Sherman Smith: The Lie
By Scott M. Johnson
Sherman Smith grew up in a house of big shadows, in an area of low expectations, and in a time of racial injustice. It was precisely the kind of situation that would make most young African-Americans like him aim for attainable targets. And that’s just what Smith did in his teenage years.
During the tail end of the civil rights movement, while growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, in the late 1960s and early 70s, Smith convinced himself that the best thing life had to offer him was a modest job at the local steel mill. That’s what his father, John Thomas “J.T.” Smith did, and that’s what most other kids in the Midwestern town aspired to attain as well.
But when Sherman’s father asked him what he wanted to do with his life, and 16-year-old Sherman responded with a shrug, J.T. Smith wasn’t satisfied. Sherman went on to tell his father that he wanted nothing more than to work in the steel mill and live in the apartments across town.
J.T. Smith listened impatiently, then told the second of his three sons to get in the car. They drove around Youngstown, father and son embarking on an unspoken journey that would change Sherman Smith’s path in life.
They drove by the projects, which were made up mostly of black families like the Smiths. J.T. pointed to the public houses and told his son: “Don’t buy the lie.”
When they drove past the steel mill, J.T. Smith repeated the words: “Don’t buy the lie.”
They drove past the apartment building where Sherman aspired to spend his adult years: “Don’t buy the lie.”
And then, J.T. Smith took his son to a well-to-do area they called the “Vanilla Suburbs,” which were made up almost exclusively of white people. Sherman Smith stared out at the rows of two-story homes, surrounded by fresh-cut grass and white-picket fences.
“Don’t buy the lie,” J.T. Smith told Sherman, “that you can’t live in a place like this.”
And so Sherman Smith, he of the steel-mill dreams, became Sherman Smith of a higher calling. He set his sights on becoming a teacher, maybe a high school coach.
And just maybe, as long as Sherman Smith was daring himself to dream, he might even have a chance to play in the National Football League.
Once Sherman Smith allowed himself to imagine a life with greater opportunities, his drive to succeed took him to higher places. He would realize his dream of playing in the NFL, and shortly thereafter he would reach a milestone that even dreams couldn’t have envisioned.
Living under J.T. Smith’s roof meant trying to become the best you could be, as Sherman Smith learned at an early age. Sherman had heard the stories of how his father made something out of nothing, about how J.T. Smith had risen from his place as a steel worker to the assistant to the union president, so Sherman knew that his father had high hopes for each of his three sons.
J.T. Smith had to work for everything he got, having used a fake ID to get into the Army at the age of 15 so he could support his family. His father – Sherman’s grandfather – had just died, and his mother was in a wheelchair, so J.T. Smith went out and earned a living in any way possible.
After he served in the military, J.T. Smith moved to Youngstown and started working in the steel mill. He got married and helped raise three sons on a meager salary, yet he always had big dreams. But J.T. Smith’s world came crashing down when he was laid off and spent 18 months out of work. The humiliation drove him even harder to give his family everything it needed.
“He promised us right then, as a family, that something like that would never happen again,” Sherman Smith later recalled. “He worked and gave 100 percent to everything he did, just to make sure it wouldn’t happen.”
The hard work paid off, as J.T. Smith eventually worked his way up to a position as assistant to the president of the Steel Workers of America.
That wasn’t the only shadow in the Smith household. Oldest son Vincent earned a football scholarship to Mount Union College, leaving another set of large footsteps in front of Sherman Smith.
Sherman always got good grades, but not until his junior year of high school did he start to get the same kind of attention that his older brother received as an athlete. He eventually accepted a football scholarship to Miami University in nearby Oxford, and went 33-1-1 in his four seasons as starting quarterback for the Redskins.
The expansion Seattle Seahawks selected Sherman Smith in the second round of the 1976 college draft, but they never had any plans to let the scrambling quarterback take snaps behind center. He was drafted as a wide receiver, and so he started memorizing pass patterns in preparation for his first training camp. As it would be, Smith would never get to play receiver. When the rookies reported one day before the start of training camp, Seahawks coach Jack Patera pulled Smith aside.
“Have you had a chance to look at those running back plays yet?” Patera asked.
“No,” said Smith, “I’m a wide receiver.”
Responded Patera: “Not anymore. You’re a running back now.”
And just like that, the Seahawks’ first star running back was anointed.
Smith and the expansion Seahawks were understandably overmatched right out of the gate. As a former quarterback, Smith was still trying to learn a new position. As an expansion team, the Seahawks were still learning how to play as a team.
Seattle dropped its first six games before finally facing an opponent on even ground. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, like the Seahawks, had come into the league as a 1976 expansion team. Many fans believed that the Oct. 17, 1976, game against Tampa represented the Seahawks’ only chance at victory that season. And sure enough, Seattle rallied to beat the Bucs 13-10 and record the first victory in franchise history. Smith had 45 rushing yards on 10 carries in that historic win.
But it was three weeks later when the Seahawks, and a quarterback-turned-running-back named Sherman Smith, really opened some eyes around the NFL.
Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons
Nov. 7, 1976
As told by Sherman Smith
Leading up to that game, we were starting to feel pretty good as a team. We had won our first game against Tampa Bay a couple weeks earlier, and we lost some close games to good teams. The confidence was starting to build up — particularly on offense, where we were really young.
