Born just in time

4-25-01, 7:10 a.m.

COLUMBIA, Mo. _ We are standing on the spot where Justin Smith chiseled himself into a first-round NFL draft choice, met his girl friend, and set school records.

Not necessarily in the order of importance. But it's important to know how necessary this spot is for Smith.

It's the sprawling University of Missouri weight room and it's where Smith gets inspired while other people just perspire.

"If I didn't play football," he says, "this is what I would do. A physical trainer. A fitness guru. It's all I really like to do."

He got this inspiration for his new home in Cincinnati as he parades through his daily three-hour lifting session in Bengals shorts and ballcap.

Since this is Tuesday, he's working on his legs. As well as his décor.

"I'm going to put a weight room in my house," Smith says as he pulls on a bottle of water. "I'm not going to have any furniture. Maybe a couch. I'll just have the weight machines for the furniture."

The man they call "a throwback" doesn't even want a throw rug. He says, "When I get my house in Cincinnati, I won't even get cable for the TV."

"I think," he says later as he drives to the country oldies of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, "I was born just a little too late."

The Bengals hope he came into this world just in the nick of time back on Sept. 20, 1979.

After all, they made the 6-4 ½, 270-pound Smith; the quickest pass rusher on the planet under 22 years of age, the fourth pick in the draft this past weekend.

Which means he'll soon have enough money to move the Mizzou weight room to Cincinnati and buy the Tigers another one.

But, "You know what the only thing I'm going to do with the money?" he asks as he slaps the dashboard of his 2001 Chevy Z 71 truck. "I might just jack up the wheels. This is the only car I need. Nothing more than this."

If it seems too good to be true, maybe it is. The kid looks to be as genuine as just another day in the heartland.

This a Tuesday with Smith and it's not all that much different than all the other days he has spent waiting for his new life to start. Except that Tuesday is for the legs. Monday and Thursday is for the upper body. Wednesday is for everything else.

They say his legs are small. Maybe too small. He looks in a mirror.

"I do have chicken legs, don't I?" Smith says. "But it's speed. They get too big, you lose speed."

How fast is he?

He reminds you.

That's 4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

"I don't have a speed coach or any crap like that," Smith says. "Why spend money on something you have to do yourself? You want to get fast, more explosion? People want to do it in a 10-minute routine. You can't. It's got to be three hours a day."

The fidgety Smith's only concern is finding something to do after his workout.

He changes quickly from his lifting clothes into a new shirt and shorts. He keeps on the cap and yellow workout shoes because he's not putting on a show.

"They were the closest ones to my socks this morning," he says of his shoes.

"If it's the middle of the day, I have to be outside doing something," Smith says. "I've taken up golf lately. In about the last year. There's a new course right across the street from my parents' place.

" I've got some clubs," he says later. "You want to hit some?"

Smith has no qualms that the last time his new playing partner played golf, he was in first grade.

"I just want to do something," he says. "I can't sit around the apartment."

He won't on Thursday morning. He'll go turkey hunting before the sun rises.

"Maybe this time I'll use a gun," he jokes on the phone, as if he'd kill one with his bare hands.

"Hunting turkeys is a sport," he says. "Not deer hunting. With those telescopic sights on a shotgun, you can kill a deer from so far away. To get a turkey, you have to flush him out, call him out."

We're going to play golf riding in the truck on Route 63, which runs from Columbia to Jefferson City for about 20 miles smack into the Mizzou weight room. It's across the street from the stadium, Faurot Field, where he rung up 22 sacks in three years.

Jeff City is where he went to high school. He grew up a couple miles over the bridge across the Missouri River. It's all about a 35-minute shot on Route 63.

"Look at this, 5:30 and no traffic," Smith says, flipping in CDs and chewing sunflower seeds. "No rush hour. I love this place. A big country road. I really love it here during the summer. The college gets out and there's only about 15,000 people here. Work out during the day and at night get together with some guys on the team in some big backyard and barbecue and play horseshoes."

Charlie Daniels is now on the radio offering "Simple Man." Smith turns it up. "Kind of my theme song," he says. Then he'll prove it by having fun golfing with a guy who tops three of his first four shots and quits.

