By Joshua Price/Sports Editor
John R. Smith was one of the fastest sprinters to ever come out of Carver High School, and arguably Etowah County. In 1990, Smith became the first African-American to be elected to the Etowah County Sports Hall of Fame.
Smith competed in all sports at Carver High. He excelled in track, baseball and football. Smith was a member of Carver’s 1957 football team, which ranked fifth on The Messenger’s Top-15 greatest football teams from 1950-1986.
“We had ‘Big’ Willie Green running the ball for us that year,” Smith said. “He was 6’6 and weighed over 200 pounds. He would flat run over you if you got in his way! He was one of the top athletes to come out of Carver. He signed a basketball scholarship with Colorado State. We had George Baker, too. That was a great football team.”
Smith played basketball for the Wildcats, but admitted the hardwood took a backseat to running track.
“I started running track when I was about 10 years old. Coach [L.C.] Presley coached our track team when got up to Carver and he started conditioning us early in the year. Those of us who ran track usually played basketball, but always gave it up early in the [basketball] season to start conditioning for track. That was the way we used to do it, and boy were we good.”
Because of segregation, Smith and his track team (or any other sport for that matter) was not allowed to ‘officially’ compete against local white schools such as Gadsden High School, Etowah High School or any other school around the state – but they practiced against them.
“We ran against some of the white guys around the county for practice, but they never gave us too much competition,” Smith said. “Back in those days, there were some great white athletes in the rural schools. When we ran against them, we would spot them five to ten yards and still beat them by five to ten yards. I see some of those guys today and we just laugh about it.”
Smith graduated Carver in 1960, loaded with athletic laurels that would make most of the modern athletes blush.
“I have more medals than I could begin to count,” Smith said. “I have boxes of them, but I also have the official records to make them legit. If I were to put them on my shirt, you wouldn’t be able to tell what color it was.”
Smith was a highly recruited athlete while at Carver. Smith said he was offered a baseball contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but turned it down because of a shoulder injury suffered during football season his senior year.
Smith accepted a scholarship to the all-black Tennessee State College in Nashville, Tennessee to run track. His track and field team at Tennessee State consisted of famous Olympians such as Ralph Boston and Wilma Rudolph.
“Back in those days you had to be great to compete at Tennessee State,” Smith said. “I don’t mean you had to be good, I mean you had to be great. Some of the best college athletes in the country attended that school or came through competing against us and many of them were future Olympians.”
How fast was Smith? In late 1963 he qualified for the 1964 United States Olympic track team with a 9.4 second time on the 100-meter sprint. Smith did not compete in the Olympics because of a torn hamstring in early 1964, an injury that ended his competitive track career.
Many famous athletes finished behind the fleet-footed Smith during his time.
He once defeated NFL Hall-of-Famer “Bullet” Bob Hayes, once thought to be the “fastest human,” in a 100-meter sprint. Olympic gold medalist Mel Pender also fell to Smith.
Smith defeated most of his friends in races, but admits his top opponent was his older brother Roosevelt, who was an accomplished athlete. Other speedsters Smith raced included Nate Adams, Speedy Duncan and Johnny Moon.
Smith was drafted into the United States Army in 1966, and served in Europe. Smith said there was little athletics on his base, but he did run a few races against fellow servicemen.
Smith took a job at Goodyear in 1970 and worked there until he retired 35 years later in 2005.
Smith coached youth baseball for many years, taking an All-Star team to Wichita, Kansas three years in a row. The team featured current coaches/brothers Mike and Charlie Robertson.
Since he retired from Goodyear he spends most of his time watching sports. He is a faithful follower of the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers baseball clubs and the University of Alabama football team.
His number one passion these days? Grandchildren.
“I watch my grandbabies play baseball every time they take the field,” Smith said. “I love to watch them play because they make me laugh. They are still really young, but they sure love to play ball and they take it seriously!”
Smith said he still has one semester of eligibility at Tennessee State College (now Tennessee State University) to compete in collegiate athletics. After I asked him if 48 years was long enough for the hamstring to heal and if he would pursue that final semester of eligibility, his response was simple and humorous – “No way!”
It is hard for someone like myself with my speed (or lack thereof) to catch up with a speedster like Smith, but it was good to catch up with track star John R. Smith.
Joshua Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.