After playing in Virginia, Cameron Smith returns to bolster Ridgefield’s chances

Ridgefield High School football player Cameron Smith poses for a portrait on Monday.

Ridgefield High School football player Cameron Smith poses for a portrait on Monday.

Will Aldam / Hearst Connecticut Media

A week before football practices began, Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan received a call from a familiar name.

It was a trying time for Callahan, who had two of his key players commit to play lacrosse in college and opt out of the football season. Cameron Smtih’s phone call would bring much needed relief.

Smith, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound guard who had donned the Ridgefield varsity uniform since his freshman year, informed Callahan he would be returning after transferring to Fork Union Academy in Virginia during the winter of 2020.

“It clearly helps a lot to get a kid like that back,” Callahan said. “I was getting used to it being the other way around. It was getting to a point where I was afraid to see my phone, but all of a sudden we got one back. It was refreshing.”

Smith had started for Ridgefield in 2019 as a sophomore, but when the CIAC football season was canceled he began to look for options.

“We learned that there would only be seven-on-seven and that us big guys would be doing strong man activities,” Smith said. “So nobody had a season, but especially the linemen. After hearing that, my parents and I spent some time thinking about what we were going to do.”

Smith stuck it out in the fall, competing in the challenges and participating in the abbreviated games, but when winter came it was time for a change.

“I completed the half season we had for seven-on-seven and strong man through September,” Smith said. “After that, over winter break I decided I was going to transfer for the spring season.”

Smith found a home at Fork Union Academy, a military prep school that has a history of sending players to high Division I programs and the NFL with alumni such as two-time All-Pro Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints and Carlos Hyde of the Seattle Seahawks, both of whom went to Ohio State.

“Because of what was happening with COVID, you can’t blame the kid,” Callahan said. “The way people bailed out of Connecticut, he is one of the only ones that came back, but when he left it was very tough. It isn’t something we run into a lot at Ridgefield. I know there are other teams that have kids transfer to prep schools, but we don’t have that a lot.”

Smith had to adjust to his new scenery quickly, but managed to do so and was able to improve himself during the spring season.

“I went there in January and played half a season, like three or four games,” Smith said. “It was definitely a shock with the coaching staff, all of them had played professionally. The competition was a lot harder, but I adapted. Even down in Virginia it is much more competitive. They eat, they breathe and they live football.”

During his semester away from home, Smith received an all-around football education that he said he wouldn’t have received otherwise.

“I found out that I wasn’t eating well and I wasn’t drinking enough water at the beginning,” Smith said. “That led to me getting tired and missing drills, so I learned the importance of what you are doing off the field.”

Smith also made improvements on the field, adjusting to the higher level of competition and getting accustomed to a more structured schedule.

“I definitely feel like I got much better,” Smith said. “I learned how to be more aggressive and how to bring the team spirit up when everybody is dogging and exhausted.”

When the semester was finished and Smith returned home for the summer, he was planning on returning to Virginia for his senior season.

“He could have easily stayed there,” Callahan said. “That is a tough existence, it is different than what everybody is used to. It is not only a military school, but a school that has a history of putting a lot of kids in the league. He really challenged himself to go down there and change his life to make sure he had football.”

It was not until after a long summer on the recruitment path, bouncing from camp to camp that Smith made the decision to return home to Ridgefield.

“I went to several college football camps over the summer, and returning two weeks before August I made the decision to come back,” Smith said. “I made that choice because although the competition was better, it was not the best fit for school.”

Entering his senior season and with the Connecticut football picture becoming more clear, the nostalgia of Ridgefield prevailed.

“Being a senior and having started at Ridgefield since freshman year, I felt like I owed it to my team to come back and help the program,” Smith said. “I have grown up with these kids and it is just so much more than about just football. It feels like there is more at stake here with rivalries between the school that I have always been around.”

When Smith informed his former coach that he would be coming back, the coaching staff and players welcomed him back seamlessly.

“The coaches and players here embraced me with open arms and it really has been a smooth transition,” Smith said. “It was a big decision made in a short amount of time but I believe I made the right choice for myself.”

Having spoken to Division I programs such as Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Michigan, Smith is a future recruit who will undoubtedly bolster this year’s Ridgefield squad.

“His teammates were ecstatic to have him back,” Callahan said. “The fraternity of football here at Ridgefield was glad to welcome back a guy from the program. He has physically matured well, and we are very optimistic about what he could do.”

For Callahan, Smith’s return is more helpful than just getting back of one of the team’s top players.

“A lot of the guys who haven’t played at this level led to a bit of a question mark for me as a coach in terms of leadership,” Callahan said. “Then Cam came in with some energy and leadership where he had the respect of his teammates. That has already helped a lot.”

With Ridgefield seniors returning to classes on Tuesday, Smith will take his next step in acclimating to the public school lifestyle again.

“It is pretty exciting coming back for classes,” Smith said. “I think it will be easier with the workload and the scheduling. The biggest thing about coming back to public school is being consistent, because nobody is holding you accountable here besides yourself, so it is easy to fall behind. There is a big responsibility in keeping everything in check.”

Will.Aldam@hearstmediact.com; @AldamWill