RENTON — Typically, pro football players are noted trenchermen, hearty food inhalers whose approach causes the all-you-can-eat buffets to shutter windows and lock up doors.
But Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith is a delicate eater by necessity, and that makes fueling up a time-consuming – if not strenuous – endeavor.
Because he suffers from achalasia, a disorder of the esophagus that makes it difficult to swallow food, taking in enough calories to support the activity of a professional athlete feels like a part-time job.
“It’s a battle,” Smith said Wednesday. “It’s easier for other guys; (for me) it doesn’t go down as fast.
He aims for 4,500 calories a day to sustain his weight, but it’s a challenge.
Smith’s needs are more relevant to the Seahawks the rest of the season because he steps into the starting lineup at the weakside linebacker spot vacated by K.J. Wright, who suffered a broken foot Sunday against San Francisco.
The versatile Smith has started five games this season because of the suspension of starting strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin and an injury to middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Seahawks linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. recruited Smith out of Taft High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., and coached him during his career at USC.
Smith was a touted high school running back who followed his older brother, Steve, to USC. The elder Smith was a star receiver
who went on to an NFL career, mostly with the New York Giants.
What Norton saw from the start were the same qualities he admires in Smith to this day.
“He’s really smart, really fast, strong … a fantastic football player who really enjoys what he does,” Norton said.
“When I say ‘fast,’ I mean exceptionally fast, weapon fast … wow fast,” Norton said. “You watch the films and he’s just a flash across the screen.”
In 2009, though, while playing for Norton and head coach Pete Carroll at USC, Smith started noticing weight loss. At 6-0, 226 pounds, he was already on the smallish side for a linebacker.
A surgery helped with his eating problem, but did not fully cure it.
“It’s something I deal with every day,” Smith said. “Just part of my life. Everybody has things they go through. I just deal with it.”
He said he monitors his intake and calorie count, and his slow eating is a regimen he’s going to have to follow all his life.
While other teams might have been reluctant to draft him, Carroll and Norton recognized the value of his speed and familiarity with the defensive scheme, and picked him in the seventh round of the 2011 draft.
“He’s been a really steady part of our team,” Carroll said. “And whenever we’ve called upon him for highlighted playing time, he’s always played well. He’s given us play at two linebacker spots and at nickel and been a core special teams guy throughout. When he steps in, it doesn’t affect our thinking in any way. We can do everything we want to.”
Having played in the Carroll defense for so long has made it easy for Smith to jump in without much notice and fill the necessary role.
“I’ve taken practice reps since I was in college with some of these defenses,” Smith said.
Through his three seasons with the Seahawks, Smith hasn’t considered himself a reserve, and hasn’t had that mindset.
“You just have to know you’re important because if you make a mistake, you can cost your team a game,” he said. “You don’t want to be in that position. So you focus on doing your job well and improving in other ways when you get the chance.”
His readiness in times of need has certainly validated the chance the Seahawks took on an undersized linebacker dealing with a condition that threatened to hamper his ability to sustain his weight and strength.
“I don’t know if he’s exceeded expectations of a seventh-round pick,” Carroll said. “But we certainly have seen him rise up and be a crucial member of our football team for quite a while now.”