PEWAMO — Of the 791 times Jared Smith has carried the ball, one particular carry stands out.
Of the 8,140 yards the senior from Pewamo-Westphalia has gained in his career, a run of a mere 12 yards will be the one he remembers forever.
Of the 123 touchdowns he has scored, one is the most special of all: The 12-yard touchdown run against No. 1 Traverse City St. Francis in the regional final almost two weeks ago, because of its significance and style.
That TD was the key play in the Pirates’ journey to Saturday’s 10 a.m. Division 7 state championship game against Detroit Loyola at Ford Field. It means that No. 2 P-W (13-0) will have the opportunity to accomplish what it didn’t a year ago, when the Pirates lost to Ishpeming in the state finals.
“The season overall was satisfying, but that loss in the state finals was the biggest thing that pushed me to put in the little-bit-extra work,” Smith said. “Whenever you’re feeling like you don’t want to go do something, that was the motivation you need right there. And it wasn’t just me. The whole team was in the weight room and working in the off-season. It’s paid off for us.
“Coming up short last year was our biggest motivation.”
Last season, Smith enjoyed the greatest single season in state history. The 6-foot, 205-pound running back set state records by running for 3,250 yards and scoring 53 touchdowns in P-W’s 14 games.
His 8,140 career yards trails East Grand Rapids’ Kevin Grady by 291 yards.
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Those seem like fantasy football stats to Smith, a genuinely modest and understated youngster who simply can’t comprehend his amazing success.
“To expect something like that, nobody can see that coming,” he said. “Through junior high I always did well, but if someone told me I was going to be a state record-breaker running back, I’d have told them they were crazy.”
This season, Smith enters the championship game with 2,528 yards and 38 touchdowns. His drop in production from a year ago is more of a tribute to the way P-W has so thoroughly dominated its opposition. Six of P-W’s games have ended with a running clock, and Smith found himself sitting on the bench during almost every fourth quarter.
Here’s the road Smith, who has a 3.97 grade point average and scored an excellent 1,370 on the SAT, traveled before making that 12-yard touchdown run against St. Francis.
P-W coach Jeremy Miller was only vaguely aware of Smith before the youngster entered high school.
“As an eighth-grader he’d come to our weight lifting and his dad, who’s a great guy, was like: ‘I’m telling you, you haven’t seen anybody as big and fast and as strong as my son.’ “ Miller said. “I was thinking: ‘Yeah, all right, I hear that all the time.’ He was saying it in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way.”
Like his son, Brian Smith is a man of few words, and he isn’t a helicopter parent hovering over his kids at all times. But he knew the youngest of his three sons was a gifted player.
“It was just the way he went through junior football,” he said. “Basically, at every level, no one could touch him.”
Miller learned that when Smith was a freshman on the junior varsity team.
“He just was not being challenged on the JVs,” he said. “We’d go down there and he’d run wild on these JV kids.”
By Week 6, Miller had seen enough. He asked Smith to join the varsity – and the youngster couldn’t wait.
“He could have been the man on the JVs,” Miller said, “but to his credit he came up and was second fiddle to a senior running back that we had and he took his lumps.”
Little did Miller know, but Smith’s goal as a freshman was to finish the year on the varsity. Looking back on it now, Smith laughed when he recalled his first appearance in a varsity game.
“I was very nervous before that game,” he said. “I just didn’t want to make any mistakes. It turned out pretty well for me, I guess. I got to stay up there.”
Smith did not immediately set the world on fire. He did not score a touchdown on his very first carry. He saved the touchdown for his second carry.
As a sophomore, Smith rushed for over 100 yards in each of the first two games. He failed to gain 100 yards in the third game, but he was suffering from the flu.
The following week Smith again gained over 100 yards, beginning remarkable streak of a state-record 35 consecutive games with at last 100 yards rushing.
It isn’t unusual for Smith to carry the ball 30 times a game, a chore by itself. But he also plays outsider linebacker, so how can he take the pounding?
“It starts to wear on the body,” Smith said. “It gets a little tiring, but I’m pretty well-conditioned so I’ve been able to handle it.”
Smith is supremely well-conditioned – and most of that comes from summers well spent.
“During the summer I’d work an eight-hour day, and it’s not easy work, either,” he said. “Then after it I’d usually go for a two-mile run or I’d go lift.
“You’ve got to stay in shape, got to have the stamina.”
His stamina comes from his summer job, which is framing houses for his father’s business. It is a physical job – building walls, building sub floors and setting tresses for the roof.
