Friday, August 23, 2013

The No. 1 Northeast Ohio high school football player over past 50 years is ... Euclid RB Robert Smith as PD50 series concludes

By Branson Wright, The Plain Dealer

August 23, 2013

EUCLID, Ohio - Robert Smith on a recent Saturday morning took a stroll inside the football stadium that produced so many personal memories and so much joy for the Euclid fans who packed the place to watch him play.

What they saw from 1987-89 was the No. 1-ranked high school football player in The Plain Dealer's seven-county coverage area over the past 50 years, as decided this summer by a panel formed by The PD. Smith's combination of vision and warp speed produced some of the most memorable long runs in Northeast Ohio high school history. See bios of the Top 10 here.

"He's the greatest running back I've ever seen or experienced," said Smith's former Euclid coach, Tom Banc. "He had so many big long runs in pro football, and imagine what it was like in high school. We had a rule – any time Robert got into the secondary, no one was allowed to block, for fear of a stupid penalty that would call the play back. Once he got into the secondary, we knew no one would be able to catch him."

Smith gave fans a preview of what was to come as a sophomore in his first varsity game when he scored on a 50-yard run. In his second varsity game, he rushed 10 times for 171 yards and touchdown runs of 56 and 82 yards. Smith opened his senior year with four long touchdown runs the first four times he touched the ball. Fans also remember the long touchdown run in a game against Eastlake North in which Smith changed direction five times.

Smith, who also ran track, made these sprints on the field his trademark.

He reached a speed few could imagine.

"I started that long run right there," said Smith, peering at the field while recalling one of countless signature plays. "Long runs are exciting. It gives you a rush. I describe it like leaning back in a chair and you almost fall and then there's that burst of adrenalin. It's like that in a good way."

It's easy to see why former Euclid running back Robert Smith has been voted the No. 1 area high school football player over the past 50 years by a Plain Dealer panel -- two Mr. Football awards, career totals of 5,318 yards and 71 touchdowns and taking the Panthers to their first three playoff appearances while compiling a 29-5 record.

Smith, now a college football analyst for ESPN, compares the joy of speed to a character in the movie "Chariots of Fire."

"Eric Liddell was running for the British team and he kind of throws his head back, and you can see him and sense that joy," Smith said. "That's what those runs felt like. In those few seconds, it's pretty incredible."

So was Smith's prep career, which produced consecutive Mr. Football awards, Ohio's top individual honor. Smith, then 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, ran for 2,042 yards and 31 touchdowns his senior campaign, and 5,318 yards and 71 touchdowns for his career. He led the Panthers to a 29-5 record, three conference titles and its first three playoff appearances.

But one of the greatest running backs in national high school history played his last game at Euclid out of position -- by design. After getting blown out on national television earlier that season by St. Ignatius, Banc moved Smith to quarterback in the regional final against the Wildcats.

"That was the first and last time he played quarterback," Banc said. "We ran the option. We wanted the ball in his hands every play. We were able to run the ball, and he did well considering it was the biggest game of his high school career."

And considered by many as one of the greatest.

"It was my last high school game, and certainly a memorable one," said Smith, who also saw time in the secondary.

Smith ignited the game early behind a spectacular 67-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 9-0 Euclid lead. The inspired Panthers took control with a 30-19 lead with 10 minutes left. St. Ignatius rallied and pulled out a 31-30 victory and went on to win its second state title.

Four of Smith's five high school losses came against St. Ignatius.

"And my high school career was all over," Smith said. "I have wonderful memories and lifelong friends from that time in my life. It was a special time."

Smith continued his career at Ohio State, breaking Archie Griffin's freshman rushing record with 1,126 yards. Until last season, he was the Minnesota Vikings' all-time leading rusher. Smith has won numerous awards from high school to the NFL (see his college and pro stats here). He was named an All-American as a Euclid senior, and won two national high school football player of the year awards. Smith was a two-time Pro Bowl player and holds the all-time NFL record for average yards per touchdown run at 27.2.

But, Smith said, those accomplishments barely compare to being considered No. 1 among some of the best high school football players in the rich history of this area.

"There's a lot of awards and things that happen throughout your life," he said, "but to be acknowledged in such a great area, and quite frankly at home, is something you can't replace."

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