Thursday, May 5, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
Mike Smith stepped into the batter’s box last month for an adult baseball game hoping to not embarrass himself.
Having not faced live pitching in nearly five years, he figured it would take a game or two to get back his timing back.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t strikeout,” said Smith, a two-sport star at Palo Verde High who hadn’t played baseball since his senior year and decided to focus on football full time in college at Nebraska.
It didn’t take Smith long to get his smooth left-handed stroke back, connecting on a home run to straight away centerfield with a wooden bat in his first game.
Smith never envisioned he’d be playing recreational baseball in Las Vegas at this stage of his life.
An offensive tackle in football, the 6-foot-6, 298-pound Smith was projected to be a mid-round selection during last week’s NFL Draft. But after breaking his fibula and shattering the ligaments in his ankle last August during Nebraska’s fall camp, he missed his entire senior season and his stock dropped.
That has left Smith, who several feel has the size and talent to play in the NFL, with a major dilemma.
He was selected Monday in the fifth round by the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League but knows that if he signs, he would likely have to spend the entire year in the developmental league. An NFL team has to pay a $50,000 transfer fee to bring a player in.
But with the NFL in the middle of its labor dispute and players locked out, teams are unable to negotiate with free agents. Smith’s representatives heard from multiple teams at the end of the NFL draft saying they were interested in bringing him in.
“We’re in a tough spot right now,” Smith said. “I might as well go to the UFL and get the reps I need. It’s just you never want to pass up an opportunity in the NFL, because that is obviously everyone’s dream.”
All undrafted players are in the same situation as Smith — patiently waiting as the labor issue is resolved instead of trying to earn a roster spot.
Smith, however, is fortunate he has the UFL spot as security. Several first-year players will have an uphill battle making a NFL team because a shortened training camp will limit the opportunities to learn a new system and get caught up to the speed of the game.
“It’s tough because I know that if I didn’t get hurt, I probably would have been picked,” Smith said. “I would have already had one foot in the door.”
Smith, who started all 14 games at left tackle in 2009 and 12 games in 2008, would be a perfect fit in Omaha with his ties to Nebraska football. Plus, the UFL would be a great avenue to showcase his skills post-injury.
“Mike is a great example of a player that can really benefit from the UFL,” said Joe Moglia, Omaha’s coach and team president. “This is an opportunity for Mike to showcase his abilities at the pro level.”
Smith has been living with his family in Summerlin the last two months and training at Philippi Sports Institute and Palo Verde. His ankle took longer to heal than the broken fibula, but he was finally cleared to return to the field in January, the day before the practice week began for the East-West Shrine game.
While Smith’s ultimate dream is the NFL, he is starting to accept that his career will likely include a year in Omaha.
Gerard Lawson, his high school teammate, was in a similar situation. When the Cleveland Browns cut Lawson last year, he signed with Hartford of the UFL. He eventually was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles for the playoffs.
In most years, Smith would be participating in a NFL rookie camp and not playing recreational baseball in Las Vegas.
“This is the most down time I’ve had in my life,” Smith said. “It’s killing me. I want to get out there and hit somebody. I just want to compete.”