For Steve Smith, becoming “the man” at Franklin Towne Charter started out almost accidentally.
Smith, a senior track and basketball star at the school, has also served at the head of Towne’s student government as class president in all four of his years.
“It’s kind of a long story,” he begins, when asked about being class president. “One of my friends suggested it to me. He was like, ‘Hey, Barack Obama just became the first black president, so you should run, too!’ I thought, ‘Hey, maybe that’s not a bad idea.’”
OK, so maybe storytelling isn’t Smith’s biggest strength, but considering he does so much else for Franklin Towne, it’s easy to toss him a reprieve. He’s been one of Towne’s most vocal, visible ambassadors since he arrived at the school as a freshman.
He received a majority of the vote in his first student government election, and became instantly drawn to the give-and-take relationship between the school’s faculty/administration and student body. Smith knew right away that he wanted to be more involved, if only for how good it made him feel to give back to the place that was already offering him so many new opportunities to stand out.
He went out for the basketball team later that year, making the squad but not playing much. During the spring, he started following his friends outside and would stand for hours, intently watching them from the sidelines at track practice. It was then that Towne’s track coach, Steve New, noticed Smith.
“Finally, I yelled out to him, ‘Dude, if you’re going to just stand there for two hours, why not come out and practice?,’” New recalls with a laugh. “Next season, there he was.”
Smith has come a long way as a decathlete in just three short years. He’s a qualified runner in standard track and field events such as the 200- and 400-meter dashes, but where Smith really proves his mettle is in events most high school student-athletes wouldn’t give a second thought.
To hear him tell it, Smith’s strongest event is the high jump, one he placed first in during last week’s Public League championships at 6 feet, 1 inch (a 73-inch vertical leap). He also placed second in the 300-meter hurdles, and has found additional success throwing both the javelin (first place) and shot put (second place). Smith also averaged almost 16 points per game for Towne’s basketball team this past season.
Simply put, he does it all.
“To be honest with you, I never thought I’d be good at the sport,” he said of his track exploits. “What I love most about it is the mental push it gives you to give it your all every day. I also love the technique that’s required, which is what wins most of the events I do.”
New, who can no longer clear the hurdles himself, recalled how he taught Smith to run in the 300-meter race.
“I showed him this video of a guy from Cuba who performs that event real well. Steve watched it three times, and he had it all down,” Towne’s track coach said. “He’s a sponge. All you have to do is show it to him and he picks it up right away. His nickname has become ‘Extra,’ because he always wants to do more for his team and his school.”
As Smith added, “When you find something you can work hard to excel at, it makes you feel so good about yourself. It feels great to be the man.”
Most times, when an athlete refers to himself as “the man,” it can be more cringe-worthy than nails on a chalkboard. The same cannot be said for Smith, who repeatedly punctuates his sentences with “sir” when answering questions, and even dished out a hug to a reporter who came to talk to him during league champs at Northeast High School.
Listening to Smith speak, it’s clear he subscribes to the adage of “Those who want respect, give respect.” He is appreciative of those at the school who have helped mold him into the student-athlete he has become, and those strong personality traits were enough to earn him admission to continue his decathlete career at East Stroudsburg University next year.
“There’s not a person in the building who doesn’t know who he is,” New said. “He sets a great example and works as hard as he can in everything he does. He’s friends with everyone, he looks out for everybody … he’s one of those kids who everyone likes, from the goofballs to the ‘cool kids.’ You look at a kid like that, and you wish your own son would turn out that way.”
Smith is quick to deflect the praise, pointing to mentors at Towne who gave him the right advice when he was still an impressionable freshman.
“Our CEO, Mr. (Joseph) Venditti, he’s my role model. He taught me things I never knew before I got here,” Smith said. “He told me ‘Whatever you do in life, work as hard as you can, and you will see the benefits in the end.’ It sounds so simple, but he’s right.
“For me, it’s the greatest piece of advice I’ve ever received. The benefits of school, sports, student government … it’s all paid off with hard work. It’s just a great honor to be a part of a school where everybody cares so much, and lets the students be as involved as we are.”
Up next for Smith will be this week’s district championships, which he advanced to by qualifying in the top-two in his main events. If he has similar success in districts against other city competition (including the Catholic League), he would be bound for the state championships for the first time.
Smith, who is always dreaming big, doesn’t stop there, as he also has his sights set on Nationals, too.
“I plan to be in the 2016 Olympics,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s a great goal to strive for; plus, who wouldn’t want to be in the Olympics?”
To get there, the hard work that has come to define him will have to continue tenfold. Smith already trains three times a day (“School, gym, practice, gym” is how he described his typical day lately), and he will continue to push himself to the limit at East Stroudsburg.
But, with graduation looming, he also wanted to take a minute and emphasize how much his high school has meant in getting him to this point.
“I wasn’t the greatest student before I got here, but I learned responsibility and the true meaning of respect,” he said. “At Franklin Towne, we’re a family, man. Our heart beats as one. We all root for each other, and we all hurt when one person hurts.
“That’s why we call it a family instead of a school. School’s not supposed to be fun, so you have to make it fun. That’s what I’ve tried to do. That’s what fun is for me: making school fun for everyone else.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org