Character issues alone don't define Ravens first-round pick Jimmy Smith

As cornerback looks forward to NFL career, those close to him paint different picture

April 29, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

When ESPN and NFL Network announced Thursday night that the Ravens were about to select Jimmy Smith, a talented cornerback from Colorado, their cameras cut to a shot of him surrounded by friends, family and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus.

Ravens fans saw Smith holding a phone to his ear and scowling. Instead of a suit, he was wearing a black T-shirt with an image from the movie "Scarface" on the front. He looked about the way you would expect a frustrated young man to look after he had just spent several hours listening to critics question his character on live television without getting a chance to offer a rebuttal: mad.

But suddenly, it was obvious that the broadcast was being shown on a seven-second delay, and when Smith got word from the Ravens that he was going to be their first-round pick, the 22-year-old broke into one of the warmest smiles of the night. Suddenly, he looked anything but menacing. He looked all at once exhilarated and relieved and eager to join the Ravens.

So who is Jimmy Smith, exactly? Is he the serious character risk he was often portrayed as before the draft? A young man with a laundry list of mistakes, including issues with alcohol and drugs, to the point where his bad decisions nearly overshadowed his talent?

Or is he a good kid who was labeled a "punk" and a "thug" somewhat unfairly simply because he is from a very rough part of Los Angeles and got into some minor trouble his first two years at Colorado before maturing and earning his degree?

Smith would contend the main reason people have been so quick to question his character is he has made no effort to hide his mistakes. When Smith was asked how he convinced the Ravens that his mistakes shouldn't prevent them from selecting him in the first round, he said it came down to telling the truth.

"It was just basically going in and being honest, putting everything on the table and letting them know that I was about business," Smith said. "The things that I did are old mistakes and bad decisions that I made when I was younger and immature. It's in the past now, and I'm just trying to be the best player and person off the field for the Ravens that I can possibly be."

Smith's high school coach, Harold Strauss, said it was a little discouraging to watch someone he believes is a good kid criticized so heavily before the draft. But every NFL team that called Strauss — and he said there were close to 15, including the Ravens — heard stories about a smart, coachable player who didn't get into trouble and was always willing to participate in the Colton High football team's community service projects.

"I think my wife took it lot harder than I did," Strauss said of the criticism of Smith. "She kept saying to me: 'Why are they saying that about him? He's a good kid.' I just told her that it's all a business. I think it's kind of neat to see the way he's matured. He had some growing pains when he went off to college, but I think some of that was because we kept him under such a tight leash when he was in high school. Once he got a little bit of freedom, he made some mistakes, but after the first two years, I don't think he ever got in trouble."

Smith had to overcome plenty just to get to the point where a coach like Strauss — who won 228 games during his career — could help shape his life for the better. In a series written by The Denver Post, Smith explained how he grew up in one of the poorest parts of Colton, a town of 50,000 people that butts up against Interstate 10 about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

"It's a rough neighborhood," Smith told the Post. "A lot of gangs. A lot of gang violence. A lot of people get shot and killed all the time."

Smith's father left his family when he was 9 years old, and he and his mother and brothers spent time living in shelters when money was particularly tight. Athletics, as well as the singular focus of Smith's mother, Terry Webster, helped keep the family together. Smith has four older brothers; all of them played college football.

"I had them play football because it gave them structure," Webster told the Post. "I believe with kids, you've got to give them something to do because if you don't give them something to do, the devil's going to give them something to do."

Smith transferred from San Bernadino High to Colton after his freshman year, the same year Strauss became Colton's coach. Strauss was immediately impressed with Smith's innate feel for the game.

"He was naturally big, and he had great hands," Strauss said. "He was always polite and respectful, too, and very easy to coach. He was very charismatic. He has that million-dollar smile, which is probably a good thing and a bad thing at times."

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