MARRERO, La. — Meet Irvin Smith, pizza boy.
It’s mid-April, and the Brother Martin (New Orleans) senior is working on a costume for his “Prom-posal,” as today’s high schoolers refer to the rite of prep passage otherwise known as “asking a young woman to Senior Prom.”
In this moment, Smith — Alabama’s newest tight end — is devising his plan: Borrow a Domino’s uniform, purchase a pizza and then make sure the pepperonis spell out “P-R-O-M” before arriving at his classmate’s house for the next day’s big moment.
During this crucial decision-making process (his mother and uncle are also contributing ideas), Smith is forced to talk football.
So he walks out the door and takes a poolside seat in his family’s backyard.
The 17-year-old was born just as his father’s football career was winding down in the late ’90s. Irvin Smith, Sr., was a star for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame before becoming a first-round NFL selection and catching 183 career passes with the Saints, 49ers and Browns.
It was during his first pro stop — New Orleans — that he met Irv Jr.’s mother, Louisiana native Rose Matamoros, and they spent much of the kid’s early life in the Phoenix area before he and his mom moved back to the Bayou roughly four years ago.
Smith, Jr.,’s pre-high school years didn’t involve much football, per his dad’s plan.
“It kind of preserved my body, and of course, I was able to play long term,” Smith, Sr., told SEC Country in a phone interview last week. “I felt what my parents did with me was smart, so I tried to do the same thing with him.”
Under the watchful eye of his father, Smith, Jr., played basketball, soccer and dabbled in baseball before finally being allowed to play the game he loved most in eighth grade.
One season of middle-school football gave him a crash course before beginning his Louisiana prep career.
Standing tall above his teammates — he’s now 6-foot-4 and weighs 230 pounds — the years of keeping his feet active on the soccer pitch, basketball court and baseball diamond helped Smith, Jr., avoid getting stuck on the offensive line and instead allowed him to split out wide and catch touchdowns.
He played receiver until his sophomore year, when he went up for an overthrown ball in the end zone and broke his leg on the way down.
At that juncture, he did not have any college offers, and faced the prospect of never playing organized football again.
“We didn’t know if his career was over or not,” Smith, Sr., said.
The doctors put in screws, then took them out six months later. When Smith, Jr., hit the field again, his coaches made it clear: He was moving to tight end, full time.
Smith, Jr., was not a featured part of the passing game that year, but developed his blocking skills to the point where that aspect “just became pretty easy.” Having missed most of his sophomore year — generally considered the most crucial for college recruiting — he stayed patient as several of his teammates received interest from Division I schools.
“I knew it was going to happen, it was just a matter of time,” Smith, Jr., said. “When everybody else was getting the offers and stuff, I was just waiting on my time.”
One day during basketball season, that patience paid off.
Hometown school Tulane reached out with a scholarship offer. Within hours, Miami (Fla.) reached out on Twitter, and then offered him over the phone following his game that night.
“After that,” Smith, Jr., said, “it just piled up.”
Both Texas A&M and Alabama offered the rising senior after spring ball.
Jr. and Sr. took a trip to College Station, where Kevin Sumlin’s staff blew the younger Smith away. He committed on the spot, much to his father’s — and, over the phone later, his mother’s — surprise.
Meanwhile, Alabama coach Nick Saban kept in touch.
“They never changed their tune,” Smith, Sr., said. “They said the exact same thing over and over again: Just come to Alabama. Give us a chance. Look at what we have, and then make your decision.”
That chance arrived when A&M suffered through a tumultuous winter. Top quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray skipped town in December, and then the Aggies fired offensive coordinator Jake Spavital Jan. 3.
Smith, Jr.’s mother, Matamoros, scoured social media for clues.
“Why are these kids leaving?” she asked. “What’s the underlying issue? Because you don’t have two 5-star quarterbacks just leave a program like that. I told Irvin (Jr.) you have to dig in. You have a lot of contacts.”
One of those contacts was Allen, a former high school star from Scottsdale, Ariz., who grew up near Smith, Jr. in the Phoenix area.
On Jan. 21, Smith, Jr., announced his de-commitment from Texas A&M.
Roughly two weeks remained until signing day, and the only serious contenders for his signature were Texas and Alabama.
He had already paid visits to both, but there was a distinct difference between the programs: Alabama stayed in close contact with his family, while Texas tended to speak only to him.
“My biggest concern with Texas was, I wasn’t a fan of their recruiting process,” Smith, Sr. said. “They didn’t really involve my son’s mom and myself in the process. They spoke directly to Irv without having any interaction with the parents. And Alabama is exactly the opposite. Their coaching staff and recruiters have my number and my son’s mom’s number on speed dial, and they stayed in touch with us about everything that was going on.”
Another big factor: Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard’s performance in the national championship game.
The junior exploded through the Clemson defense — and the perception that Alabama tight ends don’t catch many passes — for five receptions, 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Tide defeated the Tigers for their 16th national title.
“It was like, ‘Irv, this could open the door for you,'” Smith, Sr., said. “It truly was meant to be.”
Howard was Smith, Jr.’s official host during a January visit to Tuscaloosa, and his decision to put off the NFL in favor of another year at Alabama will certainly help Smith, Jr.’s college transition.
“I’m going there to be the best that I can be,” Smith, Jr. said. “I’m not trying to just sit behind and sit and watch. I’m trying to get on the field as well and do everything I can. But he definitely has a lot of pointers he can give me, so I’m going to take everything.”
More about Irvin Smith:
- He saw plenty of Leonard Fournette in high school… “We played them every year in our district,” Smith said. The two met a couple times. “He’s a great player,” Smith added. “One of the best in the country, so he definitely has a bright future ahead … You could tell he was the No. 1 player in the country in high school, and now he’s one of the top college players. Everybody knows who Leonard Fournette is.”
- He played for former NBA star Mike Bibby’s AAU team in middle school… Smith, Jr., went on to become a point guard at Brother Martin, but was moved to the post after his first season.
- He has much respect for offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin… ““He just tells it how it is,” Smith, Jr. said. “His offense has had a lot of success everywhere he’s been, and all the different things he does — not only spread, pro-style as well — not many schools in the country do both of those. It’s usually one or the other. It’s like the NFL the way he runs his offense.”
- He teases his dad when they watch his old NFL highlights… “He helps me out a lot with different pointers,” Smith, Jr., said. “I got to watch a lot of his games, and some of his film to see all the good things he’s done. I mess with him a little bit if he did something bad.”
- His uncle Tracy Palmisano always thought Smith, Jr., would choose Alabama… “That’s where you need to go,” he said. “Is it a choice? You wanna walk into the locker room with your helmets like this [holds arm up high]? Or hanging there like this [head down, arm hanging dejectedly]?”