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Roots and rising

4-26-01, 9:45 a.m.

HOLTS SUMMIT, Mo. _ There is an interesting brew in the office of Grassroots Genetics that Dave Smith runs here for his cousin.

Smith has closeted his hobby in a room off his office, where he stores a group of corked, large vases of wine that he has made to simmer until daughter Sarah's July 6 wedding.

In Smith's office sits a vat of frozen bull semen, which is also waiting for the right moment.

One thing about these Smiths. They are a resourceful, bright bunch who rose to the moment. Their son Justin's journey to the Bengals' first-round draft pick has also been an intriguing blend of luck and pluck that hasn't exactly been the river-raft-ride of a country bumpkin.

"Justin has been smart about this," Dave Smith is saying Wednesday. "There's a certain image he wants to convey and he's been doing such a good job with the country boy thing that we're getting kidded by our friends. Like, 'Oh yeah, you guys were working him to death.' But that's him. What's so bad about a lie is if you remember the lie when somebody asks you the question again, which lie do you tell?

"It's so much easier to go back to who you really are and then you don't have to worry about what you're saying," Dave Smith says. "That's what he's doing with the press and all the people around. It's easier to be who you are than to try and act like something you're not. He's gone back to where he was at 12, 13 years old."

Where Justin Smith was back then was making the move of his life.

"Justin moved down from Fulton in sixth grade," says Jefferson City High School coach Ron Cole of the day the big kid moved into his school district from about a half hour up the road.

"Thank God."

Cole is in his office at the high school watching the highlight tape of Smith's senior year of 1997, when the Jays of Jeff City became the first Missouri school to win 10 state championships.

There is Smith catching a 42-yard bomb for a touchdown as a tight end. There he is darn near lifting a quarterback over his shoulder before throwing him into the grass as a defensive end. There is his 6-5, 240-pound captain scooting 40 yards out of the backfield as college coach-to-be Larry Smith of Missouri watched on the sidelines.

Maybe it was God that had an assist in the thing.

Dave, wife Ginger, Sarah and Justin never would have sold the place in Fulton and moved here if Dave didn't get sick some 15 years ago with the mysterious Guillain Barre syndrome.

One day, Dave is 33 years old and six-year-old Justin is following him

around the place everywhere he went on the cattle farm.

Dave always got a kick out of that because the kid was always trying to lift something he couldn't. But he would try anyway.

If Dave was out feeding some of the 400 to 500 cows, Justin would try to lift the bucket to his shoulders and the corn would slop all over his sweat-plastered tow-head. Or, Dave might be helping him drive the pickup they used to bring the cows food. And trying to get him not to hit the side of the barn and set the sparks flying, which happened once when Justin knocked loose a wire.

Then Dave got the flu. Ten days later, he couldn't walk. Three days after that he was on a ventilator because he couldn't breathe or swallow and the only things fluttering on his body were his eyes.

"Healthy as a horse," Dave says. "I was in the hospital for seven months, in intensive care for three months. I couldn't walk or stand for about a year and a half."

The doctors deduced a viral infection had eaten away at his myelin, the substance lining the nerves.

The scars aren't as visible today. He says his feet still have "droopsy," so he walks with a limp. He can't feel his toes and still has some problems with his hands.

But Dave Smith didn't say a whole hell of a lot as his body forced him from the only thing he ever knew. He gritted his teeth, rehabbed and made a new life.

The Smiths had to sell the farm a year after Dave got sick because it entailed so much physical labor. He went to work for an association that helped breeders market and promote their stock. He had nine states in his region and drove 70-80,000 miles per year. He always loved the drive through Northern Kentucky on the edge of Cincinnati.

"I told Ginger if they ever called and said I was dead on the side of the road," Dave says, "it's because I was probably driving through Lexington and looking at all those beautiful horse farms and I ran into one of those stone fences."

Justin Smith can't remember much about the grim year and a half of the hospital and moving away.

"I didn't really know what was going on," he says. "Now, I'm starting to realize what happened and how tough he must be. He's never moaned or complained about what happened to him. He just kept going."

Dave Smith, 48, never really thought much about what his illness meant to his son. There was too much to do.

He did know that when Justin committed to play at the University of Missouri four years ago, Dave wanted to be at every game and he couldn't if he stayed with the association because the cattle shows and events are on Saturdays.

That's when Dave's cousin re-located the genetics business to Holts Summit, the same town where Dave and later Justin grew up. They are middlemen who advertise for people looking for genetic material for their breeds.

"It changed Justin's life," Dave says of his illness. "He was little, but he loved the farm. You could tell. Then we had to leave it. I hoped what he learned in the end is no matter what cards you're dealt, you have to make the best of it. That's what you have to do. At least that's how I looked at it."

The way Jeff City looks at it, they got a relentless two-way player who helped bring them the state title that day in the TWA Dome in St. Louis.

"I played there," says Dave of the school he graduated from in 1970. "People think that's why we moved. But it's not. He was in sixth grade. What do you know then?"

