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La Jolla opponents seeing double
Vikings junior LB-RB attacking football foes from a variety of angles
Wanting his team to bond before the season, La Jolla High football coach Tyler Roach logged onto Amazon.com and purchased an authentic black shield for $100. After all, what’s a Viking without his shield?
At a summer retreat in Big Bear, each La Jolla player picked a word to write on the shield. Next to the word, the players wrote their number. A Vikings player carries the shield onto the field before every game.
Third-year starter Max Smith chose the word “honor.”
“It’s not just you,” said Smith, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound junior linebacker/running back. “We’re representing everyone who has ever played at the school.”
La Jolla opened its doors in 1922, making it the second oldest school in the San Diego school district. And Smith is certainly doing his part to honor the hundreds of Vikings who came before him.
A starter at linebacker since the fourth game of his freshman season, Smith led the team in tackles as a freshman and sophomore. Through two games this season he has logged 12 tackles, two for losses, and intercepted three passes, returning one for a touchdown.
On the offensive side, he’s the Vikings’ leading rusher with 202 yards on 23 carries, a healthy 8.8 yards per carry, aided by a 64-yard TD. Demonstrating his jack-of-all-trade skills, Smith is also the Vikings’ deep snapper.
“People say somebody has a nose for the football,” said Bishop’s coach Joel Allen. “Well, he had a couple interceptions against us. He’s all over the field. As a running back, he’s a one-cut-and-go guy. He’s good for three yards, and if you don’t tackle him he’ll go for 50. (Smith’s 64-yard TD came against Bishop’s.)
“He’s a real solid football player, the kind of kid who’s on championship teams.”
After playing his first three games as a ninth-grader on the freshman team (he also did the deep snapping for the varsity those three games), Smith got a call from an assistant coach, telling him he’d be starting at linebacker on the varsity the next game.
“I thought it was one of my brother’s friends, joking me,” said Smith, whose team hosts Santa Fe Christian on Friday. (His brother, Lucas, then a senior, was the starting center on varsity.) “I couldn’t believe it. It was definitely surreal.”
Regarding playing on the varsity as a 14-year-old freshman, Smith said, “It was definitely a grind, a lot of icing my body.”
“He’s a kid you knew from day one was going to be a stud,” Roach said.
Roach didn’t want to overload Smith as a freshman so he played him only on the defensive side of the ball. Smith played running back and linebacker last season, accumulating 340 yards from scrimmage.
As to which position he prefers, Smith said, “I’d say linebacker. You get to make a play every down. I kind of decide my own fate.”
Exemplifying his toughness, Smith plays rugby and was on a Nike 18-and-under all-star team that played in Australia this summer.
“I like that everyone gets the ball (in rugby),” he said. “Even the big ol’ linemen. It’s more a test of your manhood. There’s no pads. It’s man on man, showing your dominance.”
In the nearly 100 years that La Jolla has played varsity football maybe no one has pulled off a more memorable play than the one Smith executed last year against Scripps Ranch. With Scripps leading by less than a touchdown and under a minute to play, the Falcons planned to take a knee to run out the clock.
But Smith split the gap between the guard and center, knocked the ball out of the quarterback’s hands and then recovered it.
“I asked the ref if it was OK that I fired off the ball,” said Smith. “He said it was. He told the (Scripps Ranch) line I could go for the ball if I wanted.”
Before the snap, Smith slouched off the line as if he wasn’t going to rush.
“I kind of put on my poker face,” he said.
Video of Smith slapping the ball out of the quarterback’s hands and recovering went viral. One video has played to more than 21,000 views. Coaching friends of the La Jolla staff reached out from Europe.
A Division II college coach called Roach and asked for Smith’s contact information, saying, “He’s a guy I want in our program.”
One play after pulling off the strip sack, Smith completed the comeback. He leaked out of the backfield, grabbed a pass and scored a touchdown with 38.5 seconds to play to seal a 13-10 victory.
“That’s kind of the forgotten part,” said Roach. “One play later, he catches the winning touchdown pass.”
Said Smith: “I wasn’t going to let the game end without us winning.”
Nearly one year later, Scripps Ranch coach Marlon Gardinera respects that Smith wasn’t stopping until the scoreboard clock struck zeros.
“Off the record,” joked Gardinera, “my shrink says I’m not ready to talk about this. But you have to appreciate a kid who doesn’t quit. You love the determination. It speaks volumes about the type of football player he is.”
Norcross is a freelance writer.