FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Kiero Small took the long, sometimes tedious, road to Arkansas — including stops at military school, the working world and junior college.
The senior, however, has finally found a home with the Razorbacks, who have embraced the Baltimore native as the heart and soul of their team.
It's a role the 24-year-old fullback has celebrated with as much enthusiasm as he has his adopted home, born out of a sense of humility that only failure can bring. Small learned to appreciate everything and everyone around him, resulting in his role as one of the unquestioned leaders at Arkansas.
"He's put the time in," cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson said. "It doesn't matter what side of the ball or special teams, all of our players and coaches can see that he's an unbelievable human being."
Now, after missing most of last season with a broken foot, Small is ready to show once and for all what he can bring to the football field under first-year coach Bret Bielema. Small calls the coach's power-style of offense a "match made in heaven."
Small arrived at Arkansas following the team's appearance in the 2011 Sugar Bowl as a lightly regarded junior college signee out of California. He made an immediate impression on teammates and coaches alike with his physical style, highlighted by his habit of breaking facemasks while delivering punishing blocks.
It didn't take long for the Razorbacks to learn there was much more than just a powerful football player behind Small's passion.
Small's first dose of reality came immediately after high school, and it came in the form of a lower-than-hoped SAT score. He opted for a prep school about an hour and a half away from his home in Pennsylvania.
He remembers that first night of military school all too well. More specifically, he remembers 4 a.m. the following morning.
"There were drums and bells going off, and everybody was screaming to fall in outside your room," Small said, smiling. "That was military school. If you haven't been, don't go anywhere near it."
Small left after one semester, returning home to Baltimore with no real plans. It didn't take long for his father, Johnny Stith, to deliver a "work or go to school" edict, so Small opted for the former — grinding out more than a year at the family's T-shirt shop in downtown Baltimore. He spent his days riding the bus to and from work, opening the shop when his dad wasn't there, counting inventory and learning about the working world.
"I can't do this," Small thought.
With the help of some family connections and his high school highlight tape, Small wound up at Hartnell Junior College in California. He shared a two-bedroom apartment with six other teammates, but Small had found his way back onto the football field. And he did so with a new sense of appreciation for what he had, a sense that paid off with an All-American performance while splitting time at fullback and linebacker in 2010.
"I knew at that point that whenever I did find a school after junior college, I was going to cherish it," Small said.
His junior college connections opened the door to Arkansas, and his recruitment took less than a week before Small knew he wanted to join a team fresh off a BCS bowl appearance.
Small helped the Razorbacks earn a trip to the Cotton Bowl in his first season with his crushing blocks, helping Arkansas finish third in the Southeastern Conference with an average of 4.53 yards per carry. He was also set to see time at linebacker last year before the foot injury after the first game.
Last year's lost season was difficult for Small to handle. It wasn't that he was hurt that bothered him; it was the fact he wasn't able to go through the painful 4-8 season with his teammates.
"I would have been OK with losing with them," Small said. "I would have been cool going out with them like that, if that's how it had to go, but the fact I couldn't do anything about it was the toughest part."
Small is back on just offense this season, eager for more of a prominent role under Bielema. He's doing so with the same sense of appreciation as before, perhaps even more so now that he knows this is his final chance before a return to the working world.
"It has been a journey," said Leslie Stith, Small's mother. "Football has always been a given for him, but I think he fully appreciates the fullness of the experience and hard work now. Looking back now at the process, I'm kind of glad it happened the way it happened. He's reaping the rewards of it now, and his dad and I couldn't be more proud."