Florida International tight end Jonnu Smith is a receiver bent on giving, a terrific player bent on being just as good of a person.
He catches passes — a bunch of ’em — but tries to pass out wisdom in his many interactions with young people. And he has absorbed more than his share of body blows in life, including the death of his father, the incarceration of his older brother. But he keeps getting up, keeps pressing on, keeps doing good (while also doing well).
He has 36 receptions this season for the Panthers (4-4, 2-2 Conference USA), who visit Florida Atlantic (1-6, 1-3) Saturday on ASN. Ten came in last week’s 41-12 victory over Old Dominion, matching his career high. His 183 yards in that game were the fourth-most in school history, and he also scored twice, an effort that earned him the John Mackey Tight End of the Week Award.
Smith, an All-Conference USA first-teamer last season, had already been placed on the midseason watch list for the season-ending Mackey Award, presented each year to the nation’s foremost player at his position.
Months before that Smith was named to the watch list for the Danny Wuerffel Trophy, named for the former Florida State quarterback and given each year to the player who provides both great play and great community service.
Really, though, such service is reward enough in itself.
“It gives me a lot of joy, and it humbles me,” Smith said.
He ventures off FIU’s Miami campus regularly, coaching kids with disabilities in football, visiting elementary schools, discussing healthy lifestyle with youngsters. He also brings small groups of kids on school grounds so that he might show them around, let them know there are possibilities they might never have considered.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “That’s what I try to preach to the kids: ‘Don’t ever let anybody tell you you can’t achieve or do anything. You are all capable of doing anything that you put your mind to.’”
He believes his own horizons were expanded by his mother Karen who used to bring him along to her job as a Meals on Wheels coordinator in his hometown of Philadelphia. She’s the one who first made him want to look outside himself, who made him consider others’ circumstances.
She became something more to Jonnu and his five older siblings (four sisters, as well as his brother) in April 2000, when her husband Wayne, a tow-truck driver, died at age 40 in an accident.
“She took on that father role,” Jonnu said, “as well as that mother role.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time that Wayne used a hydraulic lift to raise a car off the ground and onto his flatbed truck, then went underneath the car to disable the linkage — essentially shifting the vehicle into neutral so that it could roll behind him — but the safety chain wasn’t fastened and the car rolled off its lifts and fell on top of him, causing massive head injuries.
Jonnu was not quite 5 at the time, and thus couldn’t process everything that occurred. But he has some memories of his dad, and has heard plenty about him from others as well.
“He was a family man,” Jonnu said. “He put his kids first. Hearing stories about him kind of made me want to emulate the type of man he was.”
It goes without saying that he would also like to be the type of person his mom has always been.
“I can’t be more thankful for that woman right there,” he said. “She’s such a blessing.”
She was the one who had given him his unique first name, for reasons unclear to him. (“She said God gave it to her,” he said. “I can’t argue that.”) And she was the one who decided to send Jonnu to live with his aunt in Ocala, Fla., when he was a high school sophomore, lest he get swallowed up by Philadelphia’s streets. (And lest he meet a fate like his brother, Wayne Jr., who is in prison for reasons Jonnu declined to specify.)
Jonnu blossomed as an athlete at West Port High School in Ocala, some four hours north of Miami, and has excelled at FIU as well. He had 39 receptions in 2013, making him the first true freshman to top the Panthers in that category since T.Y. Hilton (now with the Indianapolis Colts) in 2008. Last year Smith’s 61 catches were the most in the nation by a tight end, and he has at least one grab in 32 consecutive games.
While he is zeroed in on the task at hand, he has given some thought to the NFL, even though pro tight ends typically carry more than the 230 pounds Smith packs on his 6-3 frame.
“I think it’s in the back of every college football player’s mind, the next level, but I’m at FIU right now, and that’s what I’m going to focus on right now,” he said. “If, God willing, that opportunity is there, of course I’m going to take it.”
Beyond that, he would like to join the Secret Service. He talked to an agent last spring, when President Barack Obama visited Florida International’s campus, and it piqued his interest.
But for now, he wants to continue to receive, while also giving. And continue to do good, while also doing well.