ATHENS – “It takes a village to raise a child.”
That’s thought to be an ancient African proverb. The fact is, nobody has been able to fully validate the origins of that well-used phrase. What is certain, however, is the maxim fully applies to the story of Montezuma’s Roquan Smith.
Before it’s all over, Smith might be considered the greatest linebacker ever to don the red and black of the Georgia Bulldogs. We’ll have to give that legacy more time to percolate. Without question, however, he leaves Georgia as one of the program’s most successful and decorated defensive players in modern history.
The winner of the 2017 Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker, Smith piled up 124 tackles last season and led a defense that paved the way for the Bulldogs’ run to the College Football Playoff championship game. On Jan. 8, Georgia (13-2) lost to Alabama 26-23 in overtime in the title game and finished with a No. 2 national ranking.
One week later, Smith declared for the 2018 NFL Draft. While he waited until the last day for underclassmen to declare – he’s a junior – it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Smith would turn pro. All logic and reasoning dictated that he should.
“The decision to leave is not easy, but I know it is the right one,” Smith said.
Yes, it was.
Smith is considered an almost certain first-round pick. Some projections – including that of ESPN’s Mel Kiper ― place him among the top 10 selections. For some perspective, the No. 10 pick in the 2017 draft, Patrick Mahomes, signed a contract worth $16.5 million and received a $10 million signing bonus.
That said, everybody around Smith insists he struggled with the decision.
“It was hard on him because he really loved being at UGA,” said Larry Harold, Smith’s coach when he was Macon County High School.
Smith is preparing to become a pro. He signed with CAA Football to represent him and is training for the NFL combine at EXOS Sports Performance in Phoenix, according to his agent, Brian Ayrault of Atlanta.
“He’s doing great,” Ayrault said Wednesday from Phoenix. “He’s here working out as we speak.”
Ayrault said Smith was unavailable to talk but will be available soon.
We don’t need to hear from Smith to know that where he is at the moment is a long, long way from Montezuma, both literally and figuratively.
Montezuma is in south-central Georgia in the middle of Macon County and in the middle of nowhere, really. It’s mainly an agricultural community, with peaches the No. 1 crop, but soy beans, cotton, peanuts and garden vegetables also are grown in the area. There’s a large pulpwood industry, and it’s also home to the armory of Bravo Company of the Georgia Army National Guard. And to Macon County High School.
Otherwise, not much else. The median income of the area is listed as $30,603, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which also lists the city’s population at about 3,200 residents.
Smith spent his last year in Montezuma working part time on a crew digging wells for farm irrigation systems. From his sophomore to senior years at Macon County High School, in addition to playing football at a very high level, Smith was considered a model citizen.
Not so much before that.
Smith grew up with loving parents, Roderick Smith and Shaquana Thomas. But like a lot of people in that area, they had their hands full making a living.
When Smith was growing up, his father lived about an hour away in Macon, where he worked construction. His mother lived in Oglethorpe, the next town over from Montezuma, and she commuted a half-hour each day to her full-time job at Fort Valley State University.
With both parents gone to work each day, that left a lot of unsupervised time for Roquan and his siblings. Those include an older brother by a year, Rod Smith; and a younger sister and brother, Tyanna and Omar Richards.
Smith reportedly didn’t make the best use of his idle time. That’s when Gloria Story stepped in to help out.
“When I got there [to Macon County High School] at the end of his freshman year, I didn’t know too much about his home life,” said Harold, who is now the football coach and athletic director at Central High School in Macon. “But I know Gloria stepped in when there were some issues about helping with him. She took him in and provided a stable home life. They have a great home, her and her husband, Richard Story. They gave him everything he needed and not necessarily what he wanted. I feel like that was a life-changing moment in his life.”
To this day, Smith refers to Story as his aunt, although she’s actually not.
There were plenty of others around lending a hand, as well. His grandfather, Nathaniel Lamb, his grandmother Betty Smith, and his aunt, Shaquanda Baker, all contributed to Smith’s upbringing. There were other benefactors as well, such as Harold, Macon County principal Rickey Edmond and family friend Roy Yoder.
But make no mistake about it. It’s Roquan’s mother who has his heart.
“Oh, now he loves his Mama,” Harold said. “It’s for her he does everything he does.”
In addition to his tremendous athleticism, Smith’s work ethic helped distinguished him at Georgia. His work in the training room – and at the training table – took him from 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, his size when he reported to UGA, to 6-2, 225, the size at which he’ll leave.
Remarkably, Smith was able to do that without losing his tailback-worthy speed. He routinely has been timed at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash but says he has been timed at ― and plans again to be timed ― in the 4.4s. His goal for the combine is to clock a sub-4.5.
Regardless of what time he runs, Smith’s speed was on display week after week last season for the Bulldogs and their opponents as Smith yanked down ball carriers and receivers from sideline to sideline. Coach Kirby Smart called him the perfect inside linebacker for defending the run-pass-option-based spread offenses in the game of today.
“A tackling machine,” Smart called him. “Sideline-to-sideline, relentless, athletic, tough, competitive, leads, talks when needs to, quiet when he needs to be. He has impeccable character. I’m just proud of how hard he works and that he buys into what we believe.”
Such offenses are also becoming more prevalent in the NFL. That’s why Smith continues to command such a high draft grade, even though he’s not the traditional size of pro linebackers.
So whenever and wherever Smith eventually gets drafted, it’s clear he is going to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional athlete. It’s something that Harold says Smith communicated to him the first time they met at Macon County High School as coach and player.
“I can’t wait to see him playing pro ball on TV,” Harold said. “He always talked that, about going to school, getting his degree and going on to the next level. Everything he talked about when he was in high school he has achieved. It’s just great to see. He’s come a long, long way. Not just as a football player. He’s matured so much, became more of a leader, more vocal. It’s just great seeing a kid like that go from a boy to a man.”
Smith is scheduled to graduate with a degree in communications in December. Or at least he was before he decided to take this alternate route.
But he should be fine. With a few million in the bank and at least few years in the NFL guaranteed, Smith will be able to come back to UGA to finish his education.
And those closest to him fully expect Smith will. They’ve all had a hand in getting him to where he is. Seeing him get from here to there has left no doubters in Montezuma.
“There have been some great athletes come through Macon County, and not a lot of them make it out,” Harold said. “He came from a loving community and a loving family that did everything they had to do to make sure he was able to achieve his dreams. He’d tell you the same thing.”
We’ll be hearing from Smith soon enough.