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Geography Not in Lesson Plan : Football: Smith learns new position playing Canadian football in Sacramento.

November 06, 1994|TRIS WYKES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The words are slightly muffled, both by the crackle of a long-distance phone line and a sizable wad of chewing tobacco, but Tommie Smith's message is clear: The one-time terror of the Southern Section is alive and well in the Canadian Football League as a member of the Sacramento Gold Miners.

Smith, who led Antelope Valley High to the 1988 Southern Division II title and went on to earn four letters as a strong safety at the University of Washington, is now a sometimes-starting linebacker for Sacramento, one of four U.S. teams in the league.

Sacramento, 9-8-1, will miss the fourth and final playoff berth in the CFL's six-team Western Division.

Beyond this weekend, however, the franchise's stability is in doubt.

Rumors that the team will move to Oakland after the season were recently confirmed as "at least 75% true" by a team publicist.

None of that seems to bother Smith. Signed in 1993 as a free agent by the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks and then cut at the end of that summer's training camp, he is not pining for an NFL shot, and has fit right in with Sacramento.

"He's done very, very well for a rookie; he's been productive for us," said Bill Urbanik, the Gold Miners' defensive coordinator and a former defensive line coach and player personnel staff member for the Raiders.

"He's got a heck of a future as a CFL linebacker because he fits the mold in terms of size, speed, toughness and explosion. He has a real nose for the football."

Urbanik's last comment is readily apparent from a quick glance at the Sacramento stat sheet.

Although Smith spent five weeks of the season on the practice squad and missed five games, the Lancaster native enters tonight's game eighth on the team in tackles with 33, and has two interceptions, nine special-teams tackles and a fumble recovery.

Not bad for a guy better acquainted with the wide-open spaces of the secondary than the hand-to-hand combat near the line of scrimmage.

"I like (linebacker) better," Smith said. "It's more physical. I couldn't really expect more from the first year because I'm a rookie. But being on the practice squad gave me a better feel for the defense, for the (pass coverage) and who I'm supposed to read.

"I can still improve on the run, though."

Despite having to bone up on the ground game, Smith already knew enough to offer the current players at Antelope Valley some pointers during a two-day stretch of spring practice last May.

Smith, USA Today's California player of the year in 1988, taught the Antelope defensive backs the intricacies of zone coverage and gave the high school players some tips on what to look for should they continue up the football ladder.

"I told them what to expect about playing college football," he said.

"There's just a lot more stuff you have to remember and new systems to learn. The atmosphere is so different. I see myself in a lot of (the Antelope Valley players) and I was trying to tell them what I went through."

Brent Newcomb, Antelope Valley's coach for the past 17 years and a big admirer of Smith's, said his former player commanded instant respect from 1994 team members.

"It's nice for the kids to look up to someone who's been through our program and had a little success. They really listen to him," said Newcomb, who also has had coaching help this season from former Antelope Valley lineman James Richards, now with the CFL's Las Vegas Posse. "Tommie's a semi-celebrity around this town. You could be over on Sierra Highway and hear him play because of the hits he dished out. He's one of my favorite players ever."

The recent events with the most impact on Smith's life have not come on the field, however. His wife, Angie, gave birth to a son, Reiley, in Sacramento three months ago. Smith missed a day of practice for the event, joining his wife's parents in what he says was one of the brightest moments of his life.

Once Smith was placed on the Gold Miners' practice roster, however, Angie moved to Bend, Ore., to live with her parents, a difficult separation for both.

Smith plans a relocation to the Portland area after the season and possibly using a CFL continuing education program to pay for a final year of college at Portland State or another area school.

But as far as taking another shot at the NFL, he's not so sure.

Actually, he's not even that sure when it comes to the CFL. The Gold Miners have an option on whether to renew his contract.

"I'll probably stay with the Gold Miners, wherever they are," Smith said. "I'd rather have that security than (a tryout with an NFL team)."

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