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A Closer Look: Ernest Smith

Posted Jul 7, 2010

Katrina ruined his senior season in New Orleans and scarred him emotionally. But Smith used the tragedy to secure a scholarship he’s turned into an NFL audition.

SAN DIEGO – He’s either great at saying the right things or a special teams coaches’ jackpot.

To hear him tell it, Ernest Smith lay awake at night while at Baylor dreaming of one day playing on special teams as a gunner.

“I always wanted to play (it) in college. I’ve got a sense of urgency to go down there and hit somebody,” Smith said. “I played safety in high school. I know what I can do. (Special Teams Coach Steve Crosby) is actually giving me a chance, so I’m loving it.”

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound receiver doesn’t resemble Darrell Stuckey, who’s four inches shorter and eight pounds heavier, but still craves contact. He played what the Chargers call the vice position on punt coverage at Baylor.

“I’m trying to really focus on special teams, because me being a free agent, that’s going to make or break me,” Smith said. “(But I still) do my thing at receiver. I try to be the first one into meetings and everything. I love the whole Chargers system. It’s really a (great) fit for a receiver.”

Smith learned about being grateful for opportunities in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina ravaged his hometown of New Orleans. Smith was ready to join his teammates at Edna Karr High School and kick off the football season with a four-team jamboree Aug. 27, 2005. But a hurricane was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, and the school’s location on the west bank of the Mississippi in the Orleans Parish persuaded the other schools to drop out one by one.

Smith figured it would pass and they’d reschedule for Tuesday. He drove to Mississippi with his family and anticipated launching his senior season a few days late.

Katrina made landfall Aug. 29. A week later, Smith’s electricity returned in Mississippi and he learned what the rest of the country had processed days earlier: New Orleans was underwater.

“I’m devastated,” he recalled, his gaze drifting and his face curling in sorrow. “It hurt a lot of people.”

Smith had to move. He finished his senior season in Tyler, Texas, where he became a viable BCS prospect overnight. Reverend Jerome Milton, a respected community leader, helped Smith and his family during the crisis and promoted the receiver to college coaches, many of whom attended his first game in the Lone Star state.

He churned for almost 100 yards receiving by halftime.

“I had scholarships coming off the back,” Smith said. “I didn’t even play that whole game because we were beating them so bad.”

Smith chose Baylor and the Big 12, though he’d never heard of the school before the Bears recruited him. He enjoyed his best season at Baylor last year, earning career highs in catches (39) and receiving yards (360) before the Chargers signed him as an undrafted free agent.

Katrina changed Smith’s life less than five years ago, but his presence at Chargers Park shows he’s rebuilt his life like New Orleans.

“If I can go through that situation and still stay mentally focused and strong, and come out with a college degree after going through that and not really being recruited in high school, (then) any situation that comes after that in life, it’s as hard as I (choose to) make it,” Smith said.

“So this Chargers process is going to be as hard as I make it. I can either work hard, get better, do what the coaches tell me, be smart on and off the field and make this team, or I can slouch around and just be lazy and unfocused and get cut.”

Crosby and San Diego will continue to monitor the roster for potential gunners during the offseason. There’s at least one player that would love to catch their attention.

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