As soon as the ball was in the air, Nate Smith knew what he had to do.
With under a minute left, the score was tied, and Northeast had driven inside George Washington’s 20-yard line.
The Public League championship was at stake, and Smith’s favored Washington Eagles were on the ropes.
Playing safety, Smith dropped back with the snap. When the quarterback began to throw, Smith told himself, “I gotta get it.”
He did, making a huge interception that sent the game into the first of three overtime periods. The Eagles eventually won, 41-34.
“It was a tremendous, big-time play,” says Eagles coach Ron Cohen, the all-time winningest coach in Public League history. “It gave us new life.”
It was remarkable that Smith was even on the field. A freshman, he is only the second ninth grader in the past 23 years to start for perennial powerhouse George Washington.
Most ninth graders go straight to the junior varsity (JV), says Assistant Coach Bill “Skip” Singletary. For many, it is their first experience with organized football.
“They come in putting their hip pads where their butt pads are supposed to be,” he laughs.
Entering George Washington, Smith had a head start. He spent his middle school years playing with the North Philadelphia Aztecs, a youth football program with a national reputation.
Smith’s skills and pedigree meant that more was expected of him than a typical freshman, but also that he received more comprehensive and personalized supports than the 45 ninth graders who played JV.
During summer practice, Smith endured his share of hazing. “All the guys were calling me ‘fresh meat’ and telling me to go get their water,” he says.
But by the time school started, upperclass teammates were helping him out when he forgot his locker combination and admiringly calling him “Nasty Nate” in the hallways.
Smith’s status among fellow ninth graders skyrocketed.
He wasn’t the only one in his class benefiting socially from his athletic involvement. As the JV players worked to find their place among the 2,000 students at George Washington, they turned to each other.
Freshman Sean Williams remembers the beginning of the school year as overwhelming. “In middle school, you only have to deal with one thing at time. Here, there are so many people and there’s so much going on.”
“But [the JV players] all became friends. We all had similar problems, so we helped each other,” Williams says.
On the field, the JV practiced five days a week, but played a limited schedule of six games.
But Smith was thrown right into the big leagues.
“My first day of practice, I was so nervous,” he says. “There were some big guys. I started out as a third-string linebacker.”
By the second game of the season, Smith not only started, but returned an interception for a touchdown.
His transition to starting linebacker/safety was aided by his familiarity with defensive coordinator Keita Crespina’s schemes. Crespina was Smith’s coach with the Aztecs.
“If you already know how to drive,” explains the coach, “It’s no problem to jump behind the wheel of a new car.”
Because of their time together, the coach also understood the 15-year-old’s personality.
“It was easy for me to get into his psyche,” says Crespina. “I could see when he was starting to doubt himself.”
JV players don’t usually have such longstanding relationships with their coaches, but mentoring is a goal at George Washington.
“I let [JV players] know you don’t have to come from an ideal situation in order to make it,” says Assistant Coach Singletary. “You have to stay on top of them to make sure they are getting help.”
But with limited resources, the comprehensive academic support that many freshmen need doesn’t always trickle down past the school’s 60 varsity players.
Coach Cohen and Dawn Seeger wish the Play It Smart program was available for every ninth grader.
At George Washington, Seeger is a guidance counselor in charge of all the varsity players. She is also an academic coach for Play It Smart, which provides assistance for high school football teams in disadvantaged communities.
Most ninth graders don’t get to benefit from Seeger’s work. Because of Smith’s unusual status, however, he and Seeger have built a close relationship, and she has worked with his parents to get him tutoring.
Smith’s special talents have led him to receive a wealth of supports that most freshmen could use.
“A lot of [incoming ninth graders] don’t understand what it takes to be a high school student-athlete,” says Cohen. “We have a crucial part in their maturation, in helping their decision-making, in improving their ability to solve problems.”