When Irv Smith Jr. steps on the field in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Night at the Superdome, a lot of New Orleans locals will be excited.
They've been that way ever since learning Alabama would be playing in the NCAA football playoffs' national semifinals against Clemson. Smith, who prepped at New Orleans' Brother Martin High School, is a sophomore tight end with the Crimson Tide.
Smith's mother, Rose Matamoros, and her family subleased a suite in the Superdome, and 39 family members and close friends will watch the game there. That's not including six other family members who will be in the stands.
His father, Irv Smith Sr., a former Notre Dame star and Saints tight end who played in the 1992 Sugar Bowl, also will be at the Dome.
And Tre Swilling, son of former Saints linebacker Pat Swilling and a former Brother Martin football and basketball teammate and one of Smith Jr.'s closest friends, will host a watch party at the Swilling home. At least 15 former teammates will attend along with many others.
Likely, none are more excited than Smith Jr., who will be playing in his city's iconic stadium for the first time.
“I grew up a Saints fan like every other young boy from New Orleans,” he said. “I always fell short of playing in the Superdome. My high school, we lost in the semifinals my junior year, and in my senior year, we got knocked out in the first round.
“Now, being able to play there at this level and this high of a stage, it's exciting. Anybody in the world would want to be in this situation.”
Said Matamoros: “And, if we win, we go on to the national championship. It is so exciting.”
Alabama assistant head coach Burton Burns, a New Orleanian who played at St. Augustine High, and who recruited Smith, said “I'm proud for Irv and proud for his family.
“They trusted their son with us, and now, it's a perfect world for his family.”
That Smith Jr. would be in this position is a stroke of good fortune and a testament to his desire, hard work and competitiveness. He was a sophomore wide receiver/tight end at Brother Martin when, in his first varsity football game, against Ehret High School at West Jefferson Stadium, Smith's right leg was broken where the fibia meets the growth plate, just below the knee.
“He ran a corner route and went up to catch the ball,” Crusaders coach Mark Bonis said. “When he landed, his leg just snapped.”
It also affected his knee.
“We were just concerned for Irv, the person,” Smith Sr. said. “But you wondered if he'd ever be able to play again. They had to put two screws in this leg.”
Smith Jr. looks back at that moment, he said, as a blessing in disguise.
“I was hurt because I'd worked so hard to get to the point where I was,” he said. “I knew I still had time to work on myself and get better. Honestly, it was a blessing for me, too.
“Some people, when they get injured, they put themselves down and get lazier, forget about what got them there. But I just went back and worked hard, which is what I'd been doing my whole life, and just used that as a strength for me.”
He began doing upper-body strength work while the leg healed. Once the cast came off, he began rehabilitating with John Moran at Southern Orthopedics and with Derrick Joseph, a former Tulane player who was now a physical trainer. In the summer before practice began in August, before his junior year, Smith was working out twice a day.
“When my leg was broken, I was around 205 pounds,” he said. “I wanted to get bigger, stronger and faster. My junior year, I was 230.”
However, he had maintained his speed.
“He played both tight end and wide receiver for us, but he was very athletic,” Bonis said. “We knew he was a guy we wanted in the passing game, so we'd flex him out as a receiver.”
The first game of his junior year, at Patterson High, proved to be much more fortuitous than the opening game of his sophomore year. Smith drew the attention of Burns, the top recruiter in the country.
“He was there to look at (wide receiver) Daylon Charlot,” Smith said. “He had committed to Alabama. I met Coach Burns, and he said he had heard about me. He told me he would come see me in the spring.”
From the time Smith was a toddler in Phoenix, where the family had moved after Smith Sr.'s NFL career ended, it appeared basketball would be the sport for young Irv. Matamoros and Smith Sr. both say he was able to dribble with both hands.
“He was just a natural athlete,” Matamoros said. “When he was in elementary school, he played with Team Mike Bibby, and (former NBA point guard) Mike Bibby was the coach. He was 10 when he really began to shine.”
Matamoros and Smith Jr. moved back to New Orleans in time for him to enter eighth grade at Brother Martin. That is when he met Swilling; his brother, Bruce Jordan-Swilling; and a little guard, Lamont Berzat, who later transferred to Landry-Walker High and won state championships in basketball and football. They played AAU ball with Team Swilling and developed a close bond, and Smith and the Swillings formed the nucleus for Brother Martin's varsity basketball team.
Smith was one of its best players. Basketball also proved to be a good distraction of sorts.
“Usually, at the end of sophomore year, the beginning of junior year, that's when everyone starts getting their offers, going to camps,” he said. “I'd missed my sophomore year. I had a good junior year, but I didn't start getting offers until basketball season.
“I just wanted to work and just prove what I was capable of doing.”
Football spring training soon followed basketball season, and Burns came.
“He watched me practice every day,” Smith said. “One day, (Alabama) coach (Nick) Saban called and offered me a scholarship.”
Burns said he knew Smith wasn't a five-star recruit.
“New Orleans is one of my areas,” Burns said, “and just from the routine of talking to Brother Martin's coaches, I felt he was a guy who could fit the style of that position for us. He was a tight end that could play with his hand on the ground as well as he could line up at the line of scrimmage, which is kind of unique now. He was athletic enough to be a mover.”
