Greatest Athlete #16: Nobody could run like Carl Smith
It’s no small irony that one of the greatest runners on a football field or a track that Riverhead High School has ever produced can no longer run.
Having undergone two surgeries on each of his knees, Carl Smith now has a plate and screws in both of them. The 43-year-old has arthritis and pain in both knees and ankles. They are reminders — along with trophies, medals and plaques, almost all of which are boxed up at his parents’ house — of a tremendous career as a football player and track athlete.
“To go from being the fastest person to not being able to run, it just eats at me right now,” he said.
In his day, though, Carl Smith could run. Oh boy, could he run.
Even Smith’s father, Ronnie Smith, marvels sometimes when he watches old videotapes of his son in action. “When you just see him running, it takes your breath away,” he said.
Sal Loverde, the Riverhead High School boys winter track coach and assistant football coach, said Smith had magic in his legs.
Those legs, powered by thick thighs, took Smith far. He used them to run for glory at Riverhead High School and then at the University of Maine. Speed and quickness were his game, and he made great use of them.
Rick Kopp took over as Riverhead’s football coach during Smith’s senior year in 1986 before going on to serve as an assistant coach at SUNY/Albany, where he also served as athletic administrator and director of training camp operations for the New York Giants. Speaking of Smith, Kopp said: “He was probably the best running back I ever coached in the high school and college levels. He was Mr. Smooth the way he ran.”
Perhaps some of it is in the genes. His family tree boasts some athletes. Ronnie Smith was himself a basketball player and track athlete for Riverhead High School. Although he was a good athlete, Ronnie Smith said he doesn’t compare with his two sons, Carl and Doc. He said, “I’m like regular fuel; they’re like super, super high test.”
Carl Smith’s football beginning was modest. He was 8 years old when he came home one day and told his parents he wanted to try out for a Pop Warner team. The future Riverhead and University of Maine star was the last player picked in the draft that day. “Nobody knew who he was,” said Ronnie Smith.
They soon learned.
In his first practice, the team was looking for someone to return kickoffs and punts. Smith was given a look. He caught the first ball kicked to him, ran around tacklers and then bolted away from them. The coach asked him to do it again.
“They kicked the ball three times, and three times he ran the ball back,” Ronnie Smith said. “From then on, as they say, the rest is history.”
The player nobody knew quickly became the player people were talking about.
When Carl Smith was 13 years old, he was diagnosed with asthma, something his high school teammates didn’t know, but with the aid of medication, it didn’t seem to hamper him.
Word may have spread that Riverhead had a real player moving up through the ranks. Dick Herzog, who coached Smith in football and track, remembers seeing Smith in his physical education class at Phillips Avenue Elementary School. “You knew right away,” he said. “You knew that there’s a blue-chipper coming up.”
Smith had an opportunity to play for the varsity team his freshman year, but opted to remain with the players he would graduate with. The two-time all-Suffolk County tailback spent the next three varsity seasons giving defensive players fits as they tried to grab hold of him. More than one defender looked like he had an angle on Smith, only to be left in the dust, flailing at air.
“His legs were just amazing,” Loverde said. “He ran with great power and strength, but he also was smart and had finesse. As soon as there was any kind of opening, he would be gone, I’m telling you, gone.”
Having people like fullback Greg Polak, offensive tackle Robert Brown and guard Everett Gilliam blocking for him helped, but they didn’t need to hold their blocks for long. “All I told my linemen was, ‘All you have to do is stay in front of your guy for one second and I’ll do the rest,’ ” said Smith.
And if Smith got a step ahead of a defender, he was off to the races.
“Running in pads like that, he was just unbelievable,” said Don Owen, a longtime observer of the Riverhead sports scene whose son, Mike, played football for Riverhead and Syracuse University. “If he got to the outside, you weren’t going to catch him.”
All it would take would be one little hip shake, and then Smith would bolt to daylight.
Randy Kopp, the coach’s son who was Riverhead’s quarterback during Smith’s senior season, said, “He would make one move and he was back to full speed faster than anyone you ever saw.”
Smith’s senior year at Riverhead was a remarkable one, although not without challenges.
In the opening game of the football season against Amityville, he separated his left shoulder by landing hard on it from a tackle. It could have been a season-ending injury and devastating for a player looking for a football scholarship.
“I remember his exact words: ‘Who’s going to look at me now?’ ” said Randy Kopp.
After sitting out a couple of games, Smith returned to the field wearing a harness, which prevented him from raising his left arm. Although he didn’t show it often, he played in pain. Randy Kopp remembers seeing tears in Smith’s eyes.
“It hurt a lot,” Smith recalled. “I’d rather take a hit from a linebacker than have that pain.”
