Somebody in the crowd knew what they were talking about.
As young Robert Smith, a sixth-grader at the time, walked off the field following yet another dominating performance for St. Felicitas, one of the parents got Smith’s attention.
“You’re going to play for the Browns someday,” the parent yelled out to Smith.
The prognostication wasn’t 100 percent accurate — Smith didn’t end up playing for the Browns, but rather, the Minnesota Vikings — but the intent of the comment was spot-on.
Smith, even at that age, was good — and greatness was before them.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it a little bit,” Smith said. “But it never dominated my thoughts.”
Rather, the domination was on the field, where Smith went on to be the first two-time winner of Ohio’s Associated Press Mr. Football Award as a Euclid Panther, went on to a distinguished football and track career at Ohio State and played eight years in the NFL.
It’s his stellar high school career, which Smith used as a springboard to greater things later in his life, that has made him a member of The 2013 News-Herald High School Spots Hall of Fame.
“It was a blast,” Smith said of his playing days at Euclid, from recreation leagues through his career with the Panthers. “When you are young and competing, it’s a learning experience. And it’s a lot of fun.”
Smith wasn’t always the physically chiseled, man-among-boys athlete he was when he was the headliner of Coach Tom Banc’s offense at Euclid. He was a frail running back with St. Felicitas, taking handoffs from then-quarterback Elvis Grbac.
“Even then, nobody was going to catch me,” Smith said. “But back then I had a lot of weight to gain and had to learn how to play football. I wasn’t a very physical kid, more of a runner. I had to get used to contact and learn how to run the right way to play football.”
By the time he was a freshman at Euclid, Smith was physically stronger and ready to take on the rigors of high school football.
“Looking back, there was no way in my wildest dreams I thought he’d be as successful as he ended up being, just because of his body type,” Banc said. “But even as a ninth-grader, he was just so darn explosive. Once he got to the secondary, it was ‘see you later.’ ”
“The first time I met him was as a freshman. I was his math teacher,” said former coach and teacher Paul Serra. “When I saw him playing, there was no doubt he was going to be special — and that was just seeing him in gym class.”
Smith emerged as a sophomore, but not until late in the season because he was stuck behind a senior on the depth chart.
Trailing Cleveland Heights late in the game, Banc turned to Smith. Smith’s first carry went for a 50-yard touchdown, which sent the game into overtime. Smith’s second carry of the game went for a 20-yard touchdown and the victory.
“People would ask me what offense we ran,” Banc said, “It was the Watch-Robert-Run, Run-Robert-Run offense. Same thing as when we had Pepe (Pearson) and Fish (Tony Fisher).”
After two years of learning the ropes and making a name for himself in the Euclid program, Smith developed into one of Ohio’s best players as a junior. He finished that season with 1,564 rushing yards (8.8 yards per carry). He also averaged 31 yards per punt return.
“I remember the day (former News-Herald writer) Joe Magill called me at Burger King and told me I had won Mr. Football,” Smith said. “I couldn’t believe it. The award wasn’t very old at that time, and as a junior, I didn’t even think I’d be eligible.”
The Associated Press Mr. Football Award was only one year old. The inaugural honor went to Buster Howe of Zanesville.
“Winning it was incredible,” Smith said. “I didn’t understand the significance of it, but it was pretty cool.”
The honor set the bar that much higher for Smith the following season, not by others but by himself. Smith said the desire to be better on the field and compete at a higher level pushed him in the offseason.
“And obviously there were college implications my senior year, too,” Smith said. “There are different ways of looking at pressure, but it was always internal pressure for me.”
Smith responded to that pressure.
“He handled it very well,” Banc said of the target. “He went about his business. There was never a time we ran a wind sprint that he didn’t win it. His work ethic was incredible. So was his maturity.”
His senior season, Smith — who grew from 6-foot-2, 185 pounds as a junior to nearly 200 pounds as a senior — ran for 2,042 yards and 31 touchdowns. It gave him career numbers of 5,038 yards and 67 touchdowns.
After being named Mr. Football for a second straight year, Smith signed with Ohio State.
“I wasn’t really focused on awards (my senior year),” Smith said. “That stuff takes care of itself. What I remember is we lost four games in my last two years and they were all to St. Ignatius. We lost to them in the regular season and in the playoffs in both years.”
Serra said he was impressed with how Smith carried himself with the spotlight on him. Serra was granted guardianship of Smith in Smith’s senior year.
“He settled in and really got the job done in the classroom and in sports,” Serra said. “If you had a kid, he was the kind of kid you wanted.”
At Ohio State, Smith’s best season was in 1990, when he ran for 1,126 yards and eight touchdowns. Smith also ran track at Ohio State, and was a member of the Big Ten champion 4×400-meter relay team.
In eight seasons with the Vikings, Smith ran for 6,818 yards and 32 touchdowns. He retired after the 2000 season. Many thought he was still in his prime.
“It was the right time to get out of the game,” Smith said. “I still have problems with my right knee. I could have played more, but the cost would have been high.”
Smith, his wife, Jennifer, 3-year-old daughter, Tayler, and 1-year old son, Grayson, live in Houston.
More than two decades have passed since Smith dominated the local gridiron. Banc said he is biased, but he said he hasn’t seen another running back since who could hold a candle to Smith — and he doesn’t plan on seeing another.
“It’s like catching lighting in a bottle, quite frankly,” Banc said.
- Who: 2013 News-Herald High School Sports Hall of Fame inductee
- Sport: Football
- High school: Euclid
- Where are they now?: Lives in Houston with is wife, Jennifer, daughter Tayler and son Grayson. He is a college football analyst for ESPN among many endeavors.
- High school highlights: A 1990 graduate of Euclid, Smith was named Mr. Football in Ohio in both his junior and senior seasons. … He ran for 5,038 yards and 67 touchdowns as a high-schooler and signed to play football at Ohio State. … He was also an accomplished runner in track and field at Euclid.
By John Kampf | JKampf@News-Herald.com