Zach Charbonnet has no qualms about playing with physicality. In his first game at Michigan last fall, Charbonnet earned plaudits for his pass protection. At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Charbonnet has the strength to go through defenders as a runner. Sometimes literally.

That’s where the story of Nathan Smidt comes in.

Smidt, it should be noted, is completely fine now. These days, his coach, Darren Carr, jokes with him about it. There are no hard feelings — in fact, just the opposite. Smidt interacted with Charbonnet for all of a millisecond on a football field during the 2018 season, bodies colliding, bouncing off each other, Charbonnet hurtling forward against undersized competition.

“I tried to hit him,” Smidt said, “and almost got paralyzed.”

The series of events leading to that hit started the week prior. A Bakersfield Christian safety got suspended for the first half of their game against Oaks Christian, Charbonnet’s team. Smidt, a wide receiver, would have to step in.

It was early in the season, but already clear that Oaks Christian was one of the top programs in California, thanks in no small part to Charbonnet.

“You saw this kid, running back, this guy was like an Eddie George type guy,” Carr said. “You know what I mean? Just a huge, massive kid. Like there’s no way this kid is a senior in high school, but we get out there, we see them pregame, like this guy’s a full-grown man.”

There wasn’t much optimism going into the game on Bakersfield Christian’s end, in large part because it simply couldn’t bring down Charbonnet. It tried to preach fundamentals — get to the football and tackle cleanly. Wrap Charbonnet’s legs up and roll.

But Carr calls Charbonnet, “probably the most impressive kid I’ve ever seen,” in 15 years as a high school coach. There was only so much he could ask of his team.

Oaks Christian won the game 83-0. Things went off the rails fast.

Smidt hadn’t played defense before. On the game’s first drive, Oaks Christian lined Charbonnet up inside on a trips formation and threw him a swing pass. He made two corners miss, then saw Smidt between him and 50 yards of grass. He slowed down. Smidt dropped his head. Charbonnet lowered his shoulder and made hard contact.

“I just remember right when I hit him, just like black,” Smidt said. I just remember being on the ground.” 

He couldn’t speak or move his arms, but he could feel them. The game stopped for about 30 minutes. There was a trainer telling him they had to get an ambulance, but Smidt managed to convince his mom not to go, eventually getting helped off the field. He couldn’t shake a feeling in his arms. Oaks Christian had a specialist, who told Smidt’s mother he needed to go to the hospital. He thought it was a bit of an overreaction and, he said, “I kinda wanted to keep playing.” Still, he spent the night in the hospital as the doctors ran scans.

The next day, the injury was initially diagnosed as a stinger and Smidt figured he’d be able to play in a couple weeks. Then the doctors took another look at the scans. It turned out Smidt had fractured his T2, T3 and T4 vertebrae. He needed to spend four months in a brace.

“I was so surprised. I kept losing feeling in — getting like, shots of numbness down my legs and my arms and stuff,” Smidt said. “I thought that was all just part of the stinger.”

Smidt’s recovery took some time, but he got back on the field for his senior year, and Bakersfield Christian won a state championship in its division. Charbonnet is entering a sophomore year at Michigan in which he’ll compete for the lion’s share of carries. Now, this is all just a memorable fragment of the past.

“We tell him, man, we’re like, ‘Hey, when the Pittsburgh Steelers draft (Charbonnet) in three years, you got a story to tell everybody,’ ” Carr said.

Video courtesy of Darren Carr

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