Rock Chalk Weekly: Like Father(s), Like Son
Written by Andrew Ginzel, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
In Texas, football is a way of life. Youth coaches tighten the straps on their players’ shoulder pads as early as five years old. They teach them how to correctly buckle the straps on helmets and their parents help with molding their mouthpieces. They guide them in properly placing the knee and thigh pads in the allotted slots in the football pants. The young ‘uns lace up their molded cleats and prepare to take the field, and for some, their fathers will bark commands at them for the next three hours just as their predecessors did to them years ago.
Football is instilled in the depths of the Texas’ youth’s blood to prepare them for the hard-fought wins they will experience on the gridiron Friday nights and beyond. The coaching staff is comprised of a few tough-nosed fathers whose sons own the team captain slots for their respective squads. Don’t be fooled, the coaches often discipline their sons more than those who elect to coach from the stands. This story holds true for Kansas’ Jordan Shelley-Smith, who was influenced not only by his biological father, but also his stepdad, in playing a game that they love.
“It was business on the football field; at home, it was different,” said Steve Smith, Jordan’s stepdad. “People believe that the coaches’ sons receive special treatment. It’s actually quite opposite of that.”
The Texas football community is often called a brotherhood. The bonds that are created last a lifetime, especially the father-son one. Shelley-Smith was fortunate to have two masters of the game guiding him through the ranks, coaching him to the position he is in today where he dons the Kansas Crimson and Blue uniform with pride.
Steve Smith is a product of being a coach’s son. He grew up a coach’s son; it’s all he knows. He learned valuable skills from his father on-and-off the field and those life lessons were emulated with him and his stepson, KU junior left tackle Jordan Shelley-Smith. By law, Shelley-Smith is Steve’s stepson, but neither considered their relationship that removed. Steve was always dad.
Steve played for his father at Midway High School in Waco, Texas. He went on to play collegiately at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, as a wide receiver. Upon obtaining his degree, Steve was an assistant coach at Reicher Catholic High School in Waco, Texas for nearly 13 years where he was fortunate enough to help the team win four state titles and coach Shelley-Smith.
Dennis Smith, Shelley-Smith’s biological father, also has roots embedded deep in the Texas football circuit, as took to football in junior high. His first stint was cut short when he acquired a neck injury three games into his freshman year of high school. Setting football aside, he began playing basketball, leading him to a scholarship opportunity to play at North Texas State. After one season at North Texas State, Dennis decided to give football another chance. Dennis was granted an opportunity to walk on at Baylor as an offensive lineman and through his hard work earned a scholarship. He lettered two years at Baylor and went on to earn playing time for the New York Jets and the Washington Redskins of the National Football League (NFL) in 1988-89.
Although Shelley-Smith was never pressured by his parents to continue the rich family tradition of playing on the gridiron, he had been exposed to it his entire life. He took to the sport with no hesitation, and his family was pleased with his decision.
“They never said, ‘You’re doing this.’ It was always, ‘If you want to do this you can do it,’ which was really nice because I never felt pressured,” said Shelley-Smith. “If it was something I liked to do, I’d do it. That made me enjoy football a lot more as opposed to some kids who felt pressured to play.”
Flag football taught him the fundamentals of the sport. Although simplistic in nature, this form of the game required strategic play calling to ensure a victory. Moving forward, Shelley-Smith found himself in the trenches playing peewee football with many of his eventual high school teammates. The tall, lanky youth eventually solidified his position at tight end beginning at Midway Junior High.
However, Shelley-Smith took a detour before he ultimately called tight end home during his high school years. During his freshman year, Reicher’s head coach’s son was the starting quarterback. The quarterback tore his labrum during a game so the coaching staff was left to ponder who could fill the void.
“One day in a meeting, the head coach said to us, ‘There’s only one guy I know who can do this and take my chewings, and that’s Jordan,'” Steve said. “So here he is his freshman year, about 6-foot-1 and 170pounds, taking shotgun snaps. He’s done it all. He’s mature beyond his age.”
