Staying Close to Home
Oct. 4, 2005
BERKELEY, CALIF. - By Kimberley Hoidal
At age 11, Harrison Smith first picked up a football in Oakland, never leaving sight of the ball or the city he loves. Now a senior cornerback for the California Golden Bears, Smith enjoys being able to play defense in the familiar confines of the East Bay and Memorial Stadium.
'I did play a little offense in high school,' Smith said. 'But my main focus has always been defense. When I started playing, I was a defensive back, and I've always been on the defensive side of the ball. That's just what I do.'
As a senior at Oakland's Skyline High School, Smith helped lead his team to an 11-1 record, which set himself and several teammates up for college football scholarship offers.
'My high school coach basically told me if I put in the work, it would pay off,' Smith said. 'We had a good team; I played a role and helped out where ever I could. It was a fun season.
'The when I got offered the Cal scholarship, I was definitely excited. It was big for me; I never thought I would get an opportunity like this ever. So it was huge to say I was coming to Cal my senior year of high school.'
Of course the local product grew up as a Bear fan going to games, supporting the local team and eyeing their defensive schemes.
'They were the local team; you would open the newspaper and see them in there,' he said. 'I came to a few Cal games growing up. I never expected to be here, so when I got the opportunity, I was definitely thrilled about it.'
Staying close to home was a major factor for the 6-2, 200-pound senior. It gave his biggest fan, his mother Joyce, the opportunity to continue to watch him play.
'My mom is at every game,' Smith said. 'That's probably why I stayed local, so my mom could keep on watching me play. She's my biggest fan. She's always been there. She's been there through all the bad times and all the good times. Just to be able to go to my mom whenever I need to, to have that support system there, has been great. She's always supported me.'
Staying close to home has been beneficial to Smith on a family level and on a football level. After watching his team drop nine consecutive games while redshirting in 2001, Smith soon transitioned into a reliable foundation in head coach Jeff Tedford and his coaching staff's emergence at Cal.
'It's been fun, seeing what the coaches have done with the program,' Smith said. 'It's been amazing the was they have taken the same group of guys that were already here, recruit more guys, and then keep getting better and better. It has been a great experience for me.'
Under the tutelage of former pro cornerback J.D. Williams, Smith has had the opportunity to learn the tricks-of-the-trade from an experienced veteran.
'Just to have a coach who has gone through the same thing we've gone through is a huge advantage,' Smith said. 'J.D. has played at the college level and at the professional level where most of us want to get. You can listen to him and get good advice, and it's easier to take in because you know he's been there.'
Smith used that wisdom from the new coaching staff to break into the spotlight during the 2003 34-31 triple overtime victory over USC. In that contest Smith tallied four tackles and had a blocked punt against the powerful Trojans. This was after beginning the 2003 season with a tough starting assignment at Kansas State, in which Cal was defeated 42-28 by the Wildcats, and the Bears' defense yielded 535 yards.
'That (the USC game) was the first time I really stepped up,' Smith said. 'I had a good game. It was just a great experience to be on the field when everyone rushed the field to celebrate.'
Now a dependable cornerback for the Bears, Smith has thrived, earning Pac-10 honorable mention accolades as a junior. He also ranked second in the Pac-10 and seventh nationally in passes defended with 18, breaking a Cal single-season record set by Jemeel Powell in 2000.
'Last season was just one of those years where I played consistently throughout the season and had fun doing it,' Smith said. 'We had a great year, but it kind of ended badly. Still, we accomplished a lot, made a name for ourselves and helped the program out.'
Now five games into his senior campaign, Smith wants nothing more than to continue to play consistently so he can help his team succeed.
'To get any kind of accolades going into your last year, it's great,' said Smith. 'That was my first time to ever be honored like that. So it's something you can build off of. Honorable mention all-conference is nice, but it's something to build off of; that's my main focus.'
For Smith there have not been too many down points during his football career at Cal, but to have his mother close by to offer her love and support has meant everything to him.
'I think it she's what has kept me sane,' Smith said. 'It has been tough sometimes. I had some up and down times my first season. To have my mom there supporting me, telling me not to worry, is nice. She's meant the world to me. It's always been what I needed.'