R.J. Smith’s initial hint that greatness may be in his genes came early during his elementary school years, when he picked up a library book on Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays and saw his father, Bob Smith, in it.
“I came home and was like, ‘Is this Daddy?’ And my mom said yeah,” said the Tompkins High senior running back, one of the top rushers in the entire state. “I came home and was like, ‘Is this Daddy?’ And my mom said yeah. That’s when I realized he actually played in the majors. It was a book on all the players who’d played for the Rays and who stood out, and he was in there. It was pretty cool.”
Indeed, Bob Smith played five seasons in the majors, all with the Rays. It wasn’t long after his career ended that he started training R.J.
“At first, I used to think he was being tough on me just to be tough on me,” Smith said. “But now I can see he was just trying to make me better and make me a good man.”
Missions accomplished. The 5-foot-11 ½, 178-pound Smith opened a lot of eyes last season, rushing for 2,391 yards (8.5 yards per carry) and 30 touchdowns and hauling in 14 catches for 192 yards and three more TDs, helping lift the Falcons from a winless campaign in 2017 to a third-round playoff appearance in 2018.
Of Tompkins’ 395.9 yards per game, Smith accounted for 198.7 of them, or 50.2 percent.
“It wasn’t surprising to us, because we knew what he can do,” Bob Smith said. “He’s been doing that stuff since he’s been little.”
Last season was a breakthrough for Smith, who missed five games of his sophomore season with rib injuries. He was named to the Class 6A all-state team.
“It really raised my confidence, knowing what I can do for my team and for myself,” said Smith, a two-year team captain and four-year varsity letterman. “From my sophomore year to my junior year, it was like I was a totally different person.”
He boasts exceptional speed, quickness and vision.
“When you add all that to instinct, you can do a lot of good things,” Bob said.
The Falcons’ coaching staff used him in myriad of ways: as a downhill runner, outside, in motion, jet-sweep, power game.
Now coach Todd McVey is eager to see his young star take that next step.
“My expectation of him is everything but playing, because I know he’s going to play hard. That’s not my concern,” McVey said. “For him, it’s about leading. He’s quiet. He won’t rah-rah. My expectation more than anything else will be at practice, making sure he’s getting everyone else to practice as hard as he does. What’s going to be his legacy? He needs to help lead that. He gets to tell the stories of when it was not good and when it was good, and we have to continue doing what it’s taken to be good. That’s his role.”
But as spectacular as Smith is off the field—and he’s spectacular enough that national publications have taken notice—it’s who he is off the field that impresses.
He is quiet. He is humble. He is understated. It’s rare that such an individually gifted talent is all about the team.
“I love that guy,” senior offensive lineman Hayden Burke said. “That guy is one of the best guys out there, even off the field. He’s someone who believes in himself and he believes in his teammates.”
He is trusted. He is genuine.
“If I ever need anything, I know I can call on R.J. and he’ll be there,” said junior quarterback Jalen Milroe, who has played football with Smith since they were teammates at WoodCreek Junior High. “Seeing what he’s worked for and what he’s earned, to see him keep improving and getting better, we can count on him.”
That comes from his upbringing.
“That’s our family. We work hard and let our work speak for ourselves,” Bob said. “He’s a quiet kid, he’s humble. That’s kind of his own personality as well, because he understands that’s what’s necessary to not only grow as a player but as a person.”
Bob started coaching Smith in basketball as a youngster, and at one time he thought he might be better suited for the court than the gridiron. Smith trained, trained, trained and trained some more under Dad. But once Smith reached 12 years old, Bob “handed him off” to other coaches and just tried to sit back and be a father.
Smith said while his dad is hands off as far as training, where he does have a significant presence is the “hard work and character part,” because “that stuff matters everywhere, not just sports.”
Smith is conscious of how he comes off around others. Bob has taught him how to be mature, how to show yourself, how to brand yourself. Whether it’s with the media or just working out, Smith is intent on doing more than what everyone else does.
“It’s helped me a lot,” Smith said. “He’s been there. He knows what to do. It drives me knowing I have someone to follow who got to where I want to go. It’s really an advantage, as far as him telling me what it takes to reach certain things or how to approach certain situations.
“I never want to come off as someone who’s cocky. But I am confident in myself. I believe in what I can do.”
(This story is featured in the Katy Times' On the Grid high school football preview magazine that came out Aug. 29).