Holts Summit, which sits on a hilly bluff overlooking Missouri's capital, is about five miles from Jeff. It was the only place to move from Fulton.

Dave grew up on a cattle farm here. Ginger grew up "about two three miles over the ridge," and her family raised sheep. Their parents knew each other and the families would share a camper when they went to shows and fairs.

"We rode the school bus together. I've known her my whole life," Dave says. "I can't even remember really when we started dating. We went to college and I guess we just figured that's the way it was supposed to happen."

Dave and Ginger both went to Missouri, about 45 minutes away in Columbia. He majored in agriculture/animal husbandry and she majored in education and became a middle school gym teacher.

It's the kind of place where the Davis family, the people who had a coming home party for them Sunday after the NFL Draft, live down the road in the actual house where Dave grew up. Across from Dave's and Ginger's current home is a new golf course, which is where Dave worked on his Dad's farm from the time he was a 6-year-old kid lifting buckets until he got out of college.

"All that land is
dear to us," Dave says. "We've got good friends and family is around. It's funny, when all the schools recruited Justin, he didn't take one trip. He liked it here, and he just didn't go for all the selling they would do. This all seems to be good enough for him."

But Justin did get his time on the farm. Dave made sure of that. When he got to be a freshman in high school, Cole told Dave Smith it looked like Justin might be able to play in college.

"I didn't want him having a full-time job at McDonalds," Dave says. "He was working very hard in sports. He got good grades. I told him, 'Your job is to keep going at it until it's proven you've reached your level, until you can't go any more, and then you have to make some more career choices."

Dave thought working on a farm would be perfect. It wasn't 8 to 5 every day. It just so happened that when Cole wasn't coaching one of the top schoolboy programs in the country, he ran his own cattle farm of about 300 head.

Cole liked the way the kid worked and made him the captain of his crew of five that bailed hay during the summer. They could go four straight days, not go for a week, and then string together a few more days.

"We probably put (in the barn) 12,000 to 15,000 square bails of hay a year," Cole figures. "They're about 30, 40, 50 pounds each. They're not light."

One day the hay elevator broke when Cole was gone. When he got back at night, the kids told him the hay was in the barn, anyway.

"They told me, 'It's a good thing we had Smitty,'" Cole says. "He was the only one strong enough to stand on the truck and throw them into the hole."

Cole is the only guy from Day One who had Justin Smith nailed as a quick, Division I rush end. Dave Smith and everyone else had him pegged as a tight end.

"He had good hands, but not great hands," Cole says. "But watch him play. Look in his eyes. He's got a defensive mentality. He plays with an attitude. I'd say he's got a mean streak. On the field, he's a different guy."

Up on the screen, Smith is balling up a team's attempt to run the option by chasing down the running back two steps after taking the pitch.

"This what he can do. This is how quick he is," Cole says. "He's got the quarterback on this play and he's quick enough to cut over on that flat angle and make the play. And he's twice as good as now."

Cole is a big, callused man with six years in as the head coach of a program that has a small-college facility, a major-college game program, and a record of never losing in more than 40 Homecomings.

He's also the guy who gave Justin Smith, "The Talk," at the end of his junior year.

Cole forgot about it until now. When Smith met the Cincinnati media for the first time Sunday, he mentioned "The Talk," as the moment that turned around his career.

"I don't remember because it's something we do every year with every kid," Cole says. "We tell them what we think they have to do to get better. I told him flat out, 'Smitty, you can't take plays off.' Then I just put on the tape and I'd tell him, 'There, see? Your loafing.' Then he'd make a good play and I'd say, 'You have to play like that every play on the next level. You have to have a motor.' I guess it did hit home."

Cole likes the country boy image for him. He loved the fact that a few days before they left for New York and the NFL Draft, Dave bought him $10 jeans, an $80 sport coat and got him a white shirt. Smith didn't bat an eye when he gave Cole the date he can hold the ceremony retiring his No. 98: May 19.

But Ron Cole and Dave Smith also say don't fooled by the image. This isn't a "dumb," country boy.

He was working on a 3.3 grade point in agriculture economics when he left school. And Dave likes the fact that Justin got his 2001 truck from Riley Chevy over in Jeff City on a straight deal. A few radio and TV commercials traded for the truck.

"I wouldn't pay for this myself," Justin says and Dave laughs: "I would agree with that."

Those are the things fathers like about sons. He liked the fact that one spring Justin went on break with several African-American players.

"Not because he felt he had to or that he should," Dave Smith says. "But because he can get along with anybody naturally. That's just the way it is with him.

Dave Smith liked what happened in New York after the Bengals picked him. After the deluge of interviews, Dave and Ginger didn't see him again until about four hours later, and the Bengals were about to pick again in the second round.

"He told us, 'S-shh. I want to hear who my teammate is. We've got a new team to follow,"' Dave says. "That impressed me. He was already a Bengal and he wanted to meet his teammates as soon as possible."

Back up at the high school, as Cole flicked through the tape, he mused about how a guy gets to coach the fourth pick in the draft.

"Good parents," Cole says. "Dave and Ginger are great people. He got raised right."

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