The Alton Redbirds put themselves back on the football map this year.
A big part of that resurgence was Darrell Smith. The senior running back led the Birds with 1,660 yards rushing and 20 total touchdowns. He had 18 rushing TDs, 1 receiving score and a kick return for a TD.
Smith’s monster senior season helped lead Alton to a 6-5 overall record, its first playoff berth since 2006 and its first postseason victory since 1992.
He was named first-team all-Southwestern Conference as a running back and then nabbed Class 7A Illinois Coaches Association all-state recognition. It was also announced recently that he and Redbird teammate Kevin Caldwell Jr. would be on the West squad at the 2018 Illinois East/West Shrine Game in June at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Now Smith can add Riverbend AdVantage News Football Player of the Year to that list of accolades.
It all came on the heels of an injury-plagued junior season where he missed a lot of time and watched AHS flounder to an 0-9 record. That definitely lit a fire under Smith and his teammates.
“Since I got injured (junior season), I knew I had to come back 10 times harder,” Smith said. “My dad (Richard Smith) was telling me I had to work hard and have an outstanding season to get some coaches looking at me. I worked hard in the off season, went to all the workouts and it happened — I had a good season.
“I had broken a bone in my ankle and tried to come back a couple games later, but it wasn’t working out. I just worked out, did rehab with Andy (Renner) and got stronger.”
On the team front, Smith and some of the other seniors were at the forefront of making efforts to not replicate the embarrassment of 2016.
“We had a group chat on Facebook where all the football teammates talked about how we had to get better and get in the weight room,” Smith said. “We got tired of people saying Alton is bad and isn’t going to win a game or go to the playoffs. We wanted to prove those people wrong. We won some games and put Alton on the map.”
It was Smith and his Alton teammates’ performance in the first round of the 7A playoffs that really got gridiron fans excited.
AHS defeated Chicago Lincoln Park 32-14 behind 218 yards rushing on 30 carries and 3 TDs from Smith, complemented by a superb defensive effort at Lane Stadium in Chicago.
“It was a long bus ride there and we played a good team,” Smith said. “I came and scored that first touchdown and we thought, ‘Oh, we got them.’ But they came back and scored and everyone was telling me they needed me to step up, that the game was in my hands. It was Kevin (Caldwell Jr.) and I, and I knew with (Jonathan) Bumpers being banged up he wasn’t 100 percent, I had to score more and help my team win.”
It set up a return to Public School Stadium to face a tough Lincoln-Way West squad. It was the first postseason game there for the Redbirds since ‘06 and the site of their only other playoff win in ‘92. It made for a packed house, with Alton fans relegated to sit on the visitors side and even find room sitting in the grass.
Smith and his Redbird teammates relished the experience.
“It was real awesome,” Smith said. “We had guys from the ‘92 playoff team like Greg Caffey and they came in the locker room and talked to us about how they wanted us to win. They said they were tired of everybody talking about the ‘92 team and they wanted something new to talk about — they wanted to talk about us. They wanted us to go out there, play hard and execute.
“We tried to do that, but Lincoln-Way West is a good football team.”
Unfortunately, AHS fell 42-13 to West to end its season, but it couldn’t dampen the huge turnaround for a football program yearning for success.
“I’m not mad we lost,” Smith said. “We fought the whole season and got far. That was our goal to get to the playoffs.”
It was also a big turnaround from an injury-riddled junior campaign for the talented Alton running back and all-conference and all-state honors were pretty sweet for him, too.
“I was shooting for first-team all-conference, but when I heard first-team all-state I was surprised,” Smith said. “Coach Dickerson told me he got an email and I was texting him, ‘So what’s the good news?’ And he said, ‘No, I want to tell you in person.’ I said, ‘Come on, I thought we were close.’ Then again he said, ‘No, I’ll just tell you in person.’ I went to his office and he told me I was first-team all-state and he said there aren’t too many players from Alton that have made all-state, and I was just surprised and happy.”
Surprised and happy could sum up how Alton felt about its Redbirds this season, too.