When jersey numbers are retired, it’s a peek into the past, honoring greatness.
On Thursday night, Taft High retired the No. 2 jersey of Steve Smith, an All-American receiver and four-time All-City basketball player, All-American at USC, All-Pro with the New York Giants and a Super Bowl XLII champion.
“This is so cool,” Smith said. “Starting out at Taft and not knowing the future, it was just having fun and being in the moment. And all these years later honoring me with this jersey retirement is such a cool moment.”
The ceremony came at halftime of a nonleague game against Dymally. Smith was with his three sons, ages 12, 9 and 18 months, his wife, Alyssa, mother, Audrey, father, Steve Sr., and brother Malcolm, a Super Bowl MVP with the Seattle Seahawks and the likely next person to get his Taft jersey number retired.
Smith was the City Section’s first elite athlete of the 21st century. He wasn’t allowed to play varsity football his freshman year in 1999 because he was too young at 13 years old. Taft coach Troy Starr told a sportswriter standing by the goalposts during a JV game, “Steve Smith will be special.”
His coach at USC, Pete Carroll, loved him, and Smith loved USC, where he won national championships in 2004 and 2005. A second-round NFL draft pick of the Giants in 2007, Smith played 64 games for the Giants until injuries starting take their toll.
Taft has produced some of the greatest athletes in Southern California history, from Hall of Fame baseball player Robin Yount to Olympic 400-meter champion Quincy Watts. Then there are the Smith brothers, Steve and Malcolm. Malcolm won two Super Bowls as a linebacker for the Seahawks and was Super Bowl MVP in XLVIII.
Smith, 38, said his coaches made a big impact in his life.
“Coach Starr would always say ‘Who’s going to face adversity and put the team on his back?’” Smith said. “Coaches are so important. Coach Starr was phenomenal. He told it like it is. The whole school feared him. Coach Carroll was all about competing. I learned to seize the moment, take advantage of opportunities, have fun and be competitive.”
Malcolm has two young daughters and Steve already is working with his two oldest sons to develop their sports interests. Carter attends Chaminade Middle School and loves baseball. Jordan is a good flag football player.
Their dad shows them videos of his football days. In high school, few were better receivers. In three years, he had 271 receptions for 4,545 yards and 42 touchdowns.
He played in the days when City Section teams could compete with the best. Demographics and changes in enrollment have made it difficult for City teams to compete at the highest level. There still are a handful of quality players, like last season when Dijon Stanley (now at Utah) was playing for Granada Hills. But the rise of private schools and the changes across Los Angeles make it challenging s to attract and retain a player the caliber of Smith in the City Section for four years.
It doesn’t mean you can’t compete and attract attention in the City Section. Taft and Dymally engaged in an energetic battle on Taft’s new all-weather field. Quarterback Jermaine Whiten passed for two touchdowns and Tramonte Lowe ran 76 yards for a touchdown on a fake punt to lead Dymally (3-0) to a 52-20 victory. Bryant Collins returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and Milton Catching had two touchdown runs.
Receiver Lior Leshem of Taft started the game by catching a 20-yard touchdown pass, then ran over to a group of chairs for VIPs near the end zone and gave the ball to Smith. Leshem caught two more touchdown passes in the first half while Taft fell behind 32-20.
Dymally, a member of the Coliseum League, showed lots of athleticism, with Travon Jackson and Mitaevionne Reynolds joining Lowe, Catching and Collins with bursts of speed.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.