sacks, including at least half a sack in each of the first five games. He was a defensive captain for the second consecutive season.

His first trip to the Pro Bowl is a far cry from the beginning of his NFL career. A fifth-round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2004, Smith was cut twice in his first two seasons. He spent much of 2004-05 on the Cardinals’ practice squad, sandwiched around a stint in NFL Europe with the Hamburg Sea Devils in the spring of 2005.

Smith was promoted from the Cardinals’ practice squad to active roster in October 2005. He started eight games that season, eight games the following season and no less than 10 games in each of the five seasons since.

“Man, it’s been a long road, but it’s been a lovely road,” Smith said on Thursday. “I wouldn’t have it no other way than hard. I’m an underdog. This is how life be. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s fun. I’m blessed.”

After a standout 2008 postseason with the Cardinals during their run to Super Bowl XLIII, Smith signed a lucrative free agent contract with the Texans in 2009.

“I’m very proud of him,” Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson, Smith’s teammate from 2004-08 who’s at his fifth Pro Bowl, said on Thursday. “He was a heck of a player when he was with us. It’s just unfortunate that he had to get away from us at the time that he did because I really did believe that he was developing into one of the top defensive linemen in the league.

“I think it’s (his) tenacity. He’s relentless. I think he understands techniques and how to use his hands. How it is in the trenches, man, you’ve got to have one guy that’s a dog, and he was our dog.”

Wilson also is impressed by Smith’s new off-field persona. He watched amusedly as Smith stalked around the field in a red ninja mask during the NFC practice on Thursday, interviewing players as a correspondent for NFL Network.

“It’s a good get-up that he’s got going,” Wilson said. “He’s really grown into his own character-wise. When he was in Arizona, he wasn’t doing that. He’s more animated now than ever before.”

Considering how far Smith has come to get to this point in his career, it’s hard to blame him.

“It’s going lovely out here,” Smith said. “I just think that it’s a blessing to even be here. The lord has dun’ blessed me and been gracious on me to play football and do it for a living. Getting to meet everybody, the scenery of Hawaii and the fact that I’m in the Pro Bowl, It’s kind of a big deal.”

Twitter.com/NickScurfield

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