"I like the old country music," Smith says. "The new country is more pop. It's a hybrid of county and pop. I like Hank Williams Jr. Some of the guys today are old-time. Alan Jackson. Kenny Chesney. I listen to them."

He buys a dozen used golf balls and plans to play until he loses them all.

"I don't care," he says on the three-year-old course that sits in the hills across from the 200 acres or so where he grew up.

"The only thing I really take seriously is football. Well, I'm pretty good at basketball, so I take that kind of seriously, too. But football is all business. It's my job. I don't get mad if I play golf badly. What I like is preparing and training for the competition.

"I just like being out here. Look around here. The trees, the hills. That's what I like about Cincinnati. I love hills and that's what I saw coming in from the airport."

We're standing on the 11th tee, a par 3, and a big pond runs to the right of the hole and laps up near the fairway.

"I used to go swimming there when I was a kid," Smith says, and then he drills his tee shot for a swim. Then, like he does for the nine-hole round, he hits a solid iron after a drop.

But he can't stand still long enough to putt. He picks up the ball off the green and goes to the next tee. He could find most of the balls he loses, but he doesn't want to take the time to look for them. He shrugs and says, "That's how I play golf."

It seems to be that's how he lives. Thinking about the next hole. The Bengals are clearly on his mind as he waits for an elderly couple to hit out of the fairway.

"Next weekend. Can't wait. It's going to be fun," Smith says of his first minicamp. He is amazed that at some point, Bengals President Mike Brown is going to hand him a check for millions of dollars.

"How does that work? Is that his own money?" he asks. Told it most assuredly is and that the Bengals are Brown's only business, Smith shakes his head.

"I can't imagine giving anyone that much money," Smith says. "Right there, that just makes me want to play as hard as I can for somebody if they're going to do that for you."

He enjoyed meeting Brown and the Bengals staff when he came into the draft room Sunday. He laughs when asked if they applauded when he came into the room.

"Hell," he says, "they drafted me, they don't have to applaud me. They've got me and I've got them so let's do it."

Smith sees the sun coming through the trees and the hills, and the plan is pretty basic.

"I'm looking to buy something over in Kentucky," he says. "Probably just a small house because I'll never be in it. All I need is land. Lots of land. Some place where I can go mess around. Dirt bikes. Stuff like that."

And barbecues.

"I plan on doing that in Cincinnati, having the guys over there at my place," Smith says. "I want to get to know everyone real well. Just try to build some team. Get to know each other, especially the D-linemen. Just because it's professional doesn't mean guys can't be good friends. Get to know guys like in high school or college. The best friends will always be your high school buddies."

Alicia Davis is riding around the golf course with the refreshment cart and Smith buys a power drink while they chat. This is another reason Smith likes a small town. She lives down the road, they've known each other virtually all their lives, and went to high school together.

Alicia's Dad, Mike Davis, and her Mom, Jeanine, were the hit of the Draft Day party at the home of Smith's parents, Dave and Ginger. Except they were in New York with Justin. Justin's sibling, his older sister, hosted the bash of about 50 of Dave and Ginger's friends.

The highlight was probably when Mike and Jeanine led a group in painting the mailbox and the first 200 feet of the driveway in Bengal stripes.

"We would have been OK if it was Arizona (who drafted him) because the high school is the Blue Jays, so we could have got a Cardinal out of that," Mike Davis says. "I was worried about Miami because I didn't have anything with fish."

We are standing on the 17th tee, probably Smith's favorite because he's got a great view of his parents' place. He can see the hill behind the house where he did his running. Straight up.

Then he slices his drive into an adjoining fairway, puts down another ball and says, "You could have a pretty good shot playing No. 9 right now."

After Smith tops a shot, he is told his partner's brutal play must be contagious.

"Then I must have played with you before," he says.

Pretty good lines. Quick. Kirk Farmer, the Missouri quarterback who played with Smith at Jeff City, says he gets that from his father. Country sayings, Farmer calls them.

