- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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MOBILE, Ala. -- Even for the most decorated of stars, Senior Bowl week can be an overwhelming experience.
Everywhere you turn, there's some NFL scout or analyst picking apart your technique, your inability to separate from a defender or a flaw in your delivery.
It's Football Dissection 101. The scrutiny is relentless. The pressure is immense, and there's a ton of money out there to be made or lost.
Excuse Marcus Smith if he sees things a bit differently.
The record-setting New Mexico wide receiver is soaking up each practice, each drill and each play as if it were his last. He's focused, he's hungry, and most of all, he's having fun.
It's the way his late mother, Sheila Smith, would have wanted it.
"I know she's watching, so I'm not about to take any plays off, whether it's a game or a practice," said Smith, who had a breakthrough 2007 season with a school-record 91 catches for 1,125 yards and four touchdowns. "I can feel her right there on my shoulder. I know she'll always be with me."
His mother's memory is what kept Smith going this season. She died of a brain aneurysm Sept. 16, just hours after Smith tied a career high with 11 catches and also had 217 all-purpose yards in New Mexico's 29-27 win over Arizona. It was the Lobos' first win over a Pac-10 team in 28 years.
He didn't learn until the next morning that his mother, a single mom who worked as an in-home assisted living nurse in San Diego, had passed away at the age of 52. The grim news came from one of his friends back home in San Diego.
"I talked to my mother four times a day," Smith said, his voice trailing off. "The last time I talked to her was before that Arizona game. I can't help but wonder what else I would have said to her if I'd known that was going to be the last time I would talk to her."
Smith felt so alone.
His father had never been a part of his life. His oldest brother, Maurice, had already been dead for 13 years. He was shot and killed near the San Diego apartments they lived in while riding his bicycle. Smith was only 9 at the time, and it was the start of a tragic seven-month stretch in 1994 that taught him at a young age how fleeting life can be.
Maurice's drive-by shooting occurred in March of that year. His grandmother (Sheila's mother), Barbara Lewis, died in August of cancer. A day after her funeral, Smith's uncle, William Lewis, was shot and killed following an argument just down the street from where they all grew up. The only reason he was in town was to bury his mother.
Smith has a second brother, Alex, who's currently in prison and isn't scheduled to be released until later this year.
"I know what pain is, and unfortunately, I've had a lot of experience dealing with it," Smith said. "You learn to keep moving forward, to keep believing. That's what my mom taught me. I saw what it did to her when my oldest brother was killed, but she didn't quit on me.
"I'm not going to quit on her and quit on the dreams she had for me."
Smith was accompanied to the Senior Bowl this week by his uncle, Ronald Lewis, one of Sheila's other brothers, who has stepped in and been an adviser, surrogate father and sounding board for Smith.
Lewis, who played golf at Grambling, had already promised Sheila that he would help her fend off the agents when they started calling last year. But his role only grew after Sheila suddenly died.
"I was already going to guide him, but it just became more magnified," Lewis said. "The best thing about football this season for Marcus was that it was his outlet. He was able to stay focused and take care of his business and play football.
"One of his greatest attributes is his character. Not much rattles him."
The 6-foot-1, 214-pound Smith received his Senior Bowl invitation just before New Mexico's bowl game. As much as anything, it was a symbol of his perseverance this season.
Even with his mother's death, he didn't miss a single game and only missed a couple of practices to attend her funeral and also make funeral arrangements. He was saddled with $6,000 in funeral expenses and remains grateful to First Community Bank in Albuquerque for establishing a fund to help him pay off those expenses.
Through his grief, he played on. He was on the field against Sacramento State a few days after his mother's death. He practiced for a few days that next week, flew to San Diego for the funeral and then returned to play that weekend against BYU.
"The team rallied around him and helped him get through some of the rough times, and I think he was honoring his mother," said New Mexico coach Rocky Long, whose Lobos finished 9-4 and beat Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl for their first postseason victory in 46 years. "His mother wanted him to stay in school and finish his career. It was hard on him. But she was an inspiration to him and allowed him to hang in there."
Sheila was also the one who convinced Smith to stay at New Mexico after he toyed with the idea of transferring elsewhere earlier in his career.
"There were times he wanted to go home and times she wouldn't let him come home," Long said. "She wanted him out of that environment in San Diego, and I think she knew what he was capable of here."
No matter what path Smith has to take to the NFL, don't look for him to be easily discouraged.
Some have questioned his speed, even though he once beat Reggie Bush during their San Diego high school track days. What's more, Smith's best football may still be ahead of him. He came to New Mexico as a running back and didn't even start playing football until the ninth grade.
The thing NFL scouts like about him is his willingness to go over the middle and catch the ball in traffic. He's a good runner after the catch and powerful enough to outmuscle defensive backs, as evidenced by his 355-pound bench press.
"A lot of people might not have thought I was going to be in this situation," said Smith, who also returned kickoffs at New Mexico. "I really didn't think I was going to be in this situation, one of the premier wideouts coming out my senior year. I never thought I'd be here at the Senior Bowl with some of the guys you see on TV every week.
"I just enjoy playing the game, and my main drive still is having as much fun as I can. It's football. It's not life. There are a lot more serious things in life. Trust me, I know. It's not supposed to be something that gets you to the point where you can't enjoy it.
But you also realize that your opportunities on the field are something that you can't take for granted, either.
"If a ball comes your way, you catch it. You never know when that next one's coming or if it's coming."
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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