Photos by Hillary Ehlen and special to Bison Illustrated
Ryan Smith, one of the greatest receivers to wear a Bison uniform, has now moved on to his next challenge after life in professional football.
Ryan Smith is as grounded of a guy as they come. Yes, he is perhaps one of the greatest wide receivers to play at North Dakota State. Yes, he took his receiving talents to Canada and became a premier wide receiver in the CFL. However, Smith knows what is most important to him. That being family, friends and community with football coming behind all of those elements. So when he decided to step away from professional football in March of last year, at only 25-years-old, some were caught off guard. Yet, for Smith, the decision came down to those elements that came before football. Many professional athletes would opt to do the opposite, “for love of the game” as some may say, but not Ryan Smith. He stayed grounded and stuck to his Wahpeton and Bison roots.
Coming to NDSU from Wahpeton High School in 2010, the common saying following Smith was his size. While he only stands 5-foot-7, he was able to rush for over 2,000 yards for the Huskies in consecutive seasons in 2008 and 2009. Smith’s versatility left coach Craig Bohl stumped on where to play him coming into his freshman campaign.
While he was not heavily utilized on the offensive end in 2010, Smith did make a difference on special teams. He acted as the team’s punt returner and accumulated 10.7 yards per punt return in his first season. Though NDSU was on the cusp of their monumental run of FCS Championships, that 2010 campaign saw the Bison go 9-5 in the regular season. Many fans will recall their loss to Eastern Washington in the FCS Quarterfinals that season. However, Smith and the Bison were coming with a vengeance in 2011.
It was at this time that Smith transitioned to wide receiver while also returning punts. Quickly becoming one of Brock Jensen’s favorite targets, Smith racked up 531 yards on 44 receptions that season. North Dakota State went 14-1 in 2011 en route to their first FCS National Championship.
Over the course of the next two seasons, Smith broke out, becoming NDSU’s best receiver. His junior and senior seasons saw him catch 103 balls for 1,252 yards. He also caught eight touchdowns in those two years. Perhaps even more impressive was the Bison dominance as a whole. In 2012 and 2013, the team went 29-1 and picked up two more FCS National Championships. For Smith, it was capturing their third championship in Frisco that meant the most to him in his time as a Bison.
“Knowing that we finished on top and there was nowhere else to go,” he said. “To finish on top with no regrets was one of the greatest feelings I have ever had playing football.”
One of the core values instilled in NDSU’s athletes is the drive to work hard. As an undersized receiver, Smith found this to be the most important value in his success. “I don’t care if you are undersized, outweighed, too tall or too short if you have a work ethic and bring that to whatever you are doing you will have a very good shot at being successful no matter what life brings in your way,” he said. “I like to say ‘the harder you work the luckier you get’.”
Another contributing factor to Smith’s success was the tremendous teammates he played alongside. This created an absolutely dominant football team on the field and an equally strong one off of the field. “I played with a lot of good players that made up the teams when I played,” he said. “Also I knew I had a work ethic. And if I could outwork my competition and opponents I knew I was going to always have a shot.”
However, Smith was not done with football quite yet. While he did get some looks from NFL scouts, he eventually signed with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders after his senior season. Oddly enough, he joined a roster with another North Dakota receiver, Weston Dressler. The familiarity with Dressler made the transition to professional football that much easier for Smith. “Weston is a great friend of mine. He taught me how to be a pro in the CFL. He taught me how to take care of my body and also taught little tidbits in how to be successful in the CFL,” he said. “It is kind of funny to think how it all works out being two North Dakota kids playing on the same team. But I enjoyed every minute of being able to play with him. He is a class act.”
Thanks in part to the tutelage of Dressler, Smith made an immediate difference for the Roughriders. It did not come without some growing pains, though. Smith did have to adjust to the speed of professional football compared to the Missouri Valley brand of football he had become accustomed to at NDSU. “With any upper-level football, there is always going to be a learning curve towards the new game. Especially with the CFL there were a lot more moving parts than American football and it took time to understand it,” he said. “But when you do start to understand what you can and can’t do and start playing fast the game gets very exciting.”
