It was apparent early that Irv Smith Jr. '16 was a gifted athlete.
When he was a toddler, Irv Jr. could dribble a basketball with both hands and make baskets on a regulation-sized hoop. He was maybe 2 or 3 years old when he would go in the backyard with his father, Irv Sr., and play catch with a football. His mother, Rose Matamoros, remembers an awkward moment when a stranger asked if her 4 or 5-year-old son lifted weights (he didn’t, of course).
The only question was which sport he would excel at most. But maybe that was never really a question.
“I think football was something that was inside of him from the day he was born,” Irv Sr. said.
Sometime this week, Irv Jr. will hear his name called in the 2019 NFL draft. A record-breaking junior season at Alabama and a diligent offseason fine-tuning his body have positioned him to be selected in the first two rounds. His genes will surely play a part in that, too.
The New Orleans Saints used the 20th pick of the 1993 NFL draft to select Irv Sr. out of Notre Dame. Maybe Irv Jr. can earn forever bragging rights over his father by getting picked a little higher. That would ease the sting of the bet he has already lost to his dad.
Father and son never wanted to put a wager on draft positioning. Irv Jr. is a Nick Saban acolyte, and The Process bylaws allow one to only focus on the things one can control.
So Irv Jr. bet he would beat his old man’s 40-yard dash time. He tried to control that with his training at EXOS in Phoenix, and he felt confident shortly before the NFL combine.
“I think he ran a 4.56,” Irv Jr. said in February. “They were hand-timed for them, so it’s different, but I’m still going to beat it.”
Irv Jr.’s official 40-yard dash time at the combine: 4.63 seconds. Chalk one up for dad.
The draft this week will be the culmination of a journey Irv Sr. and Matamoros have watched unfold with pride. They did not allow Irv Jr. to play tackle football until high school, but they figured they knew what was coming when Irv Jr. would find his dad’s old gear around the house.
“I’d always try to put it on and wear it around, just trying to be like him,” Irv Jr. said.
While football waited, basketball became Irv Jr.’s first love. He played on Mike Bibby’s club team in Arizona and was always running with the best players in the area. But all it really took was one dip into the football waters for him to be hooked.
Irv Jr. moved to New Orleans and attended Brother Martin High School. Matamoros remembers speaking to him after the first few practices and hearing her son say, “‘Mom, I don’t want to play basketball anymore. Football is my love, it’s my dream.’”
He still played basketball after that, but his focus shifted hard toward football. He wanted to be a great receiver. His dad knew the genes that made him such a good athlete might make that position tough.
“I kept telling him, ‘Irv, you’re going to be too big to be a receiver. You can be a slow wide receiver or a fast tight end,’” Irv Sr. said. “Eventually, he realized it was better to be a fast tight end.”
Irv Jr. matched his natural ability with a work ethic that made his high school coach, Mark Bonis, figure he would be a great at whatever he decided to do with his life.
“At practice, he never took a play off,” Bonis said. “I mean, he was 100 percent in everything he did. When you combine all those factors — the fact of him being tremendously athletic, him having a great pedigree, a great savvy or knowledge of the game and his work ethic and love for practice, those are the type of people that become successful and the best in their trade.”
The only hope the Smiths had for their son in football was for him to receive a scholarship offer at a major college program. Get an education, and if everything works out really well, get a chance to contribute.
It took a while for Irv Jr.'s recruitment to fire up thanks to a broken leg in his sophomore year at Brother Martin, but he remembers getting his first two scholarship offers the same day — Tulane and Miami — shortly after his junior season. It blew up from there, and he wound up selecting Alabama from a list that included about 40 schools.
Alabama had about as major a program as it gets, Irv Sr. said, but then he watched his son take it to the next level.
“When he got there, he made the determination that he wanted to be special, and that’s what he did,” Irv Sr. said.
Last season, Irv Jr. set Alabama receiving records for tight ends in both receiving yards (710) and receiving touchdowns (7). He was the explosive receiver he always wanted to be playing the position his father told him he would play. Now, he is on the verge of doing all that for a living.
Irv Jr. is widely considered to be the third best tight end prospect in the 2019 draft class, behind Iowa’s dynamic duo of T.J. Hoeckensen and Noah Fant. His name will almost certainly be called at some point in the first two rounds. Diplomatically, Irv Jr. said he just wants a shot, no matter who it’s with.
“I’m open to any team,” Irv Jr. said. “Whoever wants to take a chance on me, I’m ready to work.”
Both father and son will be nervous on draft day. It’s the whole bit about not knowing what’s coming next, Irv Sr. said, and he knows from experience. This is also the best part about it: At some point this week, Irv Jr. will find out where he is going to spend the next phase of his life.
And how wild would it be if it was the same place where he truly fell in love with the game? The same place his dad started his professional career?
“It would be a great thing for me for him to play locally for the team I rooted for my entire life,” Matamoros said. “Oh, that would be awesome, you couldn’t ask for anything better than for him to be part of the Who Dat Nation.”