Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Roquan Smith’s travels lead him, finally, to the Rose Bowl 

The Georgia Bulldogs are bunking in a high-rise hotel in the Financial District. They’re within a mile of the Pacific Dining Car, a steakhouse featured in many a movie, and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, former home of the Oscars. When Roquan Smith gazes out from his lofty perch, does he think,” All this could have been mine”? 

“Like, ‘Wow, I could have been out here every day’? I haven't really thought about it like that,” he said Friday. “As I think about it now, the years I've had at Georgia, I can't really envision myself anywhere else. Just being at Georgia and then having the opportunity to come out here and play in this game, it's pretty awesome.”

To retell the serendipitous story: Smith committed to UCLA after his second visit to the school and announced his intention to matriculate in Westwood at a signing-day ceremony at Macon County High in Montezuma. After that announcement, Georgia coaches, Mark Richt included, advised Smith to check the career plans of Jeff Ulbrich, the Bruins assistant who had recruited him. Sure enough, Ulbrich was leaving to join Dan Quinn’s Falcons staff, something he hadn’t mentioned to Smith.

The prized linebacker wound up signing with nobody. But he enrolled in Athens. 

Without him, Georgia wouldn’t be here, readying for a date with Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. That’s where this tale comes full circle. UCLA plays its home games in the Rose Bowl. Roquan Smith, who has become the nation’s best defender, will perform at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains after all. 

Smith met the media Friday, and the guy from Montezuma (pop. 3,200) – actually, he lives in Marshallville, which is half that size – didn’t seem at all dazzled by the bright lights of Tinseltown. He has, he allowed, been here five or six times. He has, he also allowed, been lots of places. 

“Early in elementary school, we had this social-studies book,” he said. “I used to always pull it out and look at places on the map and be like, ‘I want to go there, I want to go there.’ I started learning the map, and some of the places I've been. There's many other places I'd still like to go.” 

Places he has been: Mexico, Honduras, the Bahamas. Places he’d like to go: Spain, Africa, Australia, New Zealand. 

Regarding the map: “Montezuma you'll have to zoom in a little bit, and especially for Marshallville, you'll have to zoom in a whole lot more. I guess that's just a part of (his desire to travel) – small-town boy.”

Though the small town isn’t without culinary delights. “There’s so many great places to eat down there, small-town country foods. We have a Mennonite place, which is Yoder's, and then we have some little shack places that are pretty good as well.” 

As for entertainment options in the non-Macon part of Macon County: “There’s not much to do in Montezuma. You have three or four traffic lights. In Marshallville, there are no traffic lights. It is what it is.” 

His graduating class, he said, numbered 118 – “and that was the biggest class in recent years.” Which only goes to show: Sometimes size – of a town, of a school, of a person – means nothing. Roquan Smith has hit it big. He’ll surely be in the NFL next year, and he should hit it big there, too. He’s a great athlete, but he’s also bright and curious. 

His credo: “Get out and do something, go experience something new.” 

Then this: “I don’t play video games.” 

His favorite destination so far? “I enjoyed Honduras, I enjoyed being there and seeing people and just seeing some of the struggles those people face day in and day out and thinking of how grateful we were and being able to help some of those people.” 

Someone asked if the world traveler spoke any other languages. Smiling slyly, Smith said: “I try to speak English for the most part.” 

Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker described Smith as “a unique combination of speed, football IQ and physical play.” Note the middle part: This isn’t someone who merely runs fast and hits hard. Smith has been watching film with a coach’s eye since he was a high school sophomore. “I’m seeking knowledge,” he said, “trying to get knowledge all throughout the day.” 

Then: “I’ll give you an example. If I’m about to fight this guy and I can watch him and learn his moves and what he's going to do in some situation – like he gets in the corner, how he's going to try to get out – you’ll definitely try to use that to your advantage. That's just like with watching film. You want to make sure you know what your opponent is doing. That's like half of the battle, knowing their tendencies.” 

Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy winner was supposed to be the star of Friday’s interview sessions, but Baker Mayfield skipped because of what’s believed to be a cold. Roquan Smith more than filled the breach. He’s not just Georgia’s best player; he’s also the Bulldogs’ best talker.

It was noted that the Sooners beat Oklahoma State 62-52. Smith was asked if he could imagine Georgia getting involved in such a game. He recoiled. “No, not a shootout. That’s just completely. ... They have a great offense, but we have a great defense. That would just be completely disrespecting.” 

Write this down: Oklahoma will not score 62 points on Georgia. Roquan Smith won’t allow it. For all the hype flowing Mayfield’s way, the feel-good story of this Rose Bowl figures to be the guy from Montezuma finally showing up in Pasadena and being handed another MVP trophy. Maybe somebody will write a screenplay about it.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.