Even more exciting was the gaudy numbers Smith began to post for Saskatchewan. In his rookie season, he caught 13 balls for 159 yards in only eight games. The Roughriders ultimately lost in the West Division Semi-Finals that season. Smith blossomed in his second year in the CFL with 59 receptions, 991 yards and seven touchdowns. Saskatchewan went 3-15 that season and missed the playoffs.
In what would become his final year of professional football, Smith played in Winnipeg for the Blue Bombers. He caught 53 passes for 488 yards and one touchdown. The Blue Bombers fell to the BC Lions in the West Division Semi-Finals that year. After three years of professional play, Smith made a decision that is relatively unheard of in professional athletics. At age 25, he decided to retire.
“It is kind of funny to think about. I have played football since I have been about 5-years-old. That is 20 years of playing a sport that took a huge amount of my time and effort. Football was my life and I gave everything I had towards it and I have no regrets looking back,” Smith said. “It was time for me to give football up and start another chapter of my life. I wanted to be able to spend more time with my family and friends and playing football you do not always get to do that. It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. Like I said it was a huge portion of my life. I had some great teammates which became great friends and it was hard to leave that all behind. But I do not regret my decision at all.”
Smith recalls all of the great friends he made in his time in the CFL. It is those friends, not a big game, that make up Smith’s fondest memories in Canada. “I gained some great friends up there and I wasn’t expecting to at all. Made playing up there even more fun,” he said.
With football in his rearview mirror, the burning question for Ryan Smith is what came next. Smith graduated with a degree in business administration, but he never thought he would have to use it. Regardless, he knew he wanted to return to his hometown of Wahpeton. In the end, he decided to become a financial advisor for Edward Jones in Wahpeton.
“I wanted to work for Edward Jones because it is a great company to work for. My dad has worked for them for 37 years and I got to see that pay off if you work hard and do what you are supposed to do,” he said. “Another thing working for Edward Jones too is that I got to come back to my hometown. Wahpeton and Breckenridge is such a great area to be a part of. And the community has supported me from day one so it is time for me to give a little back and show my appreciation.”
One thing that can become a challenge for former athletes is the transition out of sports and into the professional sphere. For Smith, he used the lessons he learned in sports to seamlessly transition to his work with Edward Jones. “I would say there are both challenges and parts of my new job that football has helped me with. The challenge is that I’ve had to use my thinking power more than I did when I was playing football,” he said. “Football is a great sport though because it teaches you so many different aspects to life and what you need to prepare yourself for. I can honestly say that I have yet to experience something as hard as going through workouts and practices at NDSU. And I put that into perspective whenever I think something may be tough or a challenge.”
Again, Smith returns to the value of hard work instilled in him at NDSU. It is with this skill that he has been able to overcome challenges in his job at Edward Jones. “Everyday when I get to work, I have that mentality of control and what you can control and that is something that I learned at NDSU,” he said. “I can control that I work hard and how much effort I put into my job. When I do that, I know everything else will take care of itself and I know that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.”
While North Dakota State has proven the ability to prepare athletes for a profession in athletics, it often goes undetected that NDSU prepares athletes for work outside of sports. There is not an example more glaring than Ryan Smith. He has lived in both the world of professional athletics and a professional workplace. No matter the environment, the values and moments he picked up at NDSU have guided him through each. “I get to help people everyday better their financial situation. I make sure I give my all towards my clients just like I did in football,” he said. “I make sure there is no stone unturned. Just like in football I have to pay attention to the most specific details in order to better myself and also my clients’ lives.”
Football is still a part of Ryan Smith’s life. He has entertained the idea of coming back to the game as a coach. However, he wants to fully establish himself at Edward Jones first. “I have thought about it. It’s hard to just turn off football when it has been such a big portion of my life. I can see myself coaching down the road at the high school level,” he said.
Ryan Smith has driven on a road very few of us will ever drive on. He has lived the Bison dream, played professional football and set it aside for a career. Some may criticize his decision to leave football at such a young age. Once the layers are peeled back on what makes up Ryan Smith, there should be no room for criticism. He stayed down-to-earth and put things that are more important in front of something he loved. That decision alone is as commendable as his successes at NDSU and beyond.