One of the common phrases you’ll hear around the Atwater High football program is “no excuses.” It’s a mindset Falcons first-year coach Seneca Ybarra wants ingrained into his players.
It’s something Ybarra learned from watching former Merced High and Golden Valley coach Mark Speckman. The local coaching legend, who is now the running back coach at UC Davis, played and coached football despite being born without hands.
The Falcons, who play Merced in the 48th annual Santa Fe Bowl at Veterans Stadium on Friday night, have their own example of “no excuses” in teammate Robert Smith.
“Everybody has something they have to deal with,” Ybarra said. “Some players are too short. Some players are too slow. Some players have bad hair. He’s blind.”
Smith, 16, lost his eyesight when he was 5 years old. He had to have surgery to remove a tumor that had formed on his optical nerve. His vision didn’t return.
He’s legally blind.
“I can’t see details,” said Smith, who is playing his first season of varsity football as a junior. “I see blobs of color. It’s kind of hard to describe.”
As a kid, Smith quickly adapted. He learned to read braille even though he says he doesn’t use it much anymore. Growing up, he still did many things that kids do like ride bikes and skateboards. He’s always been fearless.
“We never held him back from anything,” said his grandmother Mary Dawson, who helped raise him after his mother passed away when he was 6. “He’s always been a go-getter.”
Smith has always done well at school, excelling in math. That’s continued in high school as his GPA currently hovers around 4.0 with a course load that includes an advanced-placement history class.
Grandma says Smith can get the GPA higher, but he doesn’t want to work that hard. His dream school is UCLA.
“School is pretty normal for me,” Smith said. “I have a computer that zooms in so I can read. If something is written on the board I have friends in class who tell me what’s on the board.”
His first love is baseball. He’s a die-hard Los Angeles Dodgers fan, but it’s tough to hit a baseball or catch one when you can’t see. When Smith came to high school he was determined to try football.
Football would seem extremely tough as well, but Smith has earned his way into the rotation for the Falcons on the defensive line at nose tackle and on offense at running back.
“He’s dedicated to football,” Dawson said. “Out of all the workouts since he’s been at Atwater he’s only missed one week and that was for a family reunion. He just loves it. It’s very rewarding when we sit there and watch him play. It touches my heart.”
Earlier this season, USC’s Jake Olson, who is legally blind, got national attention when he was the long snapper on the field for an extra-point kick by the Trojans against Western Michigan University.
Smith is taking it one step further by playing running back and on the defensive line.
In four games this season, Smith has carried the ball 17 times for 51 yards and two touchdowns. The two touchdowns are tied for second on the team behind Charles Jackson. Smith’s first touchdown came against McNair of Stockton on Sept. 1. He also scored a touchdown the following week against Beyer.
“I was excited,” said Smith about his first time scoring a touchdown. “I was glad to help the team. It wasn’t anything special for me.”
Smith doesn’t want any special treatment. He just wants to be another player on the team.
“He’s awesome. He’s a phenomenal kid,” Ybarra said. “I’ve had him in the classroom as a student and he’s awesome in the classroom. He’s light-hearted about his situation. He just wants to be treated like any other person. No excuses.
“I don’t know specifically how he does it. At times, we think it’s a ruse. We think he’s faking it when he does stuff like juking somebody or catch a football. He says he sees shadows. To do it at this high of a level is pretty amazing.”
So how does Smith do it?
He says it took him over a year before he felt comfortable on the football field. He didn’t figure it out until he was on the junior varsity team as a sophomore.
He plays by feel.
“The toughest thing for me is I can’t see what is going on downfield,” Smith said. “After about 5-10 yards it’s hard to see what’s going on. I have to read what’s going on in front of me. When I’m on defense, I read the center each play. If he doesn’t hit me right away I know the quarterback is going to pass so I have to pass rush.
“When I have the ball, I’m a very downhill runner. If something is in my way I’m just going to hit it as hard as I can. If I do make a move on somebody, it’s probably on accident.”
Smith also gets help from his teammates. He can’t see the defensive signals being sent in by the coaches on the sideline so the Atwater linebackers will tell him what to do. When he’s on offense the quarterback Isaiah Deleon will give him help.
“It’s definitely inspiring,” said Deleon. “It shows you there are no limitations in this world. If Robert can do it, why can’t you? There’s no excuses. When we first met him we hesitated talking about it. He was the one that started cracking jokes. That’s when we realized he’s cool with it.”
Smith took some ribbing from his teammates earlier this year when he thought he scored a touchdown, but it was the 5-yard line he crossed and not the goal line against McNair. He could have had a two-touchdown game.
“I thought I scored, I was done,” Smith said. “I got hit and I didn’t fight it. I ended up getting tackled on the 1-yard line.”
“He’s scored two touchdowns. He should have three,” Ybarra said. “He fell. He thought the line was the goal line. It was the 5-yard line. A lot of it’s feel for him. He sees lines, but he doesn’t see numbers. He wants to be treated like everyone else, so, yeah, we gave him a hard time. He loves to be part of the team. He loves to be (ragged) on.
“He knows we care about him.”