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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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You can look now, Mom, little Alex is catching on
Mrs. Smith pushed her young son from football. Now she pushes for him.
By JOANNE KORTH
Published September 15, 2005
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Bucs rookie tight end Alex Smith adds a layer of versatility to the offense. He sprints past Vikings linebacker Rod Davis on a seam route, then cradles the first touchdown pass of his career Sunday, a 23-yarder from quarterback Brian Griese.
TAMPA - By age 12, Alex Smith could put his hand through a stack of boards, an exercise in focus. But when it came to changing his mother's mind, he was powerless.
The answer was no.
He could not play football.
Days after catching two touchdowns in his NFL debut with the Bucs, Smith still wasn't sure what finally swayed her. But some things, no matter how hard you fight them, are meant to be. Sometimes, the activities you encourage your son to pursue wind up turning him into the NFL's next evolution of the tight end.
"My mom fought tooth-and-nail to keep me away from football," said Smith, the Bucs' third-round pick out of Stanford. "Now, she loves it. She's probably more fired up than anybody."
Smith did not play football until he was a freshman at Mullen High School in Denver. But he already was well acquainted with the sport.
Smith's father played defensive end for the Broncos from 1973-76, and though Edwin Smith's career was over before his son was born, Alex Smith grew up a regular visitor in the lockerroom and at Mile High Stadium. Often, Broncos alumni were introduced before games, and Smith strode onto the field with his father to the applause of several thousand fans.
"They weren't necessarily cheering for me," Smith said, "but I pretended they were."
Pia Smith wanted no part of it. Her husband's career was cut short by a knee injury, and she did not want her baby to get hurt. Pediatricians projected Smith would be 6-foot-10, and playing football might injure his growing joints.
Basketball, that would be his game.
But that wasn't all Smith did. He learned to play the piano. He earned a black belt in tae kwon do. He spoke fluent Spanish. He played soccer and lacrosse.
"Those are things I did in place of football," Smith said.
Until the first day of high school, when the football coach at Denver's Mullen High spotted Smith, already more than 6 feet tall, at the registration table and insisted he join the team. Smith shrugged, then looked at his mother.
"He never would have played football if it had been up to me," Pia Smith said. "I became ballistic, very upset. But I was the one who had pushed everything to that point, I decided he could make a grown-up decision. He and Dad prevailed."
Edwin Smith remembers the exchange.
"She said, "I hope you know what you're doing,"' Edwin Smith said. "And she walked away."
Alex Smith was a natural. By his senior season, it became clear that football, not basketball, was his future. He stopped growing at 6-4, well short of the doctor's projection. But major college football programs came calling.
Smith chose Stanford, where he finished his career with 107 catches for 1,291 yards and eight touchdowns. In addition to first-team Pac-10 honors, he earned a degree in economics.
The varied activities Smith participated in as a youth not only made him a modern-day Renaissance man - he traveled extensively to Europe, Mexico and the Bahamas, where his father was born - but also made him a better football player. He learned discipline and focus, body control and balance. He grew to 258 pounds without losing any speed or quickness.
He became the versatile tight end every NFL team covets.
"I don't like to pattern myself after anybody, but if you have to say a certain type of tight end, I would say Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe, all those guys who redefined the role," said Smith, the third player of Bahamian descent drafted into the NFL after his father (1973) and former FSU and Washington State player Devard Darling (2004).
Like those NFL stars, Smith's size and speed make it difficult to defend against him. Often, he is matched up with smaller safeties or slower linebackers. In Sunday's 24-13 victory against the Vikings, Smith sprinted past a linebacker on a seam route for a 23-yard touchdown.
Smith impacts the offense in many ways. His ability to stretch the field creates opportunities for the wide receivers. His ability to block, especially in two-tight-end sets with Anthony Becht, benefits the running game with rookie back Cadillac Williams.
"He has an opportunity to be a special player," said Griese, who also found Smith in the end zone on a busted play for a 2-yard touchdown. "He gives himself a chance every week because he's prepared mentally in the meeting room. He's the type of guy who, if you say something to him, you know he's going to implement it and remember it and work on it."
His mother is not surprised.
She never missed a game. Not during high school. Not during college. Not until Sunday, when the Bucs unleashed their secret weapon, her son, on the unsuspecting Vikings.
"After missing his first touchdown, she was just sick," said Edwin Smith, who was in the stands in the end zone where Smith scored twice.
Pia Smith will be at Raymond James Stadium for Sunday's game against the Bills.
Smith is working on an encore.
"I don't know if I'm a secret anymore," Smith said. "Everybody is saying I set the bar real high for myself. They expect even better things next game. I didn't make it easy for myself, but I'm up for the challenge."