Elijah Walker spent Thursday night with family and friends, crowded around a television set in his hometown of Amite, Louisiana, ready to witness a surreal moment.
DeVonta Smith’s high school quarterback eagerly watched the first round of the NFL Draft with some folks who have known Smith for most of his life and have gleefully watched his ascent. And even though they all knew his name would be called, seeing it happen was another thing.
The entire tiny town of Amite is bursting with pride.
Tay-Tay did it again.
“People back home, we been knowing what he could do,” Walker said. “This past year, it’s just a blessing that the world got to see it.”
Smith, 22, has already proven so much, becoming a star at Alabama, a Heisman Trophy winner and now a top 10 pick, putting Amite on the map along the way.
Amite is a small town of less than 4,500 people tucked into the middle of the boot in Louisiana, about a 1 hour, 15 minute drive from Baton Rouge and 2 hours from New Orleans.
If Smith can make LSU fans root for the Crimson Tide, then he’ll certainly be able to make Saints fans pull for the Eagles.
“You’re gonna have a lot of New Orleans Saints fans in our area go out and get DeVonta Smith jerseys and become part-time Philadelphia Eagle fans,” Smith’s high school coach Zephaniah Powell said to NBC Sports Philadelphia on Friday.
“To see that happen last night, you can’t help but to root for him, cheer for him and just hope that he doesn’t receive nothing but all the best.”
The morning after Smith was drafted and into the next afternoon, even as Smith flew from Cleveland to Philadelphia, his hometown in Louisiana was still buzzing. Walker said “it was just crazy” watching his longtime friend realize his dream. All that hard work paid off.
Walker, now the quarterback at Grambling State, keeps in touch with his old high school receiver. He texted Smith on Thursday night to congratulate him. The next morning, Walker said all the posts about Smith “just hit different.”
On Thursday night, as Smith’s people back in Louisiana awaited the good news, Smith was in Cleveland for the in-person event when the Eagles moved up two spots to No. 10 to take him.
“It means a lot. Not a lot of people from where I’m from get this opportunity,” Smith said on the latest Takeoff with John Clark. “For the community, it’s like I did it for them. It’s just like this is all hometown here, he’s the one that’s gonna start it off and many more will come behind me.”
Taking it to the court
It almost didn’t happen. None of it. The historic career at Alabama, the Heisman Trophy, the NFL.
DeVonta Smith was almost a basketball player.
During Smith’s sophomore season of high school football, he was going through a mid-week practice when he dove to catch a ball and broke his clavicle. He missed the rest of that year and between his sophomore and junior seasons, considered putting all his energy into basketball, where he was less likely to suffer another significant injury.
Powell was hired as the Amite football coach in March of 2015, just around the time Smith was considering hanging up the cleats. So one of Powell’s first orders of business was to basically recruit Smith to keep him on the team.
Powell’s sales pitch was a good one: “DeVonta, we’re going to throw the ball on every play.”
That pitch, along with encouragement from his mentor Vincent Sanders, helped Smith decide to return to football for his junior and senior seasons. He, of course, was a star.
But Smith was pretty good on the basketball court too. Powell said Smith was a 23/8/8 guy for the Warriors basketball team and then-Alabama basketball coach Avery Johnson even wanted Smith to come to Tuscaloosa to hoop.
If you’re wondering, Smith still uses his basketball skills. He just uses them on the football field.
“With basketball, I played the one through the four, so sometimes I was in the post, so just that mentality, that grit mentality just to go in there just to bang, to be scrappy, that carried over to football,” he said on Thursday night.
“And then just going up to get rebounds, that's attacking the ball at the highest point. That helped me out. Footwork, that kind of helped me out, too. Just really the main thing about basketball was just the mentality I had. It wasn't a big team, so I had to be in the post, so it was all about getting physical.”
Drop and give me 10
On one of Powell’s first days at Amite High School, he was walking through the hallways as the bell rang and he then came upon a 15- or 16-year-old Smith doing pushups right in the middle of all the action.
Smith had been walking and glanced over to see his reflection in the windows of the hallway, so he dropped to the ground.
“What are you doing,” Powell asked.
“Coach, I gotta get bigger.”
“OK, well we lift in the seventh hour.”
“Coach, that’s not enough. I have to get bigger. Every time I see my reflection, I do 10-15 pushups.”
“No matter where you at?”
“No matter where I am, if I see my reflection in a mirror or a puddle of water or whatever, I’m gonna get down and do pushups.”
Smith was a skinny high school player who turned into a skinny college player who turned into a skinny Heisman Trophy winner and is now a skinny NFL player. Along the way, he’s always been acutely aware of the questions about his slender build.
Even on the day he was drafted, his weight (166 pounds) was a major talking point. Smith said he doesn’t care what people say about his body, yet he understands the questions; reporters have a job to do. And the Eagles obviously don’t care about his weight or they wouldn’t have traded up to draft him.
“He sure as heck doesn't play like a guy like you're talking about with that size,” Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni said. “Play strength, I see a ton of play strength and toughness. Play strength and toughness is what I see with DeVonta over and over and over again.”
Not surprisingly, Powell said Smith’s father has a similarly slender build. Powell thinks Smith might be able to pack some more weight on his 6-foot-1 frame in the NFL, perhaps maxing out at around 180-185 pounds. But he’s never going to be beefy. And after watching him dominate in the SEC, why would the Eagles want him to change?
He might be rail-thin, but Smith is pretty tough too. Powell remembered the time Smith played in the state championship game in 2016 with a dislocated toe. Amite lost that game 40-36, but Smith was named the Most Outstanding Player after catching 8 passes for 111 yards, intercepting a pass on defense and returning a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.
“He’s never been soft. He’s just skinny,” Walker said. “That’s the only (bad) thing you can say about him. Other than that, he has anything a big guy would have. He don’t lack nothing but the way he looks and he can’t really control that.”
The same humble kid
Even as the world has learned how special Smith is, his circle has remained small.
In a lot of ways, he’s still just that skinny, humble, hard-working kid from Amite. No wonder they’re pulling for him so hard.
Walker said he wouldn’t describe Smith as quiet but admitted that Smith is much more reserved around those who don’t know him well. “I feel like he would probably have to learn you,” he said.
In some ways, Smith puts out similar vibes to Jalen Hurts, with whom he’s being reunited in Philly. They both embody a certain quiet confidence laced with humility and backed by hard work.
No one outworks Smith, Walker said, remembering high school days when his receiver wouldn’t take no for an answer on a workout, especially if he needed his quarterback to throw him passes.
Walker meant no disrespect to the other first-round Alabama receivers this year and last — Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy and Jaylen Waddle — but he said there’s just something different about Smith. Something special.
“I just played with him all my life,” Walker said. “He’s just always been that guy. He has the ‘it’ factor that you can’t coach. He has something you just can’t teach.”
Walker thinks that soon enough, the rest of the world will see it too.
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