When Jeremiah Smith began playing football at the age of 6, his father Rudy held modest hopes. They related to the fact that a) he was the team’s head coach at Bay Creek Park in Gwinnett County; and b) Jeremiah, as Rudy described him, was a quiet mama’s boy.
“I’m like, Lord, I hope my son does not dislike football,” he said. “I’m in charge of all this, and if he’s not happy, how happy will I be?”
After Jeremiah put his first hit on an opponent, Rudy felt better, and a partnership commenced. Rudy was Jeremiah’s head coach for his first six seasons at Bay Creek (a feeder program for powerhouse Grayson High), an assistant coach for seventh and eighth grade and then an assistant at Grayson for all four seasons that Jeremiah played for the Rams, 12 years in all. Jeremiah’s coming season as a freshman safety at Georgia Tech will be the first time that Rudy hasn’t been on the sidelines with him.
“It’s been beautiful,” Rudy said.
Not only has he been Jeremiah’s coach for all of his football games, but, save for one season, he also was the head coach or assistant for all of his baseball teams, starting at 6 through his senior season at Grayson.
There was much more on the family’s plate. At different points along the way, Rudy also was coaching his two daughters’ softball teams, earning a master’s degree in special education, holding down a second job to help cover tuition and, for a few years before Jeremiah’s arrival at Grayson, also was an assistant coach for the Rams’ football and baseball teams. And he has stayed married to Denise, his wife of 21 years.
“He would go first to the high school practice and then would go to the park to coach the little guys,” said Stephanie Bush, whose son Zach moved up through the youth football program with Jeremiah and who herself was either a team-mom coordinator or team mom for the same 12-year run. “It was a huge commitment all the way through.”
As Jeremiah and his parents relived the memories in their comfortable home in Grayson, they laughed about Rudy’s boisterous coaching style (“I remember a lot of yelling,” Jeremiah said) and his refusal to do anything that could be construed as favoritism toward his children (“I’d sit them in a minute if they messed up,” Rudy said). Despite being clearly a superior athlete, for instance, Jeremiah played quarterback only once, when the regular quarterback forgot his jersey.
“I got one drive in, threw a touchdown pass,” Jeremiah said, relishing the story. “My quarterback career was done.”
Between laughs, the three expressed their gratefulness for the journey and all the fellow coaches and friends who shared it with them.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Rudy said.
As Rudy grew up in Merritt Island, Fla., his father was in the military and was away from home for nine to 10 months out of the year, Rudy said. In the early years of the Smiths’ marriage, Rudy liked his job as a store manager at Publix – Denise also worked for Publix as a store trainer before going into nursing – but didn’t like how it kept him from his family.
He recalled a breaking point, around 2000 just after Jeremiah was born, when he came home late, Denise was on her way out the door to nursing school, and all three kids were crying.
“I was like, I can’t do this,” Rudy said.
He switched to banking, thinking the hours would be better, but they weren’t. After considerable prayer, the Smiths decided that Rudy would take a hefty pay cut to go into teaching, which family members always believed was his calling and would also enable him to be closer to his family. Rudy now teaches physics for special-education students at Grayson.
“I just wanted to help coach my kids through rec (sports) and just be there,” Rudy said.
Baseball ran from December through July. Football started in late July and ended in November. Softball was nearly year-round. Rudy coached all three children for one year, and he coached both Jeremiah and Sierra, now a rising senior on Jackson State’s softball team, for several years.
“I’m thankful that he was there for them, to coach them and show them the right way,” Denise said. “Everybody’s not going to do that, so I’m thankful that he was there from the beginning with them.”
Denise isn’t the only one to feel that way.
“Rudy was awesome,” said Bush, the longtime team mom. “He was like another father to both of my kids.”
Rudy’s job at Grayson enabled another connection with Jeremiah. The two ate lunch together every school day for four years in Rudy’s classroom trailer. The time was so precious to both that once, when Rudy took a day off from school when his sister and brother-in-law were visiting, Rudy left his lunch with them to go eat with Jeremiah.
“I can vent to him what I need to about whatever, classes or anything,” Jeremiah said as the school year was ending. “It’s just nice.”
It may not have been the ultimate objective, but the father’s conveyance of love and support through coaching (and the mother’s willingness to accommodate it) helped develop a son who is a big-hitting, athletic safety with an even keel.
“Just being around him, he is probably one of the smartest kids I’ve ever seen from a football-IQ standpoint,” said Kenyatta Watson Sr., who served as Grayson’s volunteer recruiting coordinator for the past four years and is the father of Texas freshman cornerback Kenyatta Watson II.
The memories are thick. A week trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., with Jeremiah’s 12-year-old baseball team. Grayson’s 2016 football state championship. The Grayson baseball team’s two trips to the state semifinals.
Going forward, Rudy will continue to coach baseball, but will give up football to more easily follow Jeremiah’s Tech career. At Tech, Jeremiah will have to find a new lunch buddy. They can only hope and pray that the next chapter can come close to matching the one that just closed.
“It’s been a great ride,” Rudy said. “Something I never dreamed of.”
This is the sixth story in a series about members of Georgia Tech’s incoming freshman class.
The series so far: