When Lee County High School running back Jahmir Smith received his first Ivy League offer, he immediately called his mom.
Monique McLean, a nurse at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, was driving to work when she got the call from her second eldest son.
Princeton wanted Smith to attend school and play college football there.
“I almost wrecked my truck, I was that excited,” McLean said.
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But while she was excited, she knew it was only a matter of time before he’d receive offers from the seven other Ivy League schools. Smith, a junior who has a 4.43 GPA and scored a 25 on his ACT, has always been smart. He took a liking to academics at a very young age, she said.
Over the next two months, one-by-one the offers came in. First it was Brown, then Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Pennsylvania – and finally Columbia.
Smith, who’s 17-years-old, 6-foot and 198 pounds, is one of the best players in the state academically and athletically. He’s rated three-stars on 247sports.com’s composite rankings and has offers from more than 30 schools, including Duke, N.C. State and North Carolina. Those three schools are recruiting him the hardest, McLean said.
Smith was an N&O All-Metro football pick last season after rushing for 2,130 yards (6.7 per carry) and a state-leading 41 touchdowns for the 12-2 Yellow Jackets.
On the kitchen table in their home sits a poster of Smith, photoshopped in an N.C. State football jersey on a mock ESPN Magazine cover that the Wolfpack sent him in the mail. It says “Homegrown Hero,” and is signed by N.C. State football coach Dave Doeren.
“I know my baby. He’s going to be a doctor, and he’s going to the NFL,” McLean said with a huge smile on her face. “I just know it.”
She thinks he’ll be someone like Myron Rolle, she said. Rolle, a star safety at Florida State and Rhodes Scholar who studied at Oxford University, was drafted in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans. He left the NFL in 2013 to attend the Florida State University College of Medicine to study to be a neurosurgeon. He will begin a residency at Harvard this summer.
“That’s Myron Rolle Jr. right there,” McLean said pointing to her son, who thinks he wants to be an anesthesiologist one day.
‘He’s just different’
McLean is proud of her son and is his number one cheerleader. At high school football games, Smith can always hear his mom in the stands. When he looks up, she’s wearing a shirt with his number, 3, on it.
Each time he gets an offer from a school, she gets excited too. That’s what she’s most proud of.
But Smith is almost the opposite. He doesn’t show much emotion. When he scores a touchdown, he immediately hands the ball to the referee. And when he gets mail from a school, he places it in a box with the other offers he’s received.
“I mean my mom tells me how rare it is, but I mean, it’s whatever to me,” Smith said of the Ivy League offers. “I mean I know it’s big deal, but I don’t brag about it.
“I feel like I still got more to do.”
Aside from playing football, Smith does normal kid things. He goes to school, likes to go to the mall with his girlfriend or with his friends, and plays with his 8-year-old brother.
Smith wasn’t into sports growing up. He didn’t play them. He didn’t watch them. And even now, as a star football player for Lee County, he doesn’t watch football on TV. But in middle school, the football coach saw him narrowly dodging dodge balls in the school gym and asked Smith to try out for the football team.
If it wasn’t for his best friend telling him he wouldn’t make the team, Smith probably wouldn’t have tried out. But Smith wanted to prove him wrong, and he did.
When you’re talented on the football field and in the classroom, you’re a hot commodity. There are boxes and boxes of mail he’s received from schools. Too many to count, and too many to sort through. There are also hundreds of text messages from Division I coaches in his phone asking how he’s feeling and what he’s thinking.
Coaches text him almost every day, which can get aggravating, he said. When he doesn’t answer them, they try to give him a little space or just text his mom.
“It’s a blessing and it’s kind of stressful sometimes, but it’s a good stress,” Smith said. “The most stressful part is having to keep in contact with all the coaches every day. It’s like hard too, because they’re all talking to you at once. Some of them want me to choose early.”
Smith has always wanted to go to college. He just never expected to be offered scholarships. He said he doesn’t have a dream school, but he hopes Clemson will offer him a scholarship.
Smith credits a lot of what he has been able to accomplish to his coaches. Before his junior season, he went to Southern Lee High School, where he didn’t play much.
After his sophomore year, he transferred to rival Lee County where he emerged as a starter. The coaches at Lee County sent his highlight tapes and transcripts to colleges, and in December, he received his first offer – from East Carolina.
Two months later, he received his first Ivy League offer.
Smith hopes to make a decision on where he will go to school in June and he wants to enroll in January. All schools are on the table, he said.
Many of the people in Sanford, a town of 29,000, are lifelong residents and many of them want to move on from there.
Foster Cates, a Lee County assistant football coach, said Smith is someone other students can look up to.
“The cool thing about it is you’ve got somebody that they can look at and say, ‘This is what you’ve got to do,’ ” Cates said. “Everybody is like ‘I want to get out of Sanford ... but you look back at who tried to get out of Sanford and something has always happened. Test scores are low. GPA is low.”
“Here is the blueprint. Check the boxes and you’re gone.”
Staff photojournalist Robert Willett contributed to this report