Former Maidstone United prospect Smalling has just won his first caps with England U21 this week.
"I was with Millwall as a youngster but as I lived in Kent it was quite a distance to travel," he said, "it was a bit disappointing, so I went to a club that was closer because I didn't want to miss training.
"It may be disheartening at the start when you find yourself in the non-league but if you keep your performance levels up and get to grips with the job in front of you, then you adapt pretty quickly.
"I thought I would get my chance eventually. I didn't give up. I had finished my A levels and was going to Loughborough to study Business Management. I was playing for Maidstone on a part-time basis. I always had the university at the back of my mind, I had the offers on the table. This has been a bonus for me.
"I'd like to set an example if there are people out there who have to drop down to non-league.
"There's always another level to kick on to and you never know what clubs are watching you, you just need to keep your performance level up."