COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Having come so far in such short time, Troy Smith knows he can’t rest now.

There is one more game in his college career, one more chance to show a lot of people they were wrong about him, one more chance to prove he’s not just a football player, he’s a quarterback.

The chance to win a Heisman Trophy this weekend is just another step along the way.

“This is the beginning of the end, but no one is looking at it like that,” he said, referring to No. 1 Ohio State’s Jan. 8 date with Florida in the national championship game. “Everyone on the team is focused on finishing out the season. We’re getting ready to play on the biggest stage and I know we’ll be ready.”

Smith is 25-2 record as a starter at Ohio State. His numbers suggest he may be the best at his position in school history – a record 30 touchdown passes and 67 percent completion rate this season with only five interceptions.

More than that, he’s at his best when stakes are highest. He is only the second Ohio State quarterback to go 3-0 as a starter against archrival Michigan – Tippy Dye (1934-36) is the other. In those games, plus showdowns with No. 2 Texas this year and No. 6 Notre Dame in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Smith has averaged 50 yards rushing, 294 passing yards with 11 TD passes with one interception.

His defining moment – and top play on his Heisman highlight reel this season – came when he avoided two pass rushers, reversed direction and pinpointed a long pass for a 37-yard scoring strike to Brian Robiskie in a 28-6 win over Penn State.

“That play that Smith made when we almost had him, he threw that ball on the button in the end zone,” Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno said. “That was a super play.”

Smith, who graduated last spring with a degree in communications and is working on another in black studies, is the epitome of a team player.

“His determination, he had that all his life, whether that was on the good end or the bad end,” says his high school coach and father figure, Ted Ginn Sr. “He has a strong mind. But people like Troy … you can be so strong in knowing something sometimes that you might bypass something that you really need to have.”

The 22-year-old Smith had a tough childhood. His mother, Tracy Smith, raised three kids; his father wasn’t in his life.

Sports proved a respite, and Smith thrived from the beginning – a scrawny, whippet-fast kid playing on the streets, parks and sandlots of Cleveland. That’s when he started dreaming of being a big-time quarterback. But there were rough spots along the road.

During a high school basketball game in 2000, witnesses said Smith purposely elbowed a white player and knocked him unconscious. Years later, Smith told Sports Illustrated he lashed out because racial slurs were thrown at him during the game.

He was dismissed from the team at private St. Edward High School in suburban Lakewood. He soon transferred to inner-city Glenville, where he starred in football and basketball.

“You have to remember what the perception of Troy was,” Ginn Sr. said. “It was, ‘You don’t want him on your team.”‘

Smith blossomed at quarterback. And Ginn Sr. told recruiters Smith wouldn’t be an “athlete” in college – he was a quarterback. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel agreed.

Early in his college career, Smith was involved in a fight outside an Ohio State dormitory in the fall of 2003 and was found guilty of disorderly conduct.

Then an NCAA investigation determined he took $500 from an Ohio State booster in the spring of 2004. He had to repay the money, sit out the Buckeyes’ bowl game and the 2005 opener.

There were also roadblocks on the field. Just more than two years ago, he failed to play in three straight games while watching big-name recruit Justin Zwick – who was in the same class – play quarterback. Smith could read the handwriting on the gray walls at Ohio Stadium.

Hurt and seemingly forgotten, he hinted that he might transfer. Then the Buckeyes fell into a three-game swoon, Zwick injured a shoulder injury and Smith stepped in. Except for the two games he was forced to sit out, he’s been in charge of the offense since.

Now Smith is looking forward to bringing a special guest to Saturday’s Heisman announcement.

“Just taking my mother to a situation where she’s never been is great,” he said. “Neither of us has been to New York.”

He doesn’t want to leave empty-handed. Five other Ohio State players have won the coveted statuette, including the only two-time winner, Archie Griffin.

“If I get a chance to hoist that trophy and bring it back to The Ohio State University,” Smith said, “it would be great.”

AP-ES-12-05-06 1704EST

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