COLUMBIA — He was hurt, and it was past time to keep telling himself he wasn’t hurt.
OrTre Smith didn’t think the constant pain in his knee was a big deal. It had been there as long as he could remember, and it always went away.
“It was just a lot of aches and pains,” Smith’s mother, Tashia Greene, said. “We’d soak it in Epsom salts, put it in a cold bath … he didn’t really say it was that bad.”
Smith, described by everyone that knows him as a man of few words, played every sport he could before blossoming into a starting wide receiver as a freshman at Wando, the state’s largest high school.
The knee hurt. Not always. Smith figured it was the price of filling into the 6-foot-4 frame that made him a coveted college prospect, and as long as the pain kept going away, he could handle it.
“I remember sporadic knee swelling,” Wando High coach Jimmy Noonan recalled. “We’d sit him down and relax, it would go down, he’d get after it and we would do it again a couple of weeks later.”
Two weeks into his sophomore season at South Carolina, the pain persisted. Smith played through it, busting his tail to get on the field as a freshman and performing admirably, starting 10 of 13 games and hauling in 30 catches with three touchdowns.
He wasn’t giving that up. No way. So through summer, preseason camp, and games against Coastal Carolina and Georgia last season, he told himself it wasn't that bad.
“OrTre never complains about anything. You ask him, ‘You OK?’ ‘I’m good, I’m good, I’m good,’” coach Will Muschamp said. “But it doesn’t look like he’s good.”
The medical term is a subluxation of the patella. The common term is a dislocating kneecap.
Smith put it as he’d be running his route, make his cut and it felt like somebody threw a brick into his shinbone. The ice, brace, cortisone and rest weren’t helping anymore.
“The coaches and the training staff were really close with me when Tre told me he couldn’t go any more, after Georgia,” Greene said. “He was just in excruciating pain, just couldn’t run, couldn’t do anything. We talked about it, and I told him, ‘Playing isn’t going to be there if you don’t get it fixed.’”
Smith turned back years of lying to himself by agreeing. A few days past his 20th birthday, he had surgery which nixed the rest of his season.
Eleven months later, he’s back.
“I’m getting my flow and everything, so everything’s going good,” Smith said. “It’s a relief, because being out, I just sat and watched.”
There’s still minor pain, some scar tissue to battle, but Smith is projected to be one of the Gamecocks’ top six receivers when the season begins on Aug. 31. He certainly isn’t counting on missing any more time.
“OrTre actually had his best day yesterday,” USC receivers coach Bryan McClendon said Tuesday. “The biggest thing with anybody that’s trying to get over an injury is just mentally being able to get through all of the stuff. That’s where I’ve seen the biggest growth in him.”
Smith had to first understand why he was hurting before he could repair what was hurting. An ankle injury as a senior at Wando was the latest hint that all wasn’t normal.
“It’s genetic,” Greene said. “I was always taller than the rest of the girls my age, and I just thought it was growing pains. My knees and hips hurt, but I always thought I’d just play through it.”
Greene played volleyball at Clemson from 1989 to 1990, also through a balky kneecap. Technology and medicine at the time often had her on the trainer’s table, getting the joint drained or for minor arthroscopic surgery, but she never knew about the condition.
It wasn’t until age 40, when she tore her ACL playing rec-league softball, that she got the official diagnosis. When Smith was hurt at Wando, mom and son began to put the pieces together.
“There was soreness, but nothing major. But they would just go through the protocol and he would be fine,” she said. “He gained about 25 pounds in the strength program at USC, and I thought that might be the cause of the pain. His freshman year, he seemed to be OK, but he started to talk about his knee a little bit.”
The problem was eventually identified, yet Smith had to again test his perseverance. At 20 years old, he was back in his mother’s house, having to depend on her for everything while he couldn’t walk.
“It was really trying for him because he’s used to being one of the main guys,” she said. “Sitting out the entire season was like torture for him.”
But he got there. He’s ready to pick up where he left off as a freshman, and with Deebo Samuel gone to the NFL, there’s definitely a spot for him.
“I first met OrTre in the eighth grade and I was like a kid in a candy shop,” Noonan said. “There’s not a coach around that doesn’t want a field full of OrTres.”
He was hurt, but he’s past it.
Joyner working with other positions
Muschamp confirmed Thursday that Dakereon Joyner is still repping at quarterback during practice, but is also helping out elsewhere. He declined to specify which roles but said Joyner's spots will continue to develop.
Joyner lost the backup QB role to Ryan Hilinski Monday. He decided to remain at USC, though, and keep working at spots where he could potentially impact the team.
Lauded for his athleticism, Joyner could possibly help at receiver, running back, tight end, H-back or even defensive back. Muschamp also credited Joyner’s determination and selfless attitude despite losing the QB battle.