In his first game back, a homecoming game against visiting Miller Place, Smith’s touchdown run with 9 minutes, 15 seconds to go and Kopp’s two-point conversion run helped the Blue Waves to an 8-7 triumph. He gained 101 yards on eight carries that day.
CLICK TO READ A GAME STORY FROM SMITH’S RIVERHEAD DAYS
Smith led the Blue Waves to the postseason. In his final game for Riverhead, he returned the opening kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown in a 14-13 first-round loss to Islip. That loss sticks with Smith to this day. He talks about the four fumbles he made in that game. “It was probably my worst game ever in high school,” he said.
In Smith’s senior season, he ran the ball 40 times for 629 yards — a remarkable 15.7 yards per carry — caught six passes for 124 yards, scored nine touchdowns and returned two punts for 136 yards.
Smith wanted to be the first person in his family to go to college, and sports paved the way for him. Rick Kopp said Syracuse backed away from pursuing Smith after he separated his shoulder.
Joe Ogeka, who was Riverhead’s boys track and field coach as well as the defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator for the football team at the time, said a Maine assistant coach he met at a Heisman Trophy function inquired about Smith. Ogeka guaranteed that Smith could clock a time of 4.5 seconds in three of four 40-yard dashes.
Not long after that, Smith was pulled out of class one day and asked by a Maine coach if he could run three 40-yard dashes in under 4.4 seconds.
“I said, ‘I guess so.’ I didn’t know why I was doing it,” Smith said. “I went outside and I did it, and the next thing you know I’m getting recruited by UMaine.”
But there was a holdup. Smith had trouble with his Scholastic Aptitude Test. He needed to score at least a 770 in order to receive a scholarship. He took the test four times and was awaiting the results of his latest test as the February national signing date approached. Then, finally, Smith received a call from Maine’s defensive coordinator, John Levitz, with some good news.
“He said, ‘Smitty, welcome to UMaine,’ ” Smith said. “I just broke down.”
Smith was headed to Orono, Maine.
Maine had met two of the stipulations that Smith had: that he be allowed to run track as well as play football, and that he wear No. 20 on his football jersey, the same number he wore for Riverhead.
One of Smith’s regrets is that he never got to play in the same backfield at Riverhead with his brother, Doc, who is three years younger. Despite the age difference, the brothers share the sort of closeness that is seen in twins, their father said.
Maurice Darnell Smith was given the nickname “Doc” because of his initials: M.D. Doc had a successful football career of his own. He was a three-time all-county player and quarterback for Riverhead’s Rutgers Trophy-winning team in 1988. He went on to play for the University of Buffalo as a wide receiver.
“There’s no jealousy among us,” Carl Smith said. “He made a name for himself. He’s not known as Carl’s little brother. He’s my best friend, he’s my brother and I’ll do anything for him, and he’ll do anything for me.”
Before heading off to Maine, though, Smith had some final business to attend to in his sixth and final season with Riverhead’s track team.
Smith was a standout sprinter and long jumper for the Blue Waves.
“He had phenomenal, phenomenal speed,” Ogeka said. “He ran so fast, it looked like he was running slow. It was just fluid. He ran with ease.”
One of Ogeka’s most memorable moments involving Smith came in a meet in Kingston, N.Y. At the start of a 100-meter race, Smith slipped out of the starting blocks, allowing his opponents a seven-yard lead. No problem. Smith caught up to them and won the race.
With Smith and fellow sprinter Kevin Braunskill making for a potent one-two punch, Riverhead won its first county title since 1972. In the 1987 Conference III meet, three Blue Waves — Smith, Dion Henderson and Jason Jackson — swept the top three places in the 100 meters. Later that season, Smith took first place in a county meet in the 200 in 21.5 seconds, which was a school record at the time. Braunskill was nipping at his heels, coming in second in 21.9.
From there Smith went on to bigger things. His 10.87 clocking in the Eastern States Championships was good enough to beat his rival, the highly ranked Sam Rice of Cardinal Hayes.
Then, at the state meet, Smith came up against Rice again in the 100-meter final. It was a close race, but Smith prevailed. “I outleaned him,” he said. “It was a photo finish.”
Not only that, but it was a new state record: 10.30 seconds. That was only 31/100ths of a second off a time Olympian Carl Lewis had run.
Smith, who also long jumped as far as 22 feet 11 inches, was surprised to learn during an interview on Saturday that his 100M state record still stands.
“That’s amazing,” he said. “I thought it was long gone.”
Smith, a two-time high school all-American sprinter, went on to compete against the best high school sprinters in the nation in the Golden West Invitational and finished fifth.
In Smith, Division I-AA Maine had an athlete it had never seen before. By the time he graduated high school, Smith was 5-foot-9, 179 pounds, which is considered undersized for a college football player. There was concern over the physical punishment he would take.
