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Career Audible a Wise Move for Him

College football: Smith had trouble hitting a baseball, but he's a big hit as Oregon's quarterback.


His Akili's heel was the curveball.

"The changeup too," Oregon quarterback Akili Smith said with a quiet laugh. "Curveball, off-speed pitch, everything."

Minor league baseball took only three seasons to chew up the 1993 San Diego area athlete of the year.

Football is finding him a lot tougher to deal with.

He has stumbled into off-the-field scrapes and come back better than ever.

He has stood by helplessly at the Rose Bowl, watching Chris Sailer's overtime field goal drive a goal post into Oregon's heart in that spectacular, 41-38 loss to UCLA on Saturday.

He has been brushed back and knocked down, but his father's words echo in his mind.

Once the task is once begun, never leave it till it's done. If the labor's great or small, do it well or not at all.

"He can quote it himself," said the Rev. Ray Smith, Akili's father and an associate minister at Mt. Erie Baptist Church in San Diego. "It's about tenacity, in sports or anything in life."

Saturday is going to be another test of that tenacity. Oregon lost more than its undefeated record against UCLA. It also lost standout running back Reuben Droughns because of broken leg and ligament damage in his right ankle, and now the 12th-ranked Ducks have to try to move on against a motivated USC team.

"Everybody's hurt about the whole situation," Smith said. "We honestly feel that we should have won the game. It's a tough one to bury, but USC is not worried about how we feel."

Before, other shoulders helped carry the responsibility for Oregon's season. Now it sits squarely on Smith's.

Only a season ago, he shared the quarterback job with Jason Maas.

Now his picture is on postcards sent to Heisman Trophy voters, and before the UCLA game, he led the nation in passing efficiency. He's now No. 2, his rating half a point behind Syracuse's Donovan McNabb and more than 25 points better than UCLA's Cade McNown.

"Imagine 18 touchdowns and four interceptions, that's the most important stat for a quarterback," said USC Coach Paul Hackett, calling Smith "a great quarterback"--and earlier indirectly rating him as better than McNown, who has received far more Heisman notice.

"I don't think I will win, or even come close," Smith said, saying it feels good just to be mentioned. "But if I had one more year, I'd be thinking Heisman all the way."

Smith, 23, is an interesting case, a standout athlete who has been humbled and has recovered. A Parade All-American football player from San Diego's Lincoln High, he signed with San Diego State but didn't qualify academically to play as a freshman.

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted the high school catcher in the seventh round, planning to turn him into an outfielder.

"I didn't pass the SAT, and I would have been Prop. 48," Smith said. "Pittsburgh offered me a contract worth $103,000. I did that."

It gave him a painful look at the game in which great success is getting a hit three at-bats out of 10.

After three seasons playing rookie ball in Bradenton, Fla., and short-season Class A with Erie, Pa., in the New York-Penn League, Smith retired with a .176 average and more outfield errors than he wants to remember.

He batted .200, .174 and .125. His last season, he had four errors in 13 chances for a .692 fielding percentage.

"He was devastated. I was devastated," said his father, who was drafted by the Angels in the 12th round in 1973 but whose career ended before it began because of a hamstring injury.

Humbling doesn't begin to describe what his son went through.

"Aw man, you go into a four-game series, maybe you get four at-bats a game, and you go in an 0-for-16 slump," Smith said.

"The game ends, it's 10:30, you get something to eat, go to sleep, wake up, go to batting practice, stretch, play the game. Over and over, it's the same every day. You've got to be so mentally strong, it's unbelievable.

"Football, it's more instinctive, and you only play once a week. Baseball is mental, day in and day out."

The time of year when football was in the air was the hardest.

"I'd sit back all the time, if there was a day we didn't have a game on Saturday or Sunday, and imagine what it would be like playing football," he said.

He'd see players he knew from San Diego--Darnay Scott, Marshall Faulk, Terrell Davis.

"Watching my friends play on TV, it was hard to take."

Just before the 1995 season, he decided he couldn't stand to miss another year of football, gave up the baseball chase and enrolled at Grossmont College.

After a so-so first year, he emerged his second year--just as he has at Oregon--and passed for 3,212 yards as a sophomore.

He was on his way to becoming another of the passel of minor league washouts populating college football fields--including quarterbacks Quincy Carter at Georgia, Chris Weinke at Florida State and Mike Moschetti at Colorado.

But he almost blew it.

A February altercation outside a Springfield, Ore., bar involving Smith, former teammate Saladin McCullough and some bouncers led to several misdemeanor charges, though the players were eventually acquitted.

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