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Aztecs cornerback Ron Smith excels at rising above the crowd

10/31/2018, 4:35pm PDT
By Tod Leonard

FOOTBALL: San Diego State v Arizona State

Credit the forces of nature or nurture, but the concepts of what it takes to succeed in life came to San Diego State junior cornerback Ron Smith at a tender age.

He and his father, also named Ron, were inseparable through the childhood of the boy the family called “Little Ronnie.” When Ronnie was born, his dad was unwed, not yet 24, and just beginning his career as a teacher in the cauldron of Oakland’s public education system.

With Ronnie’s mom having faded from their daily life, they lived with Ron’s parents for a time — a humble start for a father who would one day earn his Ph.D. and rise to be a school principal and superintendent.

“I’m growing up, and I’m trying to help him grow up,” the senior Ron Smith recalled on the phone this week.

It wasn’t easy, but father and son had each other, and they went everywhere together: school meetings, parties, grocery store. If Ronnie got sick, his dad would fetch him and bring him back to his own class, where the other kids watched over him.

“I was a young dad and he was my road dog,” Ron said.

“As I got older, we would talk about stuff. One thing about him: There were times when I had to tell him something twice, but he never had to be told the second time what it meant. As he matured, he learned how to apply it.”

That was the nurture part. The nature was that Ronnie was both highly intelligent and fiercely convinced that walking his own path was better than running with the pack.

“Growing up in Oakland isn’t easy. You see the different choices people make,” the younger Smith said. “I didn’t want to be the same as everyone else. I found pride in being different. Having that pride about not following the status quo was always something big for me.”

The outlook already has made Smith more rounded in experience and viewpoint than most other 20-year-olds. That he excels in football for San Diego State — he’ll start his 28th consecutive game at New Mexico on Saturday — only represents the thin surface of his interests and accomplishments.

At St. Mary’s High School, he joined student government, performed in plays and choreographed dance routines. He graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average and was a CIF state champion in the triple jump.

“I’d miss out on the joys and wonders if I only stuck to one thing,” Smith explained. “I can talk to people about anime, or music, or theater. I can talk to athletes. I like talking to people who have a passion in different fields.”

The rigors of playing college football haven’t slowed down Smith one bit. In only three years, he completed his bachelor’s degree in psychology. Now he’s working on a master’s in education with an emphasis in counseling. Doctorate studies are expected to follow, with Smith having his eye on becoming a sports psychologist.

Not surprisingly, Smith is good at listening to his friends, too.

“I’ve had a way of talking to individuals that got to them, that made them change their way of thinking, or made them feel as if they could live their life in a better way,” Smith said. “I feel like I have the power to be able to speak to people and put their weight on my shoulders.”

He credits much of his approach in life to his dad, who was there for every game, track meet, play or dance.

“Seeing how he works, how he communicates. He has a strong presence,” Smith said.

“It was a high standard to be met from a young age, and I always wanted to stand up to that and exceed it. I was always mature — how I spoke to people, how I approached school and being involved in a lot of different things.”

Discussions between father and son often came down to making choices.

“You see a guy with a gun and he’s your friend,” the senior Smith would posit. “You have two choices: You go with him or you don’t.

“He internalized all of it — what he didn’t want to be seen as in life. That’s something that a lot of young black men can’t figure out. He realized how he wanted people to view him. He didn’t want to be thrown into that stereotype or bucket.”

The elder Smith also grew up in Oakland, and chuckled when he recalled being more “rough around the edges” than his son. Still, he did well in school and played wide receiver for the University of Pacific before it eliminated its football program.

Ronnie gravitated toward football at a young age, but he was short and slight, and it wouldn’t be until late in his sophomore season of high school when a growth spurt boosted him into another playing realm. He was called up to varsity late that season, and his dad remembers him delivering a ferocious hit that had the coaches questioning, “Where has that kid been?!”

Smith’s junior season in 2013 was phenomenal. On defense, he had 135 tackles, two interceptions, six forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries.

Five Mountain West schools and Washington State made football scholarship offers, and Smith chose SDSU. Even when track coaches came calling after he’d won at state, his dad said, Smith didn’t budge on his decision to be an Aztec.

Smith, who is 6 feet and generously listed at 170 pounds, broke into the lineup as a redshirt freshman, starting at cornerback for the final six games, and had an immediate impact as opponents tried to test the young guy. He made three interceptions — two of which he returned for touchdowns.

Last season, Smith had two picks, while his 16 passes broken up ranked second all-time in SDSU history. That’s an impressive achievement, given the players who have come through the school at the position.

“He’s a very mature kid,” said SDSU first-year cornerbacks coach Demetrius Sumler. “A lot of college kids find themselves trying to figure out who they are. He has that figured out. He carries himself in that manner. He acts like a professional.

“Ron isn’t the biggest guy; he runs well enough. But I think the key is how smart he is. He knows his ability. He knows his schemes and what we do.”

In the offseason, Sumler pushed Smith to use his football IQ to take more calculated risks. Smith agreed that as he’s become more experienced, he’s found himself overthinking coverages and not being as instinctual.

This season, Smith had only a single pass breakup through the first seven games, but was called upon to knock down three balls in Saturday’s loss to Nevada.

“I’ve been more about making the play to prevent them from catching the ball,” Smith said. “I want to do my job for the team. Now, I need to step out of my shell and start making those big plays. That is going to be the big transition in my game.”

His father said that has always been a strength — seeing what needs to be improved and doing the work to achieve it. He marvels at his son’s ability to be both comfortable in a crowd, while finding a way to be himself.

“I don’t believe in putting other people’s names on my back,” the senior Smith said. “But I tell him he’s my hero. He’s so talented and gifted.”

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @sdutleonard

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