We were playing the Atlanta Falcons, and everything just felt right. The team was excited; the fans were excited. It felt like it was going to be a pretty special game for us.
We had to overcome some early mistakes, but we continued to believe. I had two fumbles in the first half alone – one on a botched exchange with quarterback Jim Zorn during a hand-off. I’ll never forget what happened after that. My teammate, captain Norm Evans, put an arm around me and said: ‘It’s going to be OK.’
That’s just what I needed to hear. Here’s a guy who played for the Miami Dolphins, who played in three Super Bowls, a guy whose opinion I really respected. He really had a calming influence.
Despite the mistakes, we were still up at halftime. I had scored a second-quarter touchdown on a pass from Zorn, and we were ahead 14-3 and feeling pretty good. We overcame some things, the defense got a couple turnovers, and the chatter in the locker room was: ‘Let’s finish the job.’
Up until that game, we were hoping to win instead of expecting to win. So we went out in the second half, continued to play good football, and stayed positive.
Then I scored on a 53-yard run to put us ahead 30-6, and that really seemed to put things out of reach. I had good blocking up front, made the safety miss and outran a couple of guys to the end zone. I remember turning around, and all my teammates were there celebrating with me. There was really this feeling that we were going to win the game.
Sherman presents a game ball to Jack Patera
We went on to win 31-13, and I finished with 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns. I was a quarterback in college, so that was not only the first 100-yard rushing game in Seahawks team history, but it was also the first for me personally – at any level. That let me know that maybe I can be a running back in this league. That helped get me to thinking that I could have some success as an NFL running back.
Winning the game was exciting. The city was excited; we were all excited in the locker room. But we didn’t want to act like we didn’t expect it. We knew we had a game the next week, so we tried to act like it was something we expected. But we were obviously happy that we won.
It really boosted the confidence of the whole team because everyone contributed to that win: offense, defense, special teams. It all started to come together for us. We didn’t win the next week, but it served notice to the rest of the league that we were going to be a team to watch out for. After that, teams knew they had to bring their A-game when they were playing the Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks finished their inaugural season with just the two wins, but the franchise improved quickly. After a 2-12 mark as an expansion team, Seattle went 5-9 in 1977, 9-7 in 1978 and 9-7 in 1979. Smith, the former college quarterback, led the team in rushing each year.
But he suffered a knee injury three games into the 1980 season and was never the same. He returned to the field in 1981 but finished second on the team in rushing. Smith added a team-high 202 rushing yards during the strike-shortened 1982 season.
“Once he got injured, he slowed down a step. The burst wasn’t there. The power was still there, but the burst wasn’t. He just couldn’t physically do it,” former teammate Jim Zorn recalled while noting that Smith was also affected by the 1979 retirement of blocking fullback David Sims.
When Seattle used a first-round draft pick on Penn State running back Curt Warner in 1983, it was time for the Seahawks to go in another direction. Sherman Smith was traded to San Diego late in training camp that year, then played one final NFL season with the Chargers before his eight-year NFL career concluded at the end of the 1983 season.
Remembering that early conversation he’d had with his father, the one after which young Sherman had set his career path, Smith knew that he had yet to attain all of his goals. His dreams of a football career didn’t stop at being a player; Sherman Smith still wanted to be a teacher and high school coach.
That chance came in 1984, when he was hired to teach health and physical education at Redmond Junior High School a few miles east of Seattle. Smith also coached the varsity team for five years before former Miami University teammate Randy Walker took over as head coach at their college alma mater and hired Smith as an assistant there. Smith spent two years at Miami U. before Lou Tepper hired him as an assistant at Illinois.
Three years later, Smith was back in the NFL, having been hired as running backs coach under new Houston Oilers head coach Jeff Fisher.
While Smith still had one more geographical move, following the Oilers to Tennessee, he remained with Fisher for 13 years. During his career with Houston/Tennessee, Smith helped three different running backs record 1,000-yard seasons, including seven such performances from former NFL star Eddie George. In 2008, he finally changed organizations after former Seahawks teammate Jim Zorn named him offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins. Two years later, he rejoined the Seahawks as a running backs coach under Pete Carroll. He is in his second season as an assistant with Seattle.
“I’m still teaching, but in a different type of environment,” Smith said of his career as an NFL assistant. “What Jeff (Fisher) told me early on is: ‘I’m looking for a guy who can teach.’ And that’s what I like to do.”
Goals that once seemed unattainable have now kept Sherman Smith in the game of football well into the 21st century.
No one could have expected that, except maybe a father who believed in big dreams. Fueled by those early goals, Sherman Smith knew that he’d made his father proud.
“I was really lucky in that my father always let me know how much he loved me and how proud he was of me,” Sherman Smith said. “My father made it real clear what it was all about to him: helping us develop as men.”
Although J.T. Smith has had some tough times since his children moved out – his wife passed away in 1988 and he has since developed Parkinson’s Disease – the proud father continued to bask in the accomplishments his three children achieved. In 2007, J.T. Smith was under the care of his oldest son in Vincent Smith’s Tallahassee, Fla., home. Sherman Smith’s father couldn’t walk or talk like he once did. But he still had the same respect of his adult children.
“Every time I’m with my dad, I say: ‘I love you, and thank you,'” Sherman Smith said that year. “He smiles because he knows what I’m talking about. He knows I mean: thank you for helping me become a man.”