Dwayne Smith’s star was burning bright in 2002.

A true freshman, Smith amassed 552 rushing yards in his debut campaign. That total was the fourth-highest in school history, behind three guys named Dayne, Davis and Ameche. That’s some pretty fair company. In his lone start, he racked up 122 yards and two touchdowns against Illinois. The bruising rookie from Chicago seemed destined for big things.

That promise remained evident in 2003. After a lingering ankle injury that limited Anthony Davis’ playing time and effectiveness, Smith stepped in and led the Badgers in rushing with 857 yards. After a 193-yard effort against Illinois — one in which he found the end zone three times — he garnered Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Then the picture began to get murky. Fast forward to February 2004. After an incident at a party, second-degree sexual-assault charges were brought against the Wisconsin running back. The news came as a shock to many. It seemed so out of character for Smith, a National Honor Society student and, from all accounts, an all-around decent guy.

After a brief suspension, Smith returned to the familiar world of UW football and prepared for the 2004 season, which was to be his last as Davis’ understudy.

Fast forward to fall camp. Matters for Smith were beginning to settle down on the legal front. His impending trial had been pushed back indefinitely after his lawyer sought dismissal of the charges. That is when Smith’s world really came crashing down.

After Smith began to miss significant amounts of Wisconsin’s pre-season practice, rumors began running wild of a medical condition that spelled the end of his football career. Unfortunately for Smith, those fears were confirmed when the university announced that he had been diagnosed with the heart condition hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, one of the biggest causes of sudden death among athletes.

This development was every bit as surprising as Smith’s legal troubles. A chiseled 225 pounds, Dwayne Smith looked as healthy as anyone in the world. Nonetheless, he suffered from a condition affecting less than 1 percent of the population.

Some might say it came at the worst possible time for Smith. Granted this seems a bit cold and callous when dealing with a man accused of a heinous and disgusting crime, but there’s no arguing that he could have used the distraction. Hitting the practice field allowed him to immerse himself in something other than the scrutiny and speculation that goes hand in hand with a high-profile trial.

In my book, however, the diagnosis could not have come at a better time, for a couple of reasons. The first and most obvious of those reasons is his HCM was discovered in time to treat it. According to the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association, there is an estimated 1 to 2 percent chance of sudden death that accompanies HCM. Cardiomyopathy killed Boston Celtic Reggie Lewis and Maryland star Hank Gathers. Doctors diagnosed Smith before his name was added to that list. Treatment is available for his condition, allowing him to make the most of what he has been given.

Secondly, Smith now has time to focus on the big picture and put his life in order. Once considered one of the “good guys,” his formerly pristine image has become tainted, to say the least.

And don’t mistake this as sympathy for an accused rapist. If he is indeed guilty of the charges brought against him, then he deserves everything he has coming and more. But until the final verdict is read — and only two people truly know what went on — I’ll leave Smith’s judgment for 12 others.

Regardless of whether he is found guilty or not, he exercised some poor judgment that night and put himself in a situation he should not have been in.

The good news for Dwayne Smith is that life will go on. He can do some soul-searching, focus on his schoolwork and contribute to the football team he has given so much to in a student-coach role. Now is the time for Smith to face the music and either pay his debt to society or move on.

Whatever the outcome, he has one important reason to be thankful: He’s alive. HCM may have ended his career, but it did not end his life. He’s only 20. His life is only beginning.