It’s mighty hot at 7:30 a.m. on an overcast March day in “Titletown.” That’s Tuscaloosa, for the unacquainted, where the Alabama Crimson Tide reside—the Death Star of college football, a team that’s won six national titles in the last 13 years. DeVonta Smith, the latest in a line of wunderkind wide receivers from ‘Bama, is walking into coach Nick Saban’s castle—err, training facility—for an early workout session. Last season, Smith shredded record books for the SEC (most receiving touchdowns in a season with 23), ‘Bama (most receiving yards in a season with 1,856), and the country (46 touchdowns in his college career, the most ever by a Power 5 player). He even had 12 catches, 215 yards and three scores in the national title game, which Alabama won. Excuse me, he did all of that just in the first half.
Those electrifying feats made Smith the first receiver to win the Heisman since Desmond Howard in 1991, and now he’s likely to be a high first round pick in the NFL draft. Fans of the Crimson Tide lovingly call him “Slim Reaper,” and when you see his lean frame in person for the first time, the nickname makes sense. I paused for a second when he greeted me, mistaking him for a regular student. This…is the Heisman? This… is Titletown’s trademarked touchdown king? How could this stringbean be the most dominant dynamo to run routes in the college game since Howard?
But when we walk into Alabama’s famed weight room—the one that turns gangly teenagers into sentient cinder blocks—DeVonta changes shape. That stringbean is now bouncing off the linoleum for split jumps with a squat bar on his back, doing explosion techniques with resistance bands tied to his body while dragging a strength coach behind him, and darting all around the gym like a bullet trapped in a steel box.
Matt Rhea, the director of sports science at ‘Bama, tells me that he wants DeVonta to lean forward more when he runs, turning the burst from his legs into a consistent rocket blast and less of an instant flamethrower. Frankly, this seems like a fairly unpleasant way to spend your time at 7:30 in the morning. I ask DeVonta if he’s tired yet, and he responds with a delightful, “shiiieeeeeeet,” as if he’s been coached by Clay Davis himself.
That’s just the way DeVonta is hardwired. He’s a boy from the tiny country town of Amite, Louisiana—population around 4,500, 3.9 square miles, one public high school—with a twang somewhere between Kevin Gates and James Carville. He finds joy in little things like laser tag, bowling busting heads on Call of Duty and keeping his longtime girlfriend Mariah company. He loves making jambalaya (which his friends and teammates swear is delicious) but he takes shortcuts. “I don’t make stuff from scratch because”—here he lets out the sigh of an exhausted dock worker—“I be tired! I ain’t finna sit up here all day. I want something quick. Ain’t gotta wait. I’m already tired. I probably don’t even wanna do this. But, I gotta eat somethin.” Good thing he has that boxed Zatarain’s mix.
From the outside, he’s a typical, reserved Louisiana boy. From inside the facility that showed the world DeVonta could be a star, the picture looks much different. Part of DeVonta’s mystique is that you can’t tell what he’s thinking (especially if he doesn’t know you), or what he’s feeling (unless you’re family). Even his brothers in arms remain constantly surprised by “Smitty.” After ‘Bama beat Georgia last season, DeVonta walked into the locker room, sat down next to some of his teammates and blurted out, “I love y’all boys, man.” Folks were frazzled. “I was right next to him,” Najee Harris, another likely first round pick from Alabama, tells me. “I was like, this n-gga speaks?” he laughs. “This n-gga has emotions?”
But there’s ambition in DeVonta’s eyes. It isn’t that he’s quiet or closed off —he’s thinking. Brooding. Calculating if he wants to trust you. His face crinkles into a mosaic of broken pieces, thoughts lingering between each. If you look long enough, you’ll catch his true motives, but he tucks them away before you’re able to capture a good glimpse. Reporters who covered ‘Bama this season told me he was “like talking to a brick wall.” But, when you look at the questions he’s been asked—Does he prefer playing on grass or turf? Who threw a shoe at him on the field?—perhaps that’s understandable. He’s a well-trained student of the Saban School of Communication, which sands down personalities into monosyllabic football machines, and a loner who only went to two parties during undergrad.
“I don’t like being around a lot of people,” he says. “I’m very cautious with who I’m around. I’m always looking over my shoulder. That’s just me. If it ain’t family, I don’t wanna be there.” DeVonta is focused on his future: he wants to be a top-five pick, he wants to take care of his family. The simple story of any blue chip prospect, really. But, he does get selfish about one thing. “That quarterback, that’s all I really need,” he tells me. “Just get me a quarterback.”
