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Bucs LT Donovan Smith could have fled Penn State; here's why he stayed

Center Angelo Mangiro (66), offensive tackle Donovan Smith (76) and wide receiver Matt Zanellato (80) pose during Penn State photo day in August 2014. Mangiro, Smith and Zanellato played together from 2012 to 2014. [Associated Press]
Center Angelo Mangiro (66), offensive tackle Donovan Smith (76) and wide receiver Matt Zanellato (80) pose during Penn State photo day in August 2014. Mangiro, Smith and Zanellato played together from 2012 to 2014. [Associated Press]
Published Dec. 2, 2016

To understand the man who protects Jameis Winston's blind side, you have to start at Joe Paterno's living room.

That's where Donovan Smith, before he became the Bucs' starting left tackle, made a promise. He shook hands with Paterno and told him he would earn his degree at Penn State.

Months later, in the fall of 2011, Paterno was fired amid accusations that he knew longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children and didn't do enough to stop it.

The details in the grand jury report that preceded Sandusky's arrest were unnerving. Fifteen years. Eight boys. Basements. Showers.

Full disclosure: I went to Penn State. Class of 2004. When I read the report, I felt shocked and confused.

If I struggled with the news as a 29-year-old alumnus, imagine being a 19-year-old student. Smith chose Penn State, in part, because of Paterno, a man who touted "success with honor." It was more than a motto; it was the university's ethos. When Paterno crashed, so did Penn State.

Saturday night, a revived Nittany Lions team plays Wisconsin. The Big Ten championship and a playoff berth are on the line. Wins still matter, but not in the way they used to. They matter because they weren't supposed to happen. The penalties the NCAA imposed in 2012 were designed to severely restrict the team's competitiveness.

If the program died, so be it. If it lived, each loss was to be a suffocating reminder: This is for Sandusky.

As part of the sanctions, players were allowed to transfer without having to sit out a season. Coaches from around the country, like vultures, circled State College. Running back Silas Redd left for Southern California. Receiver Justin Brown left for Oklahoma.

Donovan Smith could have fled, too. He received more than 50 scholarship offers. But he wanted to keep his word.

"As a man, you commit yourself to something," Smith said this week at One Buc Place, where the Bucs prepared for Sunday's game against the Chargers. "Why just because something happens would you turn your back? You look at it like your family. Something happens in your family, you're not going to turn your back on them. You stick it out."

In Penn State's darkest hour, Smith and his teammates felt an obligation to each other, the players before them and the players after them.

"One person doesn't define a whole institution," he said. "At the end of the day, people are going to think what they want to think, they're going to have their own opinions. That's on them."

Smith started 31 games for the Nittany Lions. He made good on his promise, earning a degree in criminology.

The Bucs drafted him 34th overall in 2015. General manager Jason Licht said the team dives deep into the backgrounds of potential draft picks, and when evaluating Smith, "we came out feeling pretty good about him."

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"He's a loyal guy," Licht said. "He's loyal to his friends. He's loyal to the team. So I can see why he would stay (at Penn State). I'm sure he had a group of friends there that he didn't want to leave behind. Not all of them had opportunities to leave. It's just a reflection of the person that we know."

These are better days for Smith. His Nittany Lions are relevant again, and so are the Bucs.

"To represent Penn State and to be able to have bragging rights in the locker room is pretty cool," he said. "I'm happy for all the guys there. They can go as far as they want to go."

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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