In his first season as a red-shirt freshman, the slender Smith came off the bench and put on a show, scoring four touchdowns against Massachusetts. He had 68- and 63-yard scoring runs on tosses to the outside, broke two tackles on a draw for a 50-yarder, and caught a screen pass with three defenders around him before outjuking them all to the end zone. “I just outran everybody to the corner,” said Smith, who finished the game with 254 yards on 13 carries.
Not bad for a debut.
After that game, Smith was bombarded by media. He was making a name for himself and taking a liking to his adopted state.
“If I could do it again, I would do it again,” Smith said. “I love Maine. The people took to me like I was one of their own. I can’t even describe the feeling I have for the school and the people. They let me be me. They let me grow.”
Smith’s best football season at Maine was during his sophomore year. The coaching staff wasn’t shy about calling his number. In one game he ran the ball 42 times. He led the nation in rushing yards (1,680) and touchdowns (20) that year, averaging 152.7 yards per game as he led the Black Bears to the Yankee Conference title. All three of those figures are school records. Smith posted a school-record eight consecutive games with 100 rushing yards and tied the school record with nine 100-yard rushing games in 1989. He also set a school mark for rushing yards in an NCAA playoff game that year, picking up 205 yards on 30 rushing attempts against Southwest Missouri State.
No wonder he was named an all-American that year.
Smith also gained notoriety. Sports Illustrated reported that 13 NFL scouts visited Orono that year to look at Maine’s glamour players, senior quarterback Mike Buck and Smith.
“This guy was great,” said Keith Brown, Smith’s cousin. “It was something that he was born to do.”
Smith led Maine in rushing in 1988, 1989 and 1990. He finished his college career third in all-time rushing yards with 3,820 and third with 34 touchdowns. He also holds the Maine record for the longest run from scrimmage (89 yards) in program history against Rutgers in 1991.
But Smith paid a price for those numbers.
“You take a beating,” he said. “I found out what ice baths are.”
Smith also made his mark with Maine’s track team. He holds the school record in the outdoor 100 meters (10.58 set in 1990). He also won the North Atlantic Conference championship in the 55 and 200, and won the New England championship in the 100 in 1990.
In the back of Smith’s mind was the dream of playing professional football. Despite shoulders, feet and ankles that were hurting, and despite the fact that he had the flu, Smith did well at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and posting one of the highest vertical jumps.
The Philadelphia Eagles invited Smith to their minicamp, where he met players like Randall Cunningham and Reggie White. He was also hit by players like Seth Joyner and Andre Waters. “I’ve never been hit so hard in my life,” said Smith.
Smith later returned to the Eagles’ rookie camp. He said he didn’t have a good camp. After that, the Eagles made a move, picking up a big-name running back and saying goodbye to Smith.
“I lost my job to Herschel Walker,” he said.
Randy Kopp, who spent eight years on NFL coaching staffs, including a couple with the New York Giants and then the Atlanta Falcons, knows that making it to the professional ranks can be a hit-or-miss proposition. “You have to have just as much luck as talent,” he said, “and you have to be in the right place at the right time.”
Still, football wasn’t entirely out of Smith’s system. In 1993 he tried out for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, but tore a hamstring. He said he didn’t prepare well for that tryout.
“I was kind of burned out and I didn’t train,” he said. “I really wasn’t in love with the sport anymore.”
Finally, Smith came to a conclusion. He spoke with his wife, Lori, a former cross-country runner at Maine, and told her he was through with football. “I said: ‘Honey, I’m done. I’m finished. I don’t want to do this anymore.’ ”
Smith, who had played organized football from the time he was 8 years old to 26, stepped down from the game.
“I have no regrets whatsoever,” he said. “Football and track, they gave me a life that I can’t complain about.”
Smith loves Maine so much that he stayed there after college. He lives in Saco with his wife and their 14-year-old twin boys, Andrew and Dylan.
Smith has also retained a connection with track. He is an assistant coach for Thornton Academy.
Smith is a member of both the Riverhead and UMaine halls of fame. He was inducted into the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.
Ogeka said one word comes to mind when he thinks about Smith: “Greatness.”
But Smith left an impression that transcends statistics and championships. He was revered almost as much for his sportsmanship and work ethic as he was for his athleticism.
Loverde said Smith “is the model of what a young man should be like. So loaded with talent, but never took that talent for granted, worked diligently and he worked hard every single day, every single practice. This guy, he pushed himself. He was the perfect captain and leader.”
When the cheering stopped, Smith moved on to the next phase of his life, but the memories remain.
“I know what I did,” he said, “and I know it was good.”
What is this 20 Greatest Athletes list?
No. 20 Ryan Creighton and Al Edwards