|Friday, April 23
Mr. Smith goes the long way
By Todd Archer
Scripps Howard News Service
SAN DIEGO -- When the silver Cadillac pulled into the Lincoln Academy parking lot Wednesday, the kids wanted to see who was inside.
Akili Smith, wearing a Bengals hat and T-shirt, couldn't help but smile. He was back where it all started.
Smith could look down at the football field and remember pass after pass. He could see the small softball field where sometimes he would take batting practice, hitting baseballs into the tennis courts more than 300 feet away.
One by one, the kids came up and asked for an autograph. People took pictures. His best friend, David Mondy, took some shirts and hats to Smith's favorite teachers.
"I was one of those guys asking for autographs when I was here," Smith said. "I was asking for Terrell Davis' autograph and Marcus Allen's. Now I'm in the spotlight."
Inside the school there is a jersey case filled with Allen's No. 9 and Davis' No. 7. One day Smith would like to see his No. 11 hang next to Lincoln Academy's NFL stars.
"He's going to have to do something now," Wendell Bass, Lincoln's principal said. "When you have more than 25 guys go on to the NFL, you just can't retire anybody's number. He's going to have to put some stuff up."
The kid's all right
As soon as he would turn the corner, the kids would stop their game and start arguing.
"We got Akili," they would say. "He's on our team. We got him."
Back and forth it would go before it finally got settled. They would play and Smith's team would always win.
He played for the Skyline Pop Warner team with Rashaan Salaam, who won the Heisman Trophy at Colorado, "and we won every game," Smith said.
Instead of attending Morse High School, Smith spent his freshman and sophomore years at Madison High, but he played on the junior-varsity team.
"He was like a man among boys," his father, Ray Smith, said.
Instead of transferring to Morse to play with his Pop Warner friends, he went to Lincoln Academy, the rival school.
Smith had to beat out an incumbent, something which he would have to do at every stop along his football journey.
"He threw one pass, and I said to Coach, 'Well, we know who the quarterback is,' " current Lincoln coach Tony Jackson said. "He was that good."
Smith led the Hornets to the San Diego County championship game his junior year. As a senior, Smith's team lost in the first round of the playoffs.
"One day we counted the number of touchdown passes that were dropped," former Lincoln coach Vic Player said. "This is no exaggeration. It was 30."
Schools clamored for him, and he signed a letter of intent to play at San Diego State. He was named a Parade Magazine All-American, but he did not reach the required college-entrance scores. Shortly thereafter, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in the seventh round.
Choosing a different field
"I think one of the things, if I could do it all over again, was the fact that he played three sports," Ray Smith said. "It was good while he was in high school, and all the coaches wanted him to play, but it took away from his academics."
Ray Smith was a terrific athlete at Lincoln Academy in the mid-1970s. He led San Diego County in interceptions as a senior and was drafted by the California Angels in the 11th round.
Instead of signing for $3,500, Smith went to Southwestern College, but his baseball career never materialized. In November 1977, Smith was sent to Chino state prison for his role in a robbery. He helped set up the getaway car.
"Poor selection of friends," the elder Smith said. "Poor choices. Someone said you gain control of your life by the choices you make. If you make the wrong choices, you pay the piper. If you make the right choices, you reap the benefits."
Released from prison on April 12, 1979, Smith vowed to show his son, who was 3 at the time, the right way.
"Every father needs to be involved in the total picture," Smith said. "There's so much going on in this world that it's important a father is there to safeguard for the future."
Soon after prison, Smith started the Triple Crown Youth Coalition, which helps at-risk kids. He also became an assistant minister at Mount Airy Baptist Church. He gained custody of his son when Akili was 6.
"I had him in the program," the father said. "I wanted him to see the full picture. I wanted him to see the consequences if he made the wrong choices."
Six hours a day over the summer, Akili Smith earned minimum wage, working in the blazing summer sun. He removed graffiti. He cleaned senior citizens' yards. He cleaned canyons. He was side by side with gang bangers.
"Working with my dad showed me the importance of making the right decisions," Smith said. "I'd always hear how this person ended up shot or this guy was in jail or this guy was on drugs. My dad kept me away from that."
When Smith was 17, he was sent to Bradenton, Fla., to play rookie baseball in 1993. He was a catcher in high school, but he was immediately made an outfielder
After three summers with a .176 career average, Smith was released by the Pirates. His father's dream was over.
"It was probably my sport," Ray Smith said. "I was living my life through Akili. I didn't know until later when he said every time he threw a baseball he thought of football."
Running a reverse
Father and son chose Grossmont because the coach, Dave Jordan, had a history of throwing the ball.
"You could see at the start he was raw," Jordan said. "He didn't know really what he was doing, but he still beat out the starter. He won a couple of his games by himself."
In two years at Grossmont, Smith threw 49 touchdown passes and had just 18 interceptions. He was named the nation's top junior-college recruit.
"What he did at Oregon, you can put on tapes of our games and see the same thing," Jordan said. "When he was here I didn't realize how good he was at the time."
Most people in San Diego thought Smith would sign with San Diego State, leading the hometown team to glory. Instead he chose Oregon.
But before he could think about Division I football, Smith had to pass a geology class. His stepmother, Karen, would go to class with him.
"I told the teacher the only time you won't see me is when he has to take a test," she said. "I kept asking him, 'Do you want to go to the show?' He either had to stay with his friends or get home and study. He had to tell me what he wanted. I know what I had to do to help."
Smith passed the course, and the day he left for Eugene, Ore., his daughter, Emani, was born.
"You want to be with your daughter every single day, but I couldn't because of school," Smith said. "I cherish every time I'm with her."
Becoming the mighty Duck
"Jason was in the system for three years," Ducks coach Mike Bellotti said. "He was more comfortable with it. Akili didn't know what he didn't know."
Smith finished his junior year with 13 touchdown passes and seven interceptions, and he led Oregon to a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Air Force, but they were hardly statistics for a player who said he wanted to win the Heisman Trophy.
Two incidents nearly ended it for Smith. Two times in a week, Smith had brushes with the law. He had been charged with assault and trespassing after an altercation with bouncers from the Mill Camp Saloon in nearby Springfield, Ore. Bellotti put him on probation.
Then, Smith was stopped for driving erratically and although he was below the state's legal blood-alcohol level, he was cited for driving under the influence. Bellotti then suspended Smith.
Smith, whose grades slipped as well, was at a crossroads.
"I felt like I lost my chance," Smith said. "I had to claw my way out of that situation."
Smith signed a code-of-conduct contract with Bellotti with the understanding that one more misstep would cost him his career.
Under suspension, he could not work out with the team. He had to watch film alone. Smith entered a diversion program for the driving citation and last July was acquitted of the charges in the bar scuffle.
"I told him he needed to revisit the commitment he had over the years," his father said. "Sometimes when you're away from home you can lose sight on what's important."
Smith and offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford met daily. After the suspension was lifted, Smith worked out with his teammates. He convinced 58 players to remain in Eugene over the summer.
Smith responded with what was the best season for a quarterback in school history. He threw for a school record 3,763 yards and 32 touchdowns. He had only eight interceptions in 371 passes.
"His dad introduces me as the guy who gave Akili a second chance," Bellotti said. "I think I just pushed Akili in the right direction. It was up to him to make the right decisions."
The big time
Two weeks ago, the Smith family invited more than 40 people to New York with them to the NFL draft.
"It was a chance to say thank you to all the people who helped Akili as he was growing up," Ray Smith said.
The Bengals took him with the No. 3 pick, behind Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb.
They hope he can become the franchise quarterback they have been searching for so long. They hope he brings excitement to Paul Brown Stadium. They hope he can do what he has done all his life.
"I know my son," Ray Smith said. "I believe the Bengals did the right thing. I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but I know what he brings to the game. He's not the savior, but I really believe we'll be in the Super Bowl in three or four years."
Just like Marcus Allen and Terrell Davis.
Todd Archer writes for the Cincinnati Post.