FIU tight end Jonnu Smith still feels the loss, vastly more gut-wrenching than any game.
It was April 4, 2000, and new mayor John F. Street had made it his mission to take all the abandoned cars off the streets of Philadelphia.
Wayne Smith — Jonnu’s father — was one of the tow-truck operators who responded to the need. But even though Smith was experienced at towing cars, something went terribly wrong on that day. The car slid and crushed Smith, killing him at age 40.
Jonnu was just 4 years old.
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“Jonnu still feels it,” said his mother, Karen Smith, who became a widow that day. “He mentioned it a month ago. He said, ‘I can’t believe Daddy left me.’ ”
Wayne Smith would be proud of the man Jonnu has become, his mother said.
Smith, who turned 21 on Aug. 22, is the most prolific tight end in the 15-year history of the FIU football program. For his career, Smith has 136 catches for 1,495 yards — both FIU records for tight ends — and 14 touchdowns.
He is Conference USA’s first-team tight end heading into the 2016 season, and he was also one of 45 players nationally named to the John Mackey Watch List for the top athletes at his position.
He has made a name for himself even though he was 3 days old before anyone knew what to call him. His mother said the nurses were pressuring her, needing a name for the birth certificate. She prayed on it and came up with a name she had never heard before — Jonnu.
Now that name is on the minds of NFL scouts even if Smith is a bit undersized by standards of NFL tight ends at 6-2 1/2 and 240 pounds,
He could, however, fit as a pass-catcher. An example of someone of his frame succeeding in the NFL is Washington Redskins tight end Jordan Reed, who caught 87 passes for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Reed, a 6-2, 237-pounder, was a third-round pick in 2013.
Smith showed his potential as a pass-catcher last year on Oct. 24 against Old Dominion.
It was the best game of his career and also the most painful. Smith caught 10 passes for 183 yards — both career highs — and two touchdowns.
Here is the shocking part:
Smith sustained a serious knee injury in the second quarter but didn’t realize the severity and finished the game. After the game, tests revealed a tear of his meniscus, causing him to miss the final four games of the season as well as spring practice.
“I went up for a ball, and I felt something,” Smith said of the moment in which he got hurt. “I checked with the trainers, and they ran some tests. They said, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘I feel good.’ It’s football.”
There is no doubting Smith’s toughness. He started playing football shortly after his father passed, suiting up as a 5-year-old for the Northwest Raiders, a Pop Warner team in Philadelphia.
But even as big and tough as Smith became, his mother worried about Jonnu, the youngest of her six children. Philly, she thought, was a rough place to raise a child, especially without a father. Her other son, Wayne, who is the oldest, had gone through difficulties.
So she made perhaps the toughest decision of her life and sent 15-year-old Jonnu to live with her sister in Ocala.
“Things were spiraling down. There were young boys — his friends — who had been killed [in Philadelphia],” Karen Smith said. “I didn’t want Jonnu’s mind to be shaped by the negativity he was seeing every day.
“I wasn’t financially able to uproot myself, and I knew my sister would welcome him with open arms. I didn’t want him to go, but this was a way to save him from that environment.
“He’s my child, my baby. I couldn’t see him every day. But I knew he was coming home safe every night.”
Smith immediately enrolled as a freshman at Ocala West Port, a school that had never produced a Division I recruit before him.
He was welcomed by his aunt and uncle, Darla and Mike Kirkland, and their three children.
“Jonnu didn’t have a street mentality — he was a homebody who loved football and working out,” Darla said. “He was never a problem.”
Football at West Port wasn’t great. Smith caught just nine passes as a junior on a team that finished 5-6. He caught 34 passes as a senior on a 5-5 team.
Not surprisingly, Smith had no college scholarship offers. But Mario Cristobal, who was FIU’s coach at the time, had a philosophy. He wanted at least one of his coaches to visit every one of the 545 high schools in Florida every year, just to make sure they didn’t miss a player.
Dennis Smith, no relation to Jonnu, was FIU’s recruiting coordinator then, and it was on his agenda to visit West Port in July of 2012.
Jonnu was just 6-2 and 208 pounds at the time, playing wide receiver. But his high school coach, Ryan Heard, pitched him to Dennis Smith as a potential tight end.
“It took me just 10 minutes of watching him,” Dennis Smith said, “and I was sold.”
Jonnu then came to an FIU camp, and he clinched the scholarship offer by acing a pass-catching drill. Standing behind a blocking dummy with only his arms draped over it, Jonnu caught 25 consecutive passes from 10 yards away, showing his great hands.
Unfortunately for Cristobal and his staff, they were fired after the 2012 season.
“One of biggest regrets other than getting fired was not getting to coach Jonnu because he’s an incredible kid,” said Dennis Smith, who is now a running backs and special teams coach at McNeese State.
“He has tremendous ball skills, unbelievable twitch and explosiveness. When we saw him, you could look up Jonnu Smith on Rivals.com, and there was no Jonnu Smith. He was on no one’s list. But still to this day, he has the best feet I’ve seen.”
Dennis Smith also said Jonnu is more than just a pass-catcher.
“He is 240 pounds, but he hits with the force of a 300-pounder,” he said. “He is freakishly explosive. When [NFL] scouts come in, he will test well.”
Jonnu, who ran a 4.74 40-yard dash before getting injured, certainly plans to compete for a job in the NFL next year.
His backup plan is to become a Secret Service agent. He is due to graduate in May with a degree in criminal justice and was inspired when President Barack Obama visited FIU last year.
“Some of the Secret Service guys talked to him and told him how they got started,” Karen Smith said. “He called me the next day and said, ‘Mom, I finally know what I want to do’ [after football].”
Until then, though, there’s one more year of college football for Smith, who will team with quarterback Alex McGough for the third season in a row.
Smith said a bowl game — something that has eluded him so far — is his major goal.
“He’s a great player,” McGough said. “He’s so diverse. He can do anything. We missed him this spring. But now he’s back 100 percent, and he’s ready to go.”
FIU coach Ron Turner said he believes Smith has an NFL future.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Turner said. “The measurable may not be exactly what [NFL scouts] are looking for. But when he plays a game, I think he is what they want.”
Game plan: Plugging the holes
Center Michael Montero is the lone standout on an offensive line that only averaged 3.4 yards per carry and gave up 27 sacks. For quarterback Alex McGough to get the ball to Jonnu Smith and Co., he needs time to find the open receiver.