Breakaway back true to his school Football: Howard High junior running back Gerald Smith, who has 14 touchdowns this season, has shunned some area private schools to stay close to home.

October 20, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

There was a little bounce to Gerald Smith's step as he jogged toward the Howard High School huddle. Just moments before, Smith had fumbled, losing the ball and perhaps the game. Now, with less than three minutes left, Smith had exactly what he had wished for.

"A second chance, that's all I wanted," Smith recalled of the recent game against River Hill. "I felt I had let the team down. They depend on me."

Smith showed why on the first play after his team regained possession. He took a handoff and ran off tackle to his right where -- at least from the Howard bench -- he seemed to disappear. Then, in a flash, he zagged to his left with a burst of speed and pulled from the pack. Within seconds he was in the end zone, his 20-yard run with 2: 25 left giving Howard a 14-10 come-from-behind win.

For Howard, the heroics of the 5-foot-9, 170-pound junior running back have helped the team to a 5-2 record and increased hopes of a playoff berth for the first time since 1993.

For Smith, the team's success provides a bit of vindication for his decision to remain at the public school. He has been courted for several years by private schools because of his prowess on the field and in the classroom, where he has a 3.6 grade-point average.

"I'm not a traitor -- I started at Howard and I want to stick at Howard," said Smith, who has scored 14 touchdowns and is averaging 135 yards rushing per game. "I look at it like maybe you have a friend that's on drugs. They might need help and, because you might make a difference in their future, you can't abandon them.

"We have a shot at the playoffs," added Smith, who, though surprisingly small in stature, stands out with his thick neck and broad shoulders. "If I would have left, maybe we wouldn't have had that shot."

Smith said he has been approached by private schools DeMatha and Mount St. Joseph, but the decision to stay was all his. Smith's father, Jameel Salaam, would have preferred his son take the private school route.

"I feel that if you're a fighter, and you fight someone less than you, you're not going to grow," Salaam said. "[Private schools] play a lot of big, hard teams. They have good lines, good overall facilities. I said, 'Let's look into this first.' But he didn't want to leave Howard."

Smith, who lived in Southeast Washington with his mother before moving to Columbia with his father six years ago, started his freshman year at Howard on the junior varsity. But he was called up to varsity early that season and rushed for 445 yards in seven games.

"It was obvious he was the best back in the program, even as a freshman," said Howard football coach Vince Parnell. "But we wondered if he could handle varsity. Whether he would be accepted by the upperclassman, and whether moving him up too soon would cause him to get a big head."

Mature beyond his years, Smith was able to handle the spotlight. As a sophomore, Smith gained 1,169 yards and scored 20 touchdowns. He broke a 31-year-old school record when he scored 32 points in a game against Southwestern.

His 4.45 speed and uncanny ability to find holes already have attracted the attention of Penn State, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Maryland, as well as earned the respect of rival coaches.

"I think he has excellent vision, and he can really hit an opening," said Long Reach coach Pete Hughes. "He's the best running back I've seen in my [13] years in Howard County."

River Hill's Don Van Deusen, who has coached in the county for 27 years, agrees.

"He's one of the best I've seen," Van Deusen said. "His ability to change direction and get out in the open with his speed makes him special. You really try to limit the times he touches the ball."

For that reason River Hill never kicked to Smith during their Oct. 3 contest. At one point a River Hill player frantically screamed, "Don't let him touch the ball!" when Smith appeared on the verge of running up to field a punt.

"And we won't kick to him either," said Hughes, just before his team beat Howard on Saturday. "Anyone that does is crazy."

Smith takes it all in stride.

"Personally, if they kick the ball short, let them, because that just gives us good field position," he said. "I'm not going to return every kick back."

But he'll make enough big plays that might lead to another push from some of the private schools needing a big-play back for one year. Smith, for the time being, said he's looking forward to his senior season at Howard.

"Why leave and be regretful, worrying about going somewhere and fulfilling someone's expectations," Smith said. "I just want to stay here and help this team, so that people might one day look back and say, 'He was a good player.' "

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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