Garrison Smith used to stop by his grandparents’ house every night in high school after football practice.
He would drop by to see his grandmother, Betty, and his grandfather, Bernard, and occasionally capitalize off of Betty’s skills in the kitchen.
“Any good food is his favorite meal,” Bernard said of his grandson with a laugh.
Anything to help fuel Smith grow to the 6-foot-3, 300-pound mark he has hit now as Georgia’s starting nose guard who is fourth on the team in tackles with 44 and third on the team in sacks with four.
Anything, that is, but sweets.
“The one thing I’ve known about Garrison for a long time, he does not eat a lot of sweets,” Bernard said. “My wife is good at cooking cakes and he just don’t eat a lot of sweets.”
Bernard and Betty have an open-door policy. They have to with four grand kids — three grandsons and, the youngest of the bunch, granddaughter Gina. But the open-door policy doesn’t just apply to family members. A seat at the table will go to anyone a family member dubs worthy.
“Sometimes he would bring two or three young boys (after practice) that he felt did not get the proper meal to eat, and we would feed them,” Bernard said.
An early glimmer of Smith’s young character; a teenage manifestation of the household Smith grew up in.
“I am blessed, man,” Smith said. “I got both my parents — a mother and a father — and my grandparents, and they both raised me and did a very good job.”
Like the grade wall Bernard and Betty started in a bedroom of their house, which is about 15 minutes from Smith’s house in Atlanta. When Greg, Jr., the oldest, Gerald, Garrison, the youngest son, or Gina brought home a good grade, it was tacked up on the wall and rewarded with a meal out.
“I did that from like kindergarten on up,” Bernard said. “It was always recognition for accomplishments.”
Smith, a product of Atlanta’s Douglass High School who has a 3.0 GPA and is on track to graduate with a history degree in May, didn’t have the best go of it in elementary school. He was labeled as a kid with a bad attitude — Smith asserts he just embraced debate — with an aggressive competitive spirit. He was first told at 10 years old, by someone who was close to him, that he would never amount to anything.
“It really hurt me when I was 10 years old, telling me that I wasn’t gonna be nothing, so I just made up my mind then that I was going to put all my energy into football and prove them wrong,” Smith said.
It happened again with teachers in high school. Smith, who called himself “misunderstood” when he was growing up, likes to bring a sense of humor to tense situations and still does in the Bulldogs’ locker room.
But that didn’t always jive with his high school teachers and Smith’s psyche would take the occasional hit for it.
“People always trying to criticize you just because you’re not like them and you like to joke a little bit but you still do all your work and make good grades,” Smith said. “Just to be able to go through all that and other different situations that I ain’t going to get into and make it to college, that’s big for me.”
His competitive spirit and emotional threshold is rooted in his family. His father, Greg, Sr., who played football at North Carolina A&T, is a collegiate football referee in the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference. His oldest brother, Greg, Jr., played receiver and A-back at Georgia Tech. His other brother, Gerald, went to college in North Carolina and now works for the Department of Defense.
And staying true to good ol’ fashioned family competitions, Smith couldn’t wade through his teenage years and twentysomethings without reaching or going beyond the bar that was set by his immediate family.
“But I personally think that one has been trying to outdo the other,” Bernard said with a laugh. “They did all that and here comes Garrison, he’s looking at them (thinking), ‘Shoot, I’ve got to beat that. I’ve got to do good or better than they did.’”
It wasn’t the easiest to stay on the path Smith’s father, mother and grandparents tried to steer him on. Smith called growing up in the inner city of Atlanta “crazy,” saying he still has friends from home tell him they wish they had done things differently and followed Smith’s lead. Smith’s “village of people” wouldn’t let the promising football player and diligent student take the bait offered to him in social circles outside the walls of the football facility and his parents’ home.
“I had just a system of coaches that just stayed on me that saw the special talent I had and made sure I stayed on track whenever they saw me about to do something stupid, they’d get on me and make sure I stayed focused when I was with my friends out somewhere or at school,” Smith said. “… They just wanted the best for me. They didn’t want nothing from me, just wanted me to be successful.”
It was on the Jean Childs Young Middle School football team in Atlanta that Smith first found direction from a football coach.
That coach was Carl Woods. Woods sensed Smith’s talent on the field and replaced those words Smith heard as a 10-year-old with encouraging words about the future.
“This was the first person that (said), ‘Hey you really got a gift for football. Go hard, stay focused, work out,’” Smith said. “… I’m forever indebted to him.”
Smith still leans on Woods for words of wisdom and nuggets of knowledge now as he nears the end of his collegiate football and academic careers.
And he’s tried to apply that advice in his leadership role for the Bulldogs. That’s a natural fit for Smith, Bernard said.
“I used to talk to him about that all the time because I could see it a long time ago that he was concerned about people,” Bernard said. “He’s a people lover.”
That hadn’t been more apparent than when Smith’s eyes welled with tears during a mid-game speech to teammates against Florida last week. He chased down the offense before a key series to offer some impassioned words and did the same to his defense just before the Bulldogs got a crucial fourth quarter stop. The flood gates opened back up during postgame interviews after Smith and the Bulldogs pulled out a 23-20 victory, their third straight over the Gators.
Bernard sat in his favorite chair in his favorite spot in his den, watching his grandson pour out his heart on TV.
“I was sitting there looking at him when they interviewed him … that touched me. Brought tears to my eyes,” Bernard said.
Smith was overcome by a desire to win — or a fear of losing.
“I was so proud of the defense, man,” Smith said.
But he’s not always the emotional barometer of the team — he’s kept his jokester personality that teachers of years past said inhibited him. A group text message thread with teammates proves that. Smith will tease freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins and anyone who comes after him. It’s all in good fun, of course.
“He’s kind of funny but you just got to wait to see who he jones,” linebacker Amarlo Herrera said.
Smith won’t be jonesing his own teammates when they take on Appalachian State in the Bulldogs’ second-to-last home game of the season. It will be all be all business for Smith. His family will be exuding nothing but prideful vibes as their Garrison leads the defense.
He wants to do right by the people who have done right by him for more than two decades.
“That’s why I take it seriously and do the best I can in school and just be the best football player I can be,” Smith said. “It goes hand in hand. I got a lot of people that look up to me, so I just try to walk a thin line and do things the right way all the time.”