Throw in the heat we had last summer and most teenagers would have preferred to be at the closest beech.
“There were a few weeks in July it got pretty bad,” Smith said. “And after work on Tuesdays and Thursdays or Mondays and Wednesdays, whatever it was that week, I had football after it.”
But Smith loved going to football workouts after working an eight-hour day.
“I enjoy coming out here, being with the players and coaches,” he said. “With the coaches, too, they do such a great job with us. They keep everything fun and interesting while also maintaining our respect.”
Working alongside Smith this summer was Dominic Spitzley, a 6-3, 235-pound offensive tackle who opens holes for him on the football field. Spitzley admires Smith’s work ethic when it comes to football and he wasn’t surprised at the way Smith performed on the job.
“We got there, did our jobs, just like on the football field,” Spitzley said. “You do whatever you have to do that day. He does have the same work ethic when it comes to making sure stuff is square and making sure the right studs are used – he’s the same person. No matter what it is, he’s got the same drive.”
Like any good offensive lineman, Spitzley would prefer to pancake the guy he is blocking. But he knows that isn’t necessary when Smith is carrying the ball.
“If you can just open up that little bit for him, he’s going to be gone,” Spitzley said. “He doesn’t have that crazy cut, juke ability, but it’s his vision. When he’s running outside he has the ability to put that foot in the ground and then it’s up field and he has the ability to cut back across the grain. He has really good vision and balance.
“I’ve seen him up field and three guys bounce off him and he keeps going. And he has tremendous strength, too.”
Although Smith runs track, he is not going to impress you with his blazing speed. Instead, he dazzles you with the way he can avoid defenders or simply run them over if they are in his way.
“For football it’s a lot of decision-making,” Smith said. “You can’t be hesitant hitting a hole and cuts. You’ve got to make one cut and go, basically. You can’t be dancing around. As far as I’m concerned, I think that’s one of my strengths. I find that hole and I get through it.”
Miller can’t figure out why college coaches aren’t flocking to his school in mid-Michigan, clamoring to recruit his star. Smith is not attracting any attention from Division I schools. The main interest is coming from Division II schools.
The knock may be Smith’s lack of flat-out speed, but there is a difference between track speed and football speed. Guys that beat Smith in a 40-yard dash on a track may end up finishing behind him when they put on pads and are handed a football.
“If you put a 40 time on him he’s a 4.67 or 4.5, but he’s fast with the football,” Miller insisted. “Give him the football and good luck trying to tackle him because he’s going to run away from you. He’s just a solid ball of muscle and he just really has a great feel for that running-back position.”
In the regional final, host St. Francis, the No. 1-ranked team in Div. 7, had its defense set to stop Smith in his tracks.
“I’d struggled to run the ball all game,” Smith said. “Their run defense was phenomenal.”
In the terms of pure yardage, Smith had his worst game since the third week of his sophomore season, gaining only 91 yards on 30 carries, breaking his 35-game streak of 100-yard efforts.
But with 4:52 left to play, the ball on St. Francis’ 12-yard line and P-W trailing, 14-10, Smith took a handoff and slid to the right, running behind Spitzley.
A defender hit him low at the 10-yard line, but Smith stepped out of the tackle. He was hit at the 9-yard line, but twisted away as the tackler fell to the ground. Another tackler hit him at the 8-yard line, but Smith kept twisting and got away from him, too. A final defender hit Smith at the 2-yard line, but at that point there was no stopping him.
“There were linebackers flowing over the top,” Spitzley said. “I was blocking my guy and Jared was ahead of me and I was watching him manhandle them. It was a manly run is all I’ve got to say about it.”
It was typical of a lot of Smith touchdown runs, but there was never a more important one.
“When his team needed it so badly, that’s going to be the one I will remember about him,” Miller said. “But he’s had so many over the years that you shake your head and say: ‘That was awesome.’ “
Smith would never refer to anything he does as awesome, but that 12-yard TD was special to him because it meant so much to his team.
“The game was coming down to that and I guess I made the big-time play when it was necessary,” he said. “It worked out.”
And now, Smith and his teammates have another opportunity to win a state championship for each other and the towns of Pewamo and Westphalia.
“We’ve got a great team around here,” Smith said. “Everybody just kind of loves the game so we get along well. I’ve known, basically, the whole line since I was a little kid. We kind of have a unique community around here. Most of the team is from the area. I grew up with them, went to elementary school with them, went to junior high with them.
“It’s nice to be from here.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.