NORWALK — When he was a sophomore in high school, Benji Smith had an important decision to make: Should he remain at a public school and develop his blossoming talent as a football player, or should he satisfy his longing to return to a Christian school with its quieter way of life and different values?
The choice was not without its consequences. Smith, a running back at the time on the junior varsity team at Dominguez High School, knew that a return to Harbor Christian School in Harbor City--where he attended grade school--would mean a step down to an eight-man football program, one without the considerable exposure to football scouts and college recruiters that public schools often receive.
And for a player from Compton who has been clocked in a 4.5-second, 40-yard dash, lack of exposure could mean the difference between a college scholarship and the streets.
Eventually Smith left Dominguez and enrolled at Harbor Christian, where he played football in his junior year. When his family moved here this fall, he enrolled at tiny Leffingwell Christian High.
At Leffingwell he rushed for 2,477 yards, scoring 43 touchdowns in 10 games. In two years on the varsity level at Leffingwell and Harbor, he accounted for more than 4,600 yards and scored 426 points. The Southern Section CIF office doesn't keep records on eight-man football, but his totals are believed to be some of the best in the history of the short-field game.
In fact, he has been touted by some as the best running back in the history of eight-man football.
But now, as the larger schools are about to begin their CIF playoffs and Leffingwell's season has ended, Smith has to wonder what his future might have held if he had stuck it out at Dominguez, which enters the Southern Section playoffs Friday for the first time in 15 years.
"No one in this area is as good as this guy," said Lion Coach John O'Shea. "And the sad thing is, no one knows about him, either."
Not quite true. Dick Lascola, operator of the Scouting Evaluation Assn., has seen Smith play. Among others, his annual publication on high school football is highly regarded by college coaches as a guideline to the top players in Southern California.
According to Lascola, Smith has "some ability," but the level of competition "hurts him" in the eyes of most college coaches. He was not listed in Lascola's list of top players, but he was scouted for the publication.
Gene Volnogle, football coach at Carson High, also saw Smith play for Harbor Christian. He says the 5-11, 187-pound runner "could play in most 11-man programs."
And O'Shea points to a bulletin board of clippings about Smith which document his accomplishments this season.
He may be this area's best-kept secret, but Smith has no regrets.
"It was a bad experience at Dominguez," he said. "The gangs. The people. I didn't feel right there. I had friends at Wilmington Christian and I was raised in a Christian home."
Jr. College Proving Ground
Smith says he wants to play professional football some day and he hopes college will be the ticket. But reality, he says, will take him to a junior college, possibly El Camino in Torrance, where, he says, he can prove himself all over again.
Lascola agrees with his thinking.
"In all my years of doing this scouting service, I have yet to see an eight-man player go straight to a Division I program," he said.
Smith's main goal is to be accepted by those around him. He says it's more important to be liked than to be talented.
But when he leaves high school he says he is aware that his talents could help him become accepted more quickly on the football field.