DeVonta first knew football could be his gateway when he was a boy in Amite. But his mother, Christina, drove a strict ship: “When you street lights come on,” DeVonta remembers, “bring yo’ ass inside.” When he saw his father, Kelvin, on the weekends, they’d go into the woods, hoop in the dirt, cruise on four wheelers, fry some fish in a shed, have a crawfish boil…or get chased by hogs. Apparently a lot was happening in those woods. What’s in there? “Go in there and find out,” he tells me. “We find something new everyday.” DeVonta said it made him feel like a man: “it’s real country, country wit’ my dad.”
But boys can be prone to mischievousness. DeVonta had one of the only good balls at the park most days, so he’d be out way past his momma’s warnings. He’d scrap with his younger brother in their modest house on occasion, bumping heads and throwing hands over video games. “I was terrible when I was younger, honestly,” he told me. “It wasn’t until I got to high school that I settled down.” What could Christina do to keep her son in line? Eventually, she started telling his coaches he wouldn’t be playing in high school games. “If she said I wasn’t playing this game, no one was gonna talk her out of it. She stuck by what she said,” he says.
There isn’t much to do in Amite. The crime rate is 75 percent higher than most localities in Louisiana and 12 percent higher than the national average. Twenty-two percent of people in town live below the poverty line, and income is just above $14,000 per capita, per the 2010 census, depending on “what side you on,” DeVonta says, “whether it’s the white side or the Black side.” DeVonta shies away from describing Amite as a poor town, but does offer one caveat. “It’s not nowhere where you’d be like, ‘I wanna stay here.’”
Amite is wet sand waiting to trap the most vulnerable of the American republic. This, at least, was Christina’s fear. She wanted better for her boy, she wanted him “to get away, to not go down the wrong path,” DeVonta says, so she pushed him to get his grades right, to be a model citizen, to use athletics as a road out. DeVonta learned that if he could catch enough touchdowns, his mother could stop working that social work job he hates, and if he ran fast enough, he could get her away from Amite.
But DeVonta was 120 pounds in high school, and barely over 5’8”; after he broke his collarbone playing football in sophomore year, he made a logical choice. “He was like, ‘shiiiet, fuck this shit,’” his barber and mentor, Vincent Sanders, told me. Sanders kept reinforcing that football was DeVonta’s path. “Nah, I’m outta here cuh,” DeVonta shot back. He stopped going to football practice—“catch me on the hardwoods,” he’d tell folks. But, Sanders wouldn’t quit. “Nah, bro,” he’d say. “We can do this. I’m gonna make you great.”
Sanders was as much DeVonta’s family as anyone else. His grandfather and Sanders’ pops were best friends, and Sanders’ father was one of the only barbers in town for 20 years. When Sanders left college he came back to Amite, started trimming heads like his father, and met “Tay” at three years old. Sanders would take younger kids in town to football camps and when lil’ Tay was of age, he came too. Everyone knew who he was because “he was the smallest thang out there.” DeVonta has always been spindle and bones, so Sanders helped him craft a blueprint: They’d add 10 to 12 pounds every season. He arrived at Alabama around 150 pounds and now, I’ve been assured, he sits around 180.
DeVonta’s slight frame has always been used as a knock on his potential; one NFL scout called him a “bean pole,” while another analyst said he was “bone-thin” and “teams will have concerns about his frame and durability.” But nobody I talked to, from peers and coaches to friends and mentors, can understand why his weight is such a big deal. He’d do 100 push-ups a day in high school, set to a timer every hour on his phone, which meant sometimes even dropping down in the middle of class. When he accepted his Heisman, he exhorted all the “kids out there who not the biggest, not the strongest” to “just keep pushing.” Still, one NFL scout called him a “bean pole,” and another analyst said he was “bone-thin” and “teams will have concerns about his frame and durability.”
This narrative has riled up plenty of DeVonta’s teammates. “All the bullshit they saying about his weight? It does not matter, bruh,” running back Najee Harris explains. “He’s lined up against everybody, all the top dudes, and is exposing them. The best defensive backs out there. He’s one of the hardest players I’ve ever played with.”
