Sherman Smith plays in a game for the Seahawks. Seahawks photo
Sherman Smith grew up in a house of big shadows, in an area of low expectations, and in a time of racial injustice. It was precisely the kind of situation that would make most young African-Americans like him aim for attainable targets. And that's just what Smith did in his teenage years. During the tail end of the civil rights movement, while growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, in the late 1960s and early 70s, Smith convinced himself that the best thing life had to offer him was a modest job at the local steel mill. That's what his father, John Thomas "J.T." Smith did, and that's what most other kids in the Midwestern town aspired to attain as well. But when Sherman's father asked him what he wanted to do with his life, and 16-year-old Sherman responded with a shrug, J.T. Smith wasn't satisfied. Sherman went on to tell his father that he wanted nothing more than to work in the steel mill and live in the apartments across town.
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Living under J.T. Smith's roof meant trying to become the best you could be, as Sherman Smith learned at an early age. Sherman had heard the stories of how his father made something out of nothing, about how J.T. Smith had risen from his place as a steel worker to the assistant to the union president, so Sherman knew that his father had high hopes for each of his three sons. J.T. Smith had to work for everything he got, having used a fake ID to get into the Army at the age of 15 so he could support his family. His father – Sherman's grandfather – had just died, and his mother was in a wheelchair, so J.T. Smith went out and earned a living in any way possible. After he served in the military, J.T. Smith moved to Youngstown and started working in the steel mill. He got married and helped raise three sons on a meager salary, yet he always had big dreams. But J.T. Smith's world came crashing down when he was laid off and spent 18 months out of work. The humiliation drove him even harder to give his family everything it needed. "He promised us right then, as a family, that something like that would never happen again," Sherman Smith later recalled. "He worked and gave 100 percent to everything he did, just to make sure it wouldn't happen." The hard work paid off, as J.T. Smith eventually worked his way up to a position as assistant to the president of the Steel Workers of America. That wasn't the only shadow in the Smith household. Oldest son Vincent earned a football scholarship to Mount Union College, leaving another set of large footsteps in front of Sherman Smith.
Sherman Smith hands the game ball to head coach Jack Patera after the Seahawks won a preseason game in Seattle against the San Diego Chargers on Aug. 29, 1976. Associated Press file photo
Leading up to that game, we were starting to feel pretty good as a team. We had won our first game against Tampa Bay a couple weeks earlier, and we lost some close games to good teams. The confidence was starting to build up -- particularly on offense, where we were really young. We were playing the Atlanta Falcons, and everything just felt right. The team was excited; the fans were excited. It felt like it was going to be a pretty special game for us. We had to overcome some early mistakes, but we continued to believe. I had two fumbles in the first half alone – one on a botched exchange with quarterback Jim Zorn during a hand-off. I'll never forget what happened after that. My teammate, captain Norm Evans, put an arm around me and said: 'It's going to be OK.' That's just what I needed to hear. Here's a guy who played for the Miami Dolphins, who played in three Super Bowls, a guy whose opinion I really respected. He really had a calming influence. Despite the mistakes, we were still up at halftime. I had scored a second-quarter touchdown on a pass from Zorn, and we were ahead 14-3 and feeling pretty good. We overcame some things, the defense got a couple turnovers, and the chatter in the locker room was: 'Let's finish the job.' Up until that game, we were hoping to win instead of expecting to win. So we went out in the second half, continued to play good football, and stayed positive. Then I scored on a 53-yard run to put us ahead 30-6, and that really seemed to put things out of reach. I had good blocking up front, made the safety miss and outran a couple of guys to the end zone. I remember turning around, and all my teammates were there celebrating with me. There was really this feeling that we were going to win the game. We went on to win 31-13, and I finished with 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns. I was a quarterback in college, so that was not only the first 100-yard rushing game in Seahawks team history, but it was also the first for me personally – at any level. That let me know that maybe I can be a running back in this league. That helped get me to thinking that I could have some success as an NFL running back. Winning the game was exciting. The city was excited; we were all excited in the locker room. But we didn't want to act like we didn't expect it. We knew we had a game the next week, so we tried to act like it was something we expected. But we were obviously happy that we won. It really boosted the confidence of the whole team because everyone contributed to that win: offense, defense, special teams. It all started to come together for us. We didn't win the next week, but it served notice to the rest of the league that we were going to be a team to watch out for. After that, teams knew they had to bring their A-game when they were playing the Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks finished their inaugural season with just the two wins, but the franchise improved quickly. After a 2-12 mark as an expansion team, Seattle went 5-9 in 1977, 9-7 in 1978 and 9-7 in 1979. Smith, the former college quarterback, led the team in rushing each year. But he suffered a knee injury three games into the 1980 season and was never the same. He returned to the field in 1981 but finished second on the team in rushing. Smith added a team-high 202 rushing yards during the strike-shortened 1982 season. "Once he got injured, he slowed down a step. The burst wasn't there. The power was still there, but the burst wasn't. He just couldn't physically do it," former teammate Jim Zorn recalled while noting that Smith was also affected by the 1979 retirement of blocking fullback David Sims.
Sherman Smith, Seattle Seahawks running backs coach, talks to players as they take part in rookie football mini-camp in April 2010 at Seahawks headquarters in Renton. Associated Press file photo
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