Iowa's Ihmir Smith-Marsette avoids tackles during the Iowa State game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (Ben Allan Smith)
Iowa's Ihmir Smith-Marsette avoids tackles during the Iowa State game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.

Ben Allan Smith

Hawkeye wide receiver Smith-Marsette takes difficult path to show ability, personality

Ihmir Smith-Marsette has been through a lot of ups and downs in his life. Now, he is fitting in just fine at Iowa.

September 6, 2018

Ihmir Smith-Marsette arrived in Iowa City as a 159-pound wide receiver, his small frame filling out a black Hawkeye jersey with a big white No. 6 plastered on the front.

A speedy receiver who fought his way into playing time early as a true freshman, he had the athletic tools to play a key role for an inexperienced Iowa receiving corps.

But in the first quarter of his first college game, against Wyoming, Smith-Marsette seemingly lost the trust of the Hawkeye coaching staff after all the work he put in camp, coughing up the ball when he got hit on an end-around, as Iowa tried to get the speedster into open space.

He didn’t touch the ball for the rest of the game.

Smith-Marsette bounced back the next week, however, catching 4 passes for 36 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime of a thrilling 44-41 victory over in-state rival Iowa State at Jack Trice Stadium.

“He’s always had a good spirit,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s really a nice, spirited player, loves playing, great enthusiasm. But he did weigh 159 pounds, so that was an awakening, but he bounced right back, got up on his feet, and just kept playing.”

Smith-Marsette was built for overcoming adversity. Just as he found a way to make a positive impact for the Hawkeyes following his Week 1 miscue, he battled in the trenches of inner-city Newark, New Jersey, to get the chance some only dream of — an opportunity to play Division-1 football.

Goodbye, Jersey

You got to be tough and hard-nosed coming where they came from. There’s only a couple ways out — education, football. You got to keep grinding to work your way out of here. ”

— Brian Logan, Weequahic High School head coach

Smith-Marsette did not have an easy path to Iowa. Growing up, he was exposed to crime, drugs, and homelessness on a regular basis.

With a lot of negatives surrounding him, he found some positives to put in his life, including football, where he formed a bond with Brian Logan, his head coach at Weequahic High in Newark — the same coach Akrum Wadley played under in high school before racking up the fifth-most rushing yards in Iowa history.

“That’s my man, Coach B. I love Coach B,” Smith-Marsette said. “He taught me everything I know now. That’s something I’ll never forget about Coach B. I love that man. He got me to where I’m at. He always trusted in me no matter what, back when I was down and out in high school.”

The relationship proved critical in Smith-Marsette’s journey from skinny high-schooler to speedy Hawkeye.

With a lot going on around him, the life Smith-Marsette saw every day growing up in Newark made him want better for himself.

“You got to be tough and hard-nosed coming where they came from,” Logan said. “There’s only a couple ways out — education, football. You got to keep grinding to work your way out of here. It’s not easy to get out of here. There are a lot of distractions.”

Joseph Cress
Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette makes a diving catch in the end zone during the Iowa/Iowa State game for the Cy-Hawk trophy in Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cyclones, 44-41, in overtime.

So, Smith-Marsette began playing football, starting the sport his sophomore year of high school.

Once he realized he had potential, he made a plan for himself, deciding that he wanted to go Division 1. Ever since that year, Smith-Marsette worked out every day, doing things he knew other athletes wouldn’t do, to get ahead and find something better.

He also knew the story of Wadley, which showed him that going from Weequahic to Division 1 was entirely possible.

Wadley’s journey was used as a motivational tale by the coaches to show that current players could make it to the next level.

Although Smith-Marsette didn’t hear about Wadley until his sophomore year, the story was tangible proof of what could happen.

Even though the former Hawkeye’s journey provided hope, the violence was still there, but Smith-Marsette made his way out of Newark, buying his ticket with all the effort he put into football. Still, the threat of being held back was very real.

“I lost a couple friends out there, so you just never know what might happen,” he said. “Just growing up there, you got to be tough. You got to have the mental state to get through anything. It’s just tough growing up out there.

Just growing up there, you got to be tough. You got to have the mental state to get through anything. It’s just tough growing up out there.”

— Ihmir Smith-Marsette on his hometown

“Going around the city, you got to be careful, you got to watch your back. Coming from there, it’s just something I’m used to. I can go back home and feel comfortable, but not too comfortable, because you never know. It’s just a rough place growing up there.”

Despite all of the negatives he had to overcome, Smith-Marsette believes his background gives him an edge on the field.

“I don’t take nothing from nobody,” he said. “I had to learn that the hard way. Don’t ever take nothing from nobody. So, on the field, I’m not going to take nothing from nobody, no matter who you are, how big you are, it just don’t matter to me. I’m tough, so it doesn’t really matter.”

Hello, Iowa

After the fumble against Wyoming and the Iowa State triumph, Smith-Marsette had been through the highs and lows of big-time college football in two weeks.

Like many young players, though, teaching moments don’t always take shape in an individual right away.

Ferentz said during a weekly press conference in 2017 that if Smith-Marsette would get off his phone, enter the film room, and learn to budget his time better, he would be a better, more mature player.

Wide-receiver coach Kelton Copeland echoed that.

Smith-Marsette, though, insists his coaches were joking, saying his is always focused on the task at hand.

Joseph Cress
Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette looks to the sidelines after a reception during an Iowa/Minnesota football game in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017. The Hawkeyes defeated the Golden Gophers, 17-10.

The apparent focus has paid off in terms of weight gain and production on the field. After a year in strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle’s program, Smith-Marsette now stands at more than 170 pounds.

While making the effort to get up to a more acceptable college-football weight, Smith-Marsette managed to catch 18 passes for 187 yards and 2 touchdowns, receiving steady playing time despite his size.

Through it all, one thing was clear: Being an Iowa football player means there are certain expectations. Ferentz likes his program to run with integrity and focus, and if players don’t live up to that standard, they will likely find themselves on the bench.

“He’s growing up fast under Coach Ferentz,” Logan said. “Those guys, they do it the right way. He’s going to get it the right way now. You don’t have any choice but to grow up under Coach Ferentz.”

Now seeing himself on the depth chart this season and knowing he will contribute more in Year 2, Smith-Marsette has let his personality show.

He’s a different person from Wadley, he said. While Smith-Marsette is more outgoing and finds a joke for every situation, calling himself a cool and funny guy, Wadley is more reserved.

Just as Smith-Marsette the player can give the offense a spark with a big play, Smith-Marsette the person can boost the morale of a locker room.

“He’s kind of a crazy guy – a lot of energy,” quarterback Nate Stanley said. “He always comes out to practice, and he’s bouncing around. I think it’s really kind of energetic for all of us just to see that personality. Him going 100 miles per hour every single play is kind of infectious for the rest of the offense.”

There’s a very clear reason that Smith-Marsette is the kind of person he is. It’s simple, really.

“What’s the point of being bad all the time and negative?” Smith-Marsette said. “Being negative is not cool. You always want to be cool and chill, and that’s me having fun. You don’t want to live your life miserable.”

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