Lynne Sladky / Associated Press
He left the field with a towel soaked over his missing right hand. Another towel dangled from her mouth. For such a magical night as this, it was a cruel way for DeVonta Smith̵
It took a hit – an awkward tackle to start the second half – to end Smiths night. From there, he took a longer stay in the emergency tent before disappearing into the locker room. And so it was all over.
What happened in the previous 30 minutes, however, is something that the sport will address for some time. While Alabama was without the best wideout to ever play on the program for much of the second half, the injury was done. Not just to his offset finger, but to Ohio State’s defense before that. To the scoreboard. To the story.
Smith, who had assembled his Heisman less than a week earlier, validated a historic moment with a dominant, overwhelming performance to cover a dominant, overwhelming year.
Alabama won. It did, of course. The best team with the best offense and the best head coach to ever go on the sidelines was too much for Ohio State. The tide’s 52-24 win over the Buckeyes was in many ways a continuation of what was on display throughout the season.
The first half, a dominant start of 35-17, was largely due to Smith. In a single half, he caught 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns. He slipped around the football field, as he often does.
He delivered a smooth toe tap on the sideline. He surpassed Ohio State’s offense all by his loneliness in the first half, which is not normal, no matter how normal he made it look in this game and those who came before it.
LeBron James could not help but notice. Davante Adams, one of the best wideouts in the NFL, joined him. Smith’s former teammate, wide Jerry Jeudy, took praise a step further.
“Greatest WR to play college football,” Jeudy wrote.
Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press
At this point, it is difficult to argue. Sure, we are all guilty of currently capturing. The problem with this argument is that this was not the case just a moment. It was another moment in a long series of moments.
In the summer of 2019, I spent a morning with Smith inside the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility. He was quiet. In fact, he was uncomfortable talking about himself and his legacy.
At the time, he was the third or fourth best wide receiver on a team that also included Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle.
He was known for a catch that was so important that the one in Tuscaloosa will forever be known as The catch. When Tua Tagovailoa found Smith, both true beginners at the time, on a 41-yard touchdown to win a national overtime championship three years ago, his legacy was cemented.
If it all ended there, in an instant, his legacy would be celebrated for generations to follow. But the thought of it was not something Smith was willing to address. In fact, the catch was a boat tanker.
“That book is already written,” Smith said, trying to distance himself from the moment. “It’s time to write another.”
After two seasons, a huge catch and modest stats, Smith exploded in 2019 with 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns. Despite being one of four incredible opportunities, he blossomed into the best of the flock. Instead of declaring for the NFL and joining Jeudy and the Ruggs, he made the surprising decision to return to Alabama.
As brilliant as his 2019 season was, his 2020 effort was unlike any that the position has seen in some time. The damage to the Waddle changed everything early on. With more options, Smith delivered in a way few have ever had.
Chris O’Meara / Associated Press
He rewrote the SEC history book and set the single season and career that received the yard. He did the same with single-season and career touchdown records.
Smith became the first spread to win the Heisman since 1991. And even though he only played half a Monday night, he set the record for most receptions and broke the record for most receiving touchdowns in a championship game.
All in all, Smith finished this season with 117 catches, 1,856 yards and 25 touchdowns in total in just 13 games. It’s hard to capture that kind of year and influence with the relevant words or numbers.
It’s even harder when you compare Smith to the many great players, both in his position and others who came before him in Alabama.
Usually, greatness in Tuscaloosa is quantified with size and speed and physical gifts refined by squat rack. Greatness here, on the most dominant program in college football, is typically accompanied by bulging muscles and comic book skills.
Julio Jones. Derrick Henry. Soccer players who played and looked like superheroes. These types of players have shaped Alabama into the dynasty it is – a place where some of the greatest athletes in the country have gathered for much of a decade to see how far they can push it.
Smith is not. Even now, having been built by Bama over the past four years, he is ending his college career as a slender, elongated breadth. He is far less slender than he was when he arrived, though his brilliance is never captured by his size, his 40 time or the normal qualifications for football quality.
Chris O’Meara / Associated Press
He leaves Alabama with the biggest catch, the biggest season and the biggest half in program history. He travels with a Heisman after breaking a barrier that we did not think was possible for a wide receiver. He leaves with two national championships that have been an integral piece in both.
He leaves Alabama and college football as one of the most decorated players ever and with a career delivered in ways few have from start to finish. And he does so with a wounded right hand. That was the only thing that could stop him this season.
After the match, with his hands tucked behind his back and a national championship shirt pulled over his shoulder, Smith was asked about his year.
“Incredible,” he said in the broadcast. “We just finished writing our story. That was it [about] us coming back. Just finishing the story that we wanted to write. And we did. “
The book could have been written after a catch. After three seasons. But it was not.
And now, after a career and legacy matched by few, on a program where such dominance is regular, Smith will leave as one of the greatest ever to play. Not just the greatest in Alabama or the greatest who has ever played his position.
Given everything we have seen, these qualifications no longer feel appropriate. This was something more. And even if it ended earlier than it should have, what a story it was.