It was during his high school campaign at Reicher where Shelley-Smith’s game evolved and playing Division I football became his top priority. With his father, Steve, being the wide receivers and defensive backs coach, the tight bond they shared became stronger. Steve remembers Jordan’s interest for football peaking his sophomore year of high school.
“His eyes opened up for a passion of the game his sophomore year when we were having a lot of success winning games at Reicher,” Steve said. “He was real inquisitive and wanted to know more about it.”
Reicher won three-straight state titles, the last one being Shelley-Smith’s sophomore campaign. Although he was unable to suit up for those title games, Shelley-Smith exhibited his loyalty to the program by being a ball boy and attending all the practices. Those opportunities led to exposure of the game from different angles and he became a natural fit for football. Steve taught him that loyalty to the program, coaches, and teammates are critical. Always trust in the coach’s plan and what they are teaching you, it’s a simple formula.
Steve and Shelley-Smith drove together to and from practices each day. On the way to practice, they’d discuss what improvements Shelley-Smith could make from the previous day’s efforts. On the way home from practice, they’d discuss enhancements that could be made from that day’s work. The criticism was always constructive as Steve had his son’s best interest in mind from the beginning. Being a coach’s son, Shelley-Smith had to work twice as hard as most players to prove that his starting spot was earned, not given.
As his passion for football grew, Shelly-Smith had one goal in mind, to play Division I football. He had doubters, people who didn’t think he could make it. He played at a small school, national powerhouses didn’t recruit him, and he was undersized for a tight end. However, the Waco, Texas native had one characteristic that couldn’t be taken away from him: dedication and determination.
“His dedication is unmatched. I’ve always told him that all men should aspire to be like him,” said Dennis. “That’s how proud of him I am. Personally, he’ll be so much better than I ever was. He has hellacious determination. He sets a path for himself and he stays on it. He always keeps his head up.”
Steve is also well-versed in Shelley-Smith’s drive.
“He made his mind up and sacrificed a lot of things to get to that point,” added Steve. “If you aren’t with him, you better get out of the way. He’s always known what he’s wanted to do and he stuck to that plan.”
Shelley-Smith arrived at Kansas as an undersized, perhaps even an offensive afterthought, tight end in 2012. After redshirting his freshman campaign, Shelley-Smith played sparingly at tight end in 2013. In 2014, then-strength and conditioning coach Scott Holsopple approached Shelley-Smith and disclosed to him that the coaches were discussing moving him to the offensive line. Without complaint, Shelley-Smith obliged. He will be the first to tell you that during his redshirt-freshman year, former Kansas tight ends Trent Smiley and Nick Sizemore would joke that Shelley-Smith would end up becoming a 300 lb. offensive lineman in a few years because he was a natural-blocking tight end. Boy, were they right.
Dennis confessed that he always thought his son would end up on the offensive line.
“I told him he would eventually be on the offensive line,” Dennis said. “He disagreed, but he called me last year and told me they put him on the offensive line. He knows I’m here for him 24/7 to offer advice and to give him direction.”
Shelley-Smith can be described as a hard worker. His work ethic cannot be matched and he remained optimistic that transitioning to the offensive line may increase his minutes on the field. The switch felt more natural for him because he was primarily used for blocking while he played tight end. However, he will admit that the move was not easy. Mastering the footwork at tight end was his best asset as he began drills with the offensive linemen. His hands were trained to block and now he didn’t have to worry about catching passes. The support from his teammates, coaches, and fathers was what enabled the transition to come full circle.
The transformation from a 6-foot-5, 248-pound tight end to a 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive lineman was drastic and seemed unattainable. Gaining 50 pounds of healthy weight in under eight months seemed impossible. Not for Shelley-Smith. When he sets his sights on a goal, he will obtain it. Starting with 3 a.m., protein shake, early morning workouts before others reached the practice facility, and lots, and lots, of food. Holsopple was supportive throughout the process as he switched Shelley-Smith’s workout regime to fewer reps with more weight. This helped with putting on more muscle in a short timeframe.
