'Race mentality' driving Tulsa's Kirk Smith to finish line, Rhodes Scholarship

In a John Burroughs School web posting in August 2009, the summer accomplishments of freshmen Kirk Smith and Ezekiel Elliott are noted under Track Stars on the Rise.

Little could anybody have known what was to come.

While Elliott went on to compile the second-most career rushing yards in Ohio State history and led the NFL in rushing as a rookie with the Dallas Cowboys, Smith has risen to nice heights as well.

Though he isn’t jumping into Salvation Army kettles as Elliott did after scoring a touchdown against Tampa Bay on Dec. 18, the Tulsa track and cross country performer will hop the pond to the United Kingdom next fall to study in Oxford.

In November, Smith was awarded a 2017 Rhodes Scholarship and he intends to pursue a doctorate in engineering. He applied in early October and the whole process, including two days of interviews that took place in Houston, was memorable.

“It was an incredible experience,” said Smith, who will receive his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in the spring. “Just meeting some of the most interesting people I have ever talked to, both the other finalists and the panelists that were interviewing us, was really unique. (The panelists) were trying to get you off balance a little bit and see how you would respond.”

Smith must have responded well because he was one of only 32 recipients throughout the country to be so awarded, and Tulsa’s first Rhodes Scholar since 1988. Ironically that individual, Peter Bednekoff, was also a member of the track team.

To help prepare for the interviews Smith went into athlete mode both mornings by going for a shakeout run, or jog, as a precursor to going before the panelists.

“I was nervous, but a healthy level of nerves,” he said. “I kind of approached it with a race mentality. I don’t really know why. That’s just kind of how I deal with a high stakes environment. There was no reason not to go in there and be confident and act like you can win.”

Smith has also been a winner athletically at Tulsa. In April he won the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Baylor Invitational with a time of 9:32.99. He previously finished fifth (2015) and sixth (2014) in the same race at other invitationals.

Smith, who really got into track and field in the summer prior to seventh grade, was named one of the team’s captains in the fall.

“It was an honor to be chosen as a captain after coming here as a walk-on,” he said, in referencing how he came to Tulsa on a full academic scholarship and joined the track team as a walk-on.

Smith’s interest in engineering came about while working on some projects in shop class during his senior year of high school. An interest in electric cars evolved. At one point in high school he and a buddy converted an old Honda C-RX in to an electric vehicle.

“I did it very economically,” he said, laughing at the memory. “I learned a lot of stuff in the process. I would go around town talking to a lot of people and trying to get different parts for cheap. I would go to a machine shop and learn how to use the stuff.”

At Tulsa he scrapped the car, sold the parts and turned his attention to building an electric bicycle.

“I found the bike a lot more rewarding than the car in terms of usability, at least for the amount of money I put into it,” he said.

Smith can often be found in the machine shop on campus within the electrical engineering building. When he is not helping other people with projects he is tinkering with different things. It truly is a labor of love in that his major and his hobby are pretty much one and the same.

“My hobby is recreational engineering,” he said with a laugh. “I am lucky to have a hobby that I find interesting that I am also able to put on my resume.”

It is a resume that is sure to stand out all the more when he is able to list “Oxford” among his many accomplishments. Starting next fall he will have to follow Elliott from afar.

“I never could have imagined myself being a Cowboys fan,” he said, laughing at the thought. “He is a great guy and a great leader.”

So is Kirk Smith.

Tom Layberger is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa. Follow him on Twitter at @TomLay810.

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