"If you asked him to say something funny, he couldn't do it," Farmer says. "But if you're sitting around having a beer or something, the next thing you know you're rolling around on the floor laughing at something he said."

We are sitting outside the Big 12 Bar and Grill as the cars whiz by the strip mall, a three-minute ride from the town house Smith shares with Farmer and another student. Farmer and Smith, as they have been doing since seventh grade, are giving each other a hard time.

"What are you going to eat, Ugly?" Farmer asks. "I wouldn't call him an attractive man.

"Really, the guy hasn't changed from the day I met him," Farmer says. "Big kid. Always bigger than everybody else. Kind of goofy. Braces. Bowl cut."

Smith is laughing and Farmer doesn't miss a beat.

"Good athlete," Farmer says. "I always thought he'd play tight end in college. But he just kept getting faster and faster and worse and worse hands."

Smith is needling Farmer. He can't play golf today because, "the kids are still in school." Smith came right out of Jeff City, started every game he ever played, and went to the pros in three years. Farmer is like the rest of us. He got hurt. He got red-shirted. He's got two more years.

"It flew by, didn't it?" Smith asks Farmer.

"Good times in college," Farmer says. "Good times in high school."

Sometimes too good in high school. Farmer remembers one night in high school, some kid's parents were gone and he was having a party he shouldn't have been having. Smith's mother, a middle school gym teacher, showed up livid looking for Justin.

"I don't know why, but I started running away from her," Smith says. "She took out after me and caught me. Dude, she left her feet and tackled me. It was snowy and slippery and I was sliding all over the place. She must have been wearing golf shoes."

Good line. Farmer is laughing again.

"He doesn't go for the hype. He never has," Farmer says. "He's gotten his share of press around here and people recognize him, but he's never used it to his advantage."

We are back in the townhouse. The décor is late college mess. Farmer says, "He doesn't do anything. I do all the cleaning," and Smith says, "I don't know if you want to be proud of that."

Smith figures he owns two gaudy possessions. The truck and his hand-made alligator boots with a little shape of Missouri as an emblem.

And that's the $10 million question. Is the money going to change him? Kerry Hils doubts it. She should know. She's the girl (and the match) Smith met in the weight room.

"She's a work-out freak, too," Smith says. "She's ranked third in the world in the steeplechase and is trying for the Olympics."

Hils, a sophomore, didn't know last year that that big guy was who was always in the weight room until someone told her.

She still didn't know when she heard the name. When he called her dorm, she hid under the covers because she had heard all the bad stories about how football players treat women. She ended up going with his parents to the draft in New York City last weekend.

"I found out I really am a country girl," she says. "I went shopping while Justin was doing a GQ photo shoot and I got lost for two hours."

Justin and GQ?

"Did you hear what happened when they put him in a mink coat?" Kerry asks. "It was too small and they used some kind of super knife to cut it right up the back."

Justin always made it a point to come over and say hello in the weight room. She says he's so gentle, he's afraid of spiders. So much for the football player stories. When they went on vacation last year, they began the day fretting. She had to run. He had to lift. Or it would be a miserable day.

"If I don't workout, I feel terrible," Smith says. "How do people not do that? They must feel terrible all the time."

We are sitting at CJ's on East Broadway, a screen pass from the stadium, splitting a bowl of chicken wings for dinner. The people are heartland respectful.

"Congratulations," they say without stopping at the table.

Smith is playing the next hole, again. Cincinnati is a great fit, he says. After this past weekend, he couldn't see himself in a placed like New York. He said he felt an ant.Too many people.

From the eighth grade on, he has started every football game he's ever played.

"I don't know what I would do if I didn't start," Smith says.

This may be as close to a dead-lock cinch that the Bengals ever get. They know the kid will play hard. 14 sacks? Two sacks? He'll go hard. It's hard to see the money changing him, isn't it?

We're in the truck again on Route 63. The stadium is on the left, the weight room is on the right and Kenny Chesney is on the CD warbling, "Back Where I Come From."

Another theme song?

"I would say so," says Justin Smith, who now comes from Cincinnati.

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