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Sometimes, a man grins: The beauty and mystery of 'Titans Rusty Smith'

Quarterback Rusty Smith has started only one game in the NFL. But on YouTube, there stands a humble relic in his honor. It is full of mystery, and it is meant for no one.

Over the last 20 years, there have been five quarterbacks who started only one career game, and threw at least 30 passes in that game. That's a considerable vote of confidence, since on average, an NFL quarterback throws about that many passes in a game under normal circumstances.

On Nov. 28, 2010, the Titans made Rusty Smith one of those men. The week prior, franchise quarterback Vince Young injured his hand. After coach Jeff Fisher refused to put him back in the game, Young chucked his shoulder pads into the crowd, left the field, and never played for the Titans again. Fisher installed Smith, their sixth-round pick in the draft just a few months prior, as the starter.

Smith's numbers were terrible. During the Titans' 20-0 shutout at the hands of the Texans, he threw three interceptions and managed only 138 yards through the air. Curiously, Tennessee balanced his 31 passing attempts with only 11 rushing attempts. Chris Johnson, coming off a 2,000-yard season, had only seven touches. They left Rusty out there to just keep on truckin', and eventually, to complete one of the worst starting-quarterback careers of the 21st century.

His career was tethered to one brief, but lasting, image:


That's Rusty Smith's grandpa, looking on with crossed arms, a grimace, and a rueful shake of the head. Smith remains on the Titans' roster today, but hasn't started a game since.

For a reason that I can't remember, but that must have been important, I recently searched for Rusty Smith videos on YouTube. On YouTube, the most popular Rusty Smith is a guy who offers tips and tricks for working out your muscle groups while you are in jail. I scrolled past him to find the Rusty Smith I'm writing about, and the reason I'm writing about him:

Before I found this video, I believe it had about 10 views. Rusty Smith, at 1/8th speed, jogging away from some sort of practice function. A series of clops, which at first seem to drop crudely in tune with his footsteps. An audio track that sounds like a submarine tracking a school of whales. Smith grins as he enters the tunnel, past a couple of indifferent-seeming people. But the cameraman, he cares. He follows Smith as he gallops into the dark. The video distorts at the end, as Smith leaves a jagged trail of pixels in his wake.

I would call it high art, were it intentional, but it surely isn't. The video's channel seems to be run by a regular dude, filming regular-dude things: a parade, a track meet, a boating trip. I can neither find nor construct a reasonable explanation for why a six-second clip was slowed down to last 53 seconds and then uploaded.

It doesn't feel to me like a thing a human being would upload. It feels like the handiwork of a few rogue automated processes: Maybe some faulty compression software that stretches out the video, and an app that uploads it without the owner's knowledge. At any rate, it happened, and I stumbled upon something that didn't feel like was for me, or for anyone at all.

I reached out to Pete (@sorryeveryone), a trusted friend:

Jon: I struggle to know its meaning.

Pete: Jon, are you familiar with the concept of "found poetry"?

Jon: I am not.

Pete: The short of it is that the language that already occurs in our lives is often quite poetic, and so by simply dwelling on something someone says, or a press release, or anything really, we might find some poetry. So "found poems" are not written, so much as curated.

What this video is, Jon, is found poetry. It's gorgeous, and there are so many things going on -- the hand stretching with the football to be signed, Smith looking for a moment like he's smiling before waving off any autographs, the repeated thunk of the slowed-down sound.

Jon: The weird, wavy distortion near the end as he runs through the tunnel.

Pete: That neither of the people standing toward the front of the tunnel even so much as look at him. He's wearing a red jersey, literally marked as special.

Jon: I couldn't tell whether he was waving off autograph requests, or shielding himself from the camera. The latter would not make any sense, but that's a thing it looks like to me. In either case, he's grinning. Why is he grinning? I don't need an answer, I just need to ask.

Pete: Part of the reason I like poetry is that it tells me things about this world that I have no other way of learning. In this case, we learn that sometimes, a man grins.

It's a video I find significant, for reasons I feel it would be unproductive, inappropriate, and kind of annoying to deconstruct too much. But it does remind me of Blacksmith Scene #1:

It was filmed in 1893 by William K. L. Dickson, an employee of Thomas Edison, and it's the oldest existing footage of actors playing roles. Three men pound away at an anvil, stop to take a swig from a bottle of beer, then get back to work. It's so simple and ordinary that it seems a few degrees removed from actual merit, as though it should be seen on the screen of a character seen on a screen in the background of a TV show.

I'm reminded of this because although its ostensible value would suggest that no human being would have made it, we know that a human being made it.

Rusty Smith might not appear in an NFL game again. If he does, he'll probably just dole out garbage-time handoffs for a little while. But in Titans Rusty Smith, he starred in a work of found poetry that is unlike anything else. It lives in territory that NFL Films won't ever perceive, much less explore. It is without intent and filled with mystery.