Sept. 3, 2016
By: Vincent Briedis, Virginia Athletics Media Relations
Growing up in a rough and rugged neighborhood in Decatur, Ga., Cavalier senior offensive tackle Eric Smith had to evade the pressures of drugs perpetuated through gang violence.
The temptation can be easy to fall into, but Smith was lucky. His grandfather and biggest role model, Ronnie Austin, along with his mother, Laronda Austin, and his father, Eric Smith, Sr., in different ways gave Smith the motivation and perspective he needed to succeed in academics and athletics as a youth.
Now, Smith wants to return the favor mentoring children, especially the youth in the Charlottesville area that are susceptible to not realizing their potential.
“My favorite part is working with at-risk kids,” said Smith when reflecting on his community involvement. “Simply because that is where I come from back home in Georgia. I have seen a lot of kids who end up going down that wrong path simply because they did not have anyone to look up to. Working with the kids here in Charlottesville, who are either at risk of drugs, violence or gangs is something that I relate to because I come from it.”
Smith finds a passion working with elementary school age children. “They have the opportunity to have a positive future from the onset,” he said. “Kids at that age are very impressionable and are just trying to find guidance. That is why I love working with that age group.”
In conjunction with the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office, Smith and the Virginia football program welcomed at-risk youth to the football complex this past summer. It was an experience that Smith found joy with on many levels.
“This whole UVA football environment, this facility, they are excited to be here,” said Smith. “You do not see the `at-risk’ label, you see just another child who is inspired to do something great. I try not to come at them with an adult perspective, but rather someone that they can relate to and feel like an equal to.
“If they can feel like they are equal to somebody who goes here, to a place like UVA, who has the position that I have on the team and within this University, that inspires them that they can do anything, that they can continue to do well in school, that they can find positive surroundings to embed themselves in and do whatever they want to do in the future. That is how I approach my opportunities with these kids.”
Smith’s time at Virginia has cultivated his passion for serving. He cites teammate Matt Johns as his biggest inspiration in Charlottesville regarding community service.
“Seeing what Matt does with Caleb Gibson, a five-year old who is in remission from cancer after being treated for a year at UVA Children’s Hospital, is inspiring,” Smith said. “He reaches out to him on a daily basis, not receive notoriety, but to help Caleb feel like he can relate to somebody who is a superstar in his eyes. That kind of stuff inspires me on a daily basis.
“My motto is to help somebody smile every day, that is just the kind of guy that I am. I am always looking to make someone smile on their worst days and on their best days, I am just a positive guy to be around.”
Except on Saturday’s when he is on the football gridiron.
A starter for 32 straight games, Smith has been a pillar of durability and strength on the offensive line for the Cavaliers since the fifth game of his freshman season (2013) when he was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time. Smith is coming off a season were he blocked for one of the most dynamic running backs in the Atlantic Coast Conference in Taquan Mizzell, who narrowly missed becoming the first FBS player since 2006 to accumulate 700 receiving and 700 rushing yards in the same season.
The Richmond game marks the last season opener for Smith, a sentiment that won’t be lost on the senior when he takes the field to kickoff the Bronco Mendenhall era at Virginia.
“I want a great start to this season,” Smith said. “There is a change to the culture here, and I feel if I am one of the ones who leads the way early, I will be one of the ones who will be able to finish. I get goose bumps thinking about what is going on here. I am just glad that I have the opportunity to experience this before it really takes off. If I can help change the culture now with my last season, and inspire the younger guys who are going to continue this culture, I am appreciative of that.”
Whether it is in the locker room at the McCue Center, or out in the Charlottesville community, one flash of his gregarious smile and everyone can see that Smith aims to inspire those he comes into contact with.
He approaches his days with a mission of protection. On the field he protects his offensive teammates so they can rack up statistics and off the field he aims to protect the local youth so they don’t.