E.A. Sports Today


Well into his ‘second wind,” Wellborn’s man in black continues working, hoping to make a difference for young players from his community

Wellborn coach Jeff Smith talks during Friday’s preseason interview. He enters his 15th season as the Panthers’ head coach at 32nd year in coaching overall. (Photo by Joe Medley)

Editor’s note: High school football practice has started, and East Alabama Sports Today editor Joe Medley has begun his annual round of preseason visits to football-playing schools in Calhoun County. Check out East Alabama Sports Today’s Facebook page for live interviews each weekday leading up to season openers. Columns and key facts will also appear at EASportsToday.com and our social-media platforms.

WELLBORN — Team pictures line the office walls of Wellborn’s Ed Deupree Field House, and Jeff Smith points to himself. In Smith’s before-after reality, the smiling, silver-haired guy standing amid players came before.

Joe Medley, Editor

“Look at that,” he says, glad for the comparison to today’s slimmed-down version of himself. “I was 310 pounds there.”

That was three years and roughly 60 pounds ago for Smith.

That was a guy entertaining retirement thoughts, with youngest son Jett having seen his senior night and cap-and-gown day.

That was a man at his road’s fork.

Long story short, Smith didn’t turn. He went straight and worked on his narrowing.

Now, entering his 15th season coaching his alma mater, and 32nd in coaching, he’s added self care to his daily to-do list and sees his health running alongside his peace of mind.

“I got my second wind,” he said.

The graduate who came home in 2009 to lead Wellborn back to respectability stay around through Grayson Johnson, the quarterback who followed his son. Smith remains for the next signal caller, Noah Screws.

Screws will lead an all-new backfield for a team looking to make its fifth consecutive playoff berth and 12th of Smith’s tenure, and Smith offers a healthy perspective to match his healthier feeling.

“I’m excited about the year,” he said during Friday’s preseason interview. “I think our team has worked hard, They’ve shown a lot of dedication. We’ve had a good summer.

“We’re kind of approaching it this year a little different than we have in the past. Instead of drilling state championship and region championship and all of that in their heads, we’re just taking it one day at a time and trying to get better one day at a time.”

Meanwhile, Smith paces himself.

Competitive drive is such a demon. It’s what kept an alum up into the wee smalls, trying to work his small-community alma mater into competitiveness.

There’s not much open after a late-night film session in Wellborn. Smith acknowledges he regularly drove to the Anniston McDonald’s for a Big Mac combo, ate, went home and shut his eyes.

After about two hours of sleep, rinse and repeat.

Add stresses that come with the responsibilities or managing a locker room full of young people and a community’s expectations, and it’s easy to sacrifice oneself for everyone else.

Then came the day when Jett spoke. Known for speaking sparingly and softly but effectively, Smith’s youngest son sensed his dad’s thought train and told him, “Don’t retire.”

It would’ve been easy. Smith has time in the system. The Jacksonville State University grad could’ve enjoyed life as a dad, following the two seasons Jett played for JSU.

Smith and wife Lisa traveled to as many games as they could, but Jeff kept coaching. Stopped at a three-pronged fork, he didn’t turn down Double Dip Road. He didn’t turn onto Easy Street.

He rolled forward on Pinson Road, but he swore off carbonated drinks and sweet tea. He limited himself to one sweet treat a day … a temptation coups, considering the boxes of sweets that stay piled around his office space for players and coaches to consume.

Meat and veggies became Smith’s new menu, and 310 became 244. He hovers in the 250s, much closer to the hard-nosed linebacker of his youth than the nose tackle in the picture.

Along with several long-time staffers, Smith coaches on with oldest son Judd, the quarterback of his early Wellborn teams, and Jett, the quarterback who got him to the 2019 semifinals. Jett works with the junior-high team.

In a year that saw 109 football coaching openings in Alabama, with five jobs changing hands in Calhoun County alone, Jeff Smith remains the man in black on Wellborn’s sideline. He’s enjoying the time a little self care bought him to continue doing what Mike Battles and Bill Burgess did for him.

“That’s why I continue to do it,” Smith said. “I want to continue to make a difference in these young men’s lives, positively, that can help them with their lives farther on.”  

Panther facts

Things to know about Wellborn football heading into the 2023 season:

—Jeff Smith enters his 27th season as a head coach with a 170-116 record. He’s 94-61 entering his 15th season at Wellborn.

—The Panthers went 6-5 in 2023, losing in the first round of the playoffs to eventual Class 3A state champion St. James. Wellborn finished fourth in Region 4.

—Key graduation losses from 2022 include All-State OL Austin Smith. Also gone are QB Grayson Johnson (Lyon College) and RB Ahmad Noel (Montevallo, wrestling). Other Class 1A-3A All-Calhoun County players who graduated: RB Xavier Parker, OL Imariyan Jenkins, RB Omarion Curry and LB Logan Nelson.

—Returning All-County picks: senior DL Jaysilas Montgomery, junior TE/DE/DS/SS Ethan Carroll, senior WR Brennon Talley, senior OL Andrew Salter, senior DL Trey Downs, sophomore DB Jabari Williams, senior K Jaleel Gay, senior QB/DB Noah Screws, junior DB Kyle Bright, senior DB Carlos Hubbard and senior OL Will Phillips. 

—The second year of the current realignment cycle has Wellborn once again aligned with Class 3A, Region 4 powers Dadeville, Randolph County and Saks, as well as Calhoun County rival Weaver. Beulah and Childersburg. Wellborn’s non-region slate includes road games at Anniston and Talladega and home games against Ohatchee and Cleburne County.

—Joe Medley

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