SUMMERVILLE - The first thing Darin Smalls felt was pain. The first thing he thought was "my scholarship."
The Summerville defensive back and return specialist tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee on a punt return against Goose Creek in September, putting an end to his high school football career.
While he lay on the ground, Smalls' mind began to race. He was offered a scholarship by South Carolina over the summer, but now he wondered if the offer was in jeopardy.
He soon learned that Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier was a man of his word.
"They contacted me right away, and coach Spurrier called me a week later," said Smalls, a 5-11, 205-pounder who was considered the best defensive back in the state heading into his senior season. "He told me they were still committed. I was very lucky. I felt blessed to be able to stay with them."
Smalls' dreams of playing major college football became reality Wednesday on National Signing Day. He was one of five Summerville players who took a big step in their matriculation process with the stroke of a pin.
Recovery from a serious knee injury can be physically and mentally challenging. Smalls was able to relax after Spurrier said his offer was still on the table. But that was only the beginning of Smalls' rehab.
He traveled to Columbia for surgery, which was performed by USC team doctor Jeffrey A. Guy. Smalls said he was cleared to begin jogging two days ago.
"I probably will push myself to start running at full speed by late March," said Smalls, who chose USC over Clemson, Florida State and West Virginia. "Whether I redshirt all depends on how quickly I recover the rest of the way."
Smalls earned all-state honors his junior year when he proved to be good in pass coverage and against the run. Smalls, who had explosive speed and ran a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash before the injury, recorded 58 tackles and five interceptions in 2012. He also compiled more than 600 return yards, with three returns going for touchdowns.
Smalls had the biggest game of his high school career the week before his season-ending injury. He scored two touchdowns - one on a 77-yard pass play, the other on a 76-yard punt return - in the Green Wave's victory over rival Berkeley.
Then came the knee injury against Goose Creek on Sept. 13.
"The first thing I thought was my scholarship," he said. "But then I got the call (from USC)."
The Charleston County and Berkeley County school districts both held National Signing Day ceremonies for students receiving athletic scholarships. The Charleston County event celebrated the success of 46 student-athletes, and Berkeley County recognized 30.
West Ashley High School led the way with 12 students receiving scholarships.
One of the most notable occurrences was three local football players receiving appointments to West Point. West Ashley offensive lineman Brett Toth, Bishop England running back Nick Shiver and James Island linebacker Dennis Washington will all play football at Army.