Bonis said Smith had made an incredible jump from sophomore year to junior year and then another one from junior year to senior year.
“He came to practice every day with a purpose,” Bonis said. “He was a devastating blocker at the point of attack and an excellent receiver.”
As a senior, he caught 31 passes for 558 yards and four touchdowns.
“He made one play I'll never forget,” Swilling said. “We had a big game against John Curtis, and we were at about the 35 (yard line). He caught a pass, ran over one guy, broke another tackle, stiff-armed the next guy to the ground. A guy hit him at the 5, and he dragged him into the end zone.”
However, before his senior season, Smith had committed to Texas A&M on a visit there. He stayed in touch with Burns, he said, “because that's just what I wanted to do.” When Texas A&M's offensive coordinator left, Smith decommitted, opening the door for him to go to Alabama.
What followed was a standout season in football, in which he received honorable mention all-state, and in basketball, being selected all-district. He was chosen Brother Martin's Athlete of the Year.
“One of the things I miss about high school is playing basketball,” he said. “But basketball helped me in football. I go after the ball like it's a rebound, boxing out the defending and catching the ball at its highest peak.
“Football also helped me in basketball. I was very physical.”
Swilling remembers Smith getting in foul trouble a lot early on “because he charged into people.”
Swilling, who along with Jordan-Swilling plays at Georgia Tech, said Smith's work at Alabama his freshman year was evident.
“When I saw him (last) summer, Irv looked like a monster,” Swilling said. “Irv is (6-foot-4), 245 pounds, his chest is out, his shoulders are back, and his abs look ridiculous. We had a good weight program at Brother Martin but ...”
Said Smith: “I'm bench-presssing 465 pounds now. My bench was about 350 in high school.”
Smith had gotten a jolt right away when he got to Alabama.
“A lot of people nowadays, they go in early (college) enrollment (in January), getting in the spring (practices) and getting an early advantage,” he said. “But I came in May, basically June — summer workouts when I got there. And, we started out with 17 or 18 110s (yard sprints).”
That was just the start.
“Camp was in August, and I had a coach — Coach (Mario) Cristobal, who is now the head coach at Oregon,” Smith said. “He's tough on all his players, but he was real tough on me, especially. He got me a lot better.
“My freshman year, I played special teams. O.J. Howard was a (future) first-round (NFL draft) tight end. I was more of that kind of tight end — like an H-back. So, I was behind him. But I knew once he left, the job was open. So, I elevated my game to another whole level.”
In 12 games this season, Smith has 13 receptions for 122 yards and three touchdowns. Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said Smith has made an impression.
“Position flexibility; he's versatile,” Daboll said. “Tight end isn't an easy position to play. Besides quarterback, there's probably more on a tight end than anything. You have the run game, pass game, when he's (the) hot (receiver), when he's not. Combination blocks with the tackle, pass protection.
“He has to do a lot of things that the offensive line does and still a lot of things a receiver does. Irv is smart, he's competitive, he's a very selfless guy. He and (junior tight end) Hale (Hentges) do a good job working together, when they're in the same package. I've been very happy with Irv and his mentality.”
Damien Harris, who leads Alabama's bruising rushing attack with 906 yards, said Smith gained his respect in the season's first game.
“Against Florida State, I had like an 11- or 12-yard touchdown run,” he said. “He came across on a slider and just destroyed the defensive end. That's just the first play that comes to mind. He's been great for us all year in the pass game and the run game.”
Aside from wanting Alabama to beat Clemson in the teams' rematch from last year's national championship game, Smith Sr. would like Irv to catch a touchdown, he said, because he caught one in the '92 Sugar Bowl. It will be interesting to see if Smith impacts Monday night's game. He plays a role much like Howard, who had three TDs combined in national title games the past two years against Clemson.
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said he certainly is aware of Smith Jr.
“He's another one of those guys that kind of fits the mold,” Swinney said. “Big, strong, physical guy, but also who can give them a presence in the passing game. All you've had to do was watch our (Clemson-Alabama) games the past couple of years. They like to get the tight end the ball.”
Family and friends say that off the field, Smith is a gentle giant with a huge heart. Like many teenagers, he likes to joke and play and have a good time with his friends. As recent as Halloween, he continued his tradition of clever costumes, wearing a mullet and dressing as, Matamoros says, “a black Joe Dirt.” When he was much younger, in his days in Phoenix, he and friend Trevor, dressed as Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street.
However, he is much more serious now, they say. Matamoros said he's busy and doesn't call home and ask for anything. Swilling said they had a mature conversation concerning the tough time Smith had as a freshman at Alabama, and that a talk with Smith helped him decide to redshirt as a freshman.
“Irv has always been very competitive,” Swilling said. “We've played (video games) Call of Duty, NBA 2K and NFL Madden. Irv doesn't want to play Madden; he wants to be (an NFL player) on Madden.”
Smith said he has a lot of motivation.
“Having my dad, he was a big-time football player as well as the same position as me,” he said. “I always wanted to be better than my father. So, that always pushed me.
“And for my family, I want the best for them. So, I'm just doing the extra things to try and give myself an advantage every day.”