A standard day of eating for someone attempting to put on a tremendous amount of mass as quickly as possible is astounding.
“I would eat a big breakfast, a decent sized lunch, a big dinner and drink water and Gatorade constantly. Breakfast consisted of four or five eggs, English muffins, hash browns, and bacon,” Shelley-Smith said. “Lunch was usually sandwiches or something light before practice. I’d eat Chipotle for dinner most of the time. I’d eat a burrito and then two hours later I’d eat a burrito bowl and then drink a protein shake before bed.”
Shelley-Smith is now on a maintaining diet that helps retain the weight he put on without adding on much more. His caloric intake is less, but it is still sufficient enough so he doesn’t begin losing what he gained. His workouts have returned to normal again, as well.
The unselfish move to a different position has paid dividends for Shelley-Smith. Solidifying his starting position at left tackle, Shelley-Smith has been a pillar for the Jayhawks during his junior campaign. Shelley-Smith says he was never against the move to the offensive line. It was something he and his teammates always joked about. It just hadn’t become a reality until he had the discussion with Holsopple. Dennis refers to his son as being the “foundation” of the Jayhawk football program.
“I try to explain to him that he is the start of the foundation at Kansas,” Dennis said. “It’s similar to being an offensive lineman; you may not get all of the credit but you play an integral part in the success of the team.”
Shelley-Smith aspires to play football professionally one day, following in the footsteps of his father, Dennis. Playing in the NFL has been his vision since he was in high school and Dennis believes that his son has the ability to be a high draft pick next spring. Both Dennis and Shelley-Smith revealed that they’ve had discussions about what it takes to get to the next level. Both men are optimistic that if Shelley-Smith continues to work hard, be a professional in college, and take care of his body, he will make it to the ultimate stage in the football world.
“If he even gets a shot at it, he’ll succeed,” Dennis said. “He has the desire to know the game and know his plays.”
Steve also offered advice to help Shelley-Smith achieve is ultimate dream.
“Outwork everybody, which is my message to him and everything will fall into place,” Steve added. “That’s the formula, it’s that simple.”
The support system that Shelley-Smith has is second-to-none. His father, Dennis, deflects the credit of his upbringing to his mother, Tonya, and father Steve. Tonya and Steve Smith are in the stands at each Kansas football game, home and away, cheering on their son, No. 79. Shelley-Smith’s late-great grandfather was an influential pillar in the young man’s life. He taught him the importance of being involved with community service and giving back to people.
Both of Shelley-Smith’s fathers have the utmost respect for their son. They express the gratitude they have for being able to be a part of his accomplishments and they are truly his number one fans.
“He means the world to me,” Dennis said. “I’m proud of everything he’s done because he has accomplished it on his own. That has nothing to do with me. It makes me feel good that he is doing well for himself.”
“He’s my hero,” Steve said. “Sometimes I don’t have the inner strength and forthright to keep striving and moving forward, but he’s dead set on what he wants to do. He’s an incredible kid and I’m proud to call him my son.”
Like so many families whose roots are embedded in the warm soil and the tradition-rich football state of Texas, the Kansas faithful are delighted that Jordan Shelley-Smith now calls KU home. Throughout the years of flag, peewee, junior high, high school, and college football, Shelley-Smith has stayed true to his bloodline and maintained a resilient bond to his football ties. While some believed the Texas product was destined to be a tight end, he now calls the offensive line at KU home, and to him it just feels natural.
“I think it fit my style better because I was already a blocking tight end to begin with in a more pass-heavy offense,” Shelley-Smith explained. “I just rolled with it and it worked out for the best.”
As a tremendous asset to the Jayhawks’ roster, Shelley-Smith attributes his success to his fathers’ passion for the game, which they introduced to him. With a robust support system hailing from Texas, the former tight end-turned-offensive lineman is grateful for what he has accomplished thus far in his football career. He continues to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL.
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