By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer
Justin Smith had no intention of playing football again for Temple City High School.
He was coming off a successful baseball season two years ago as a sophomore and earned second-team All-Rio Hondo League honors as the Rams’ No. 2 pitcher. It was normal to want to focus solely on baseball, but it proved to be much too difficult after his junior year.
For starters, Smith’s friends were on him every day.
Max Ruckle always was in his ear and telling Smith they needed him back. Some of the offensive linemen told Smith they didn’t want to block for anybody else.
Then there was lineman Victor Dominguez, who was the mosquito Smith couldn’t get rid of.
You’re gonna play, right?
You’re gonna be quarterback, right?
Smith’s former teammates knew what he was capable of.
As a sophomore, Smith led the junior varsity team to a Rio Hondo League championship with a 7-6 win over Monrovia. Smith weathered the pressure of facing a Monrovia team that was 19-0 in two seasons heading into the game.
Not long after Anthony White was hired at Temple City, the new Rams coach received an e-mail from Ruckle’s father, Terry.
I hear Justin Smith is thinking about coming back.
As the buzz spread about Smith possibly changing his mind, there was renewed excitement among potential players because of a young and energetic new coach.
Smith grew curious.
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He attended a meeting with about 80 others and he didn’t come alone. Branden Pultz, Ruben Jara and Alex Vigil, teammates of Smith on the baseball team, also attended.
Smith’s interest grew after the meeting, and White noticed. He paid a visit to Smith in the locker room before a game and attended a few of his games.
White asked Smith if he was going to play.
“I’m still thinking about it,” he replied.
White pressed harder.
“You’d be a good asset to the team,” White said. “We really want you to come out. We’re going to have a good team. I promise you.”
So what changed?
“I heard a lot of good stuff from the players,” Smith said. “I felt I had nothing to lose.”
When White came on board, all he heard was the Rams had five returning starters – four linemen and one running back.
“They counted us out from the beginning of the season,” White said. “We were the underdog from day one.”
White knew he needed to inject some balance in the offense, but he was missing a piece in the puzzle that was the spread offense.
“I needed a quarterback who could throw and run,” White said.
Smith’s decision so far has paid off. He’s passed for 1,068 yards and seven touchdowns with only one interception. He’s also rushed for 238 yards and three touchdowns. Pultz has become a prime target for Smith at wide receiver. Vigil and Jara have been instrumental as well.
During the hiring process, White was asked by Temple City baseball coach Barry Bacon what he thought about sharing athletes.
“Two sports is hard to do at Temple City because of academics, but I encourage it,” Bacon said. “That was probably the big thing, my one question I brought to the interview room. If you can’t share, you’ll just kill each other’s programs.”
White was on the same page with Bacon, which was why it was easy to aggressively pursue Smith.
Watching his junior year pass him by hurt Smith most. Temple City made an improbable run to the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Mid-Valley Division while he was away.
Baseball was fun, but there’s an aura to playing under the lights and on the gridiron in front of an entire community, which Smith realized.
“I tell them all the time,” Bacon said. “I can’t duplicate the band and the lights that football brings. It’s something special.
“They really would have missed it if they wouldn’t have done it.”