It even annoyed his quarterback. “Some people wanna talk and be rah-rah,” Mac Jones, who might go ahead of DeVonta in the draft, told me. “But Smitty’s kinda old school—like he’s the man, but he’s never gonna tell you. He’s a total dog. I never even knew how much Smitty weighed. Even when we were at [camps] in high school, he was the skinniest guy out there but he was dicing people up. Catching balls on people’s heads. The weight doesn’t matter if you can do what he can do. And, yeah, it does piss me off.”
And DeVonta himself?
“Everybody knows the weight, like, ain’t nothing changed. It’s been the same weight since the season, why are y’all acting like y’all don’t know?” he said. The redundancy of the question and its frequency clearly bothers him. Last season, he was the best college player against press coverage in the country, and the best in five years. The second best? DeVonta’s 2019 season. He has Nick Saban’s blessing as “pound for pound” one of the best he’s ever coached. What do people think will happen when he faces larger corners?
“I mean,” he says confidently, grinning like a happy child. “The numbers should speak for themselves.”
It’s true that DeVonta will be one of the lightest players drafted since 1999. But, there have been scores of successful, skinny wideouts. Marvin Harrison played under 180 pounds in the league. Isaac Bruce was 173 pounds at the NFL combine. Antonio Brown was passed on by teams because of his size (5’10”, 181 lbs) and turned into one of the best players of the 2010s.
And, have you, you know, seen this kid play? In front of 30 family members lined across the end zone, DeVonta had his signature Heisman moment against LSU: three touchdowns on eight catches for 231 yards, the most gravity-defying being a one-handed snag falling into the back of the pylon. Before the game, DeVonta told fellow receiver Jerry Jeudy that he was going to put up 300 yards, and when Smith crossed the end zone for a score in home country, he blew kisses to his kin in the stands. “I gotta put on. This where I come from. I’ma stamp this,” he told me of the moment. “When you walk through here people gonna say ‘DeVonta Smith from around here.’ I’ma put my name on this. When you think of Louisiana, I wanna be one of the dudes you think of.”
Rhea, ‘Bama’s director of sports science, tells me there’s a difference between being fragile and tough, skinny and lean. “He’s a once in a lifetime dude,” Rhea tells me. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve never seen anything like him. The kid is nuts.” Case in point: ‘Bama’s second play against Tennessee last season, when a cornerback folded DeVonta in half. He was dizzy on the ground, head spinning. He walked over to the sidelines, spit out the pool of blood in his mouth, clapped his hands and shouted “Let’s get it! I’m here! I’m not goin’ nowhere!”
“That made you…excited?” I asked. “Hell yeah!” he says. “It’s one of those games!”
There are stories like this about DeVonta all around the ‘Bama program, about his otherworldly route running and acceleration, how he stares at tape of Keenan Allen and Davante Adams for inspiration on field positioning. There’s the pop of muscle in that tiny body, and the toughness of his hands after catching 100 high-speed passes off the JUUGS machines every day. There’s the running up hills at 6am every morning of his Heisman season.
All that makes him elite, but his coaches say something else makes him unique. Ben Newman, the mental conditioning and performance coach, pointed to DeVonta’s rare mindset: “Smitty has a unique ability to silence the noise, compete and outwork the competition,” he said. “At his level of mental toughness, being [his weight] doesn’t matter. He will beat you with his mind and preparation before you experience his speed.”
There’s a phrase from the Louisiana and Mississippi Delta that comes to mind when you think about DeVonta Smith: He’s what we’d call “out the mud.” He oozes an authenticity that’s specific to the region. Think about mud for a second. It ain’t pretty or polished, but it is nutritious, necessary, unassuming. It’s where the root of a soul is forged. As he told me: he’s a lil country, country. That’s why his hair was slightly unkempt during our time in Titletown and why there’s a twinkle in his twang. That’s a taste of the Tangipahoa Parish talkin’, and the pride leaps from his tongue as soon as he speaks.
DeVonta isn’t trying to convince us of anything, really. He’s come this far, so it’s all bound to work out. It has to. Or else, what the hell was this all for? Why else is he signing footballs for strangers in his offseason, or autographing the back of ‘Bama encrusted golf shirts for employees who’ve crept in the players’ lounge on campus, or allowing stares from white folks at the local Buffalo Wild Wings while he eats after a Saturday practice? Why did he take exercise science as a major to better understand how to rehab his body, or take selfies with moms on the way to his car? Why did he pick ‘Bama instead of LSU? It’s league or bust, man.
This has been a job for DeVonta since he cried to Sanders after snapping his collarbone. The pressure to make it to the NFL is real. He’s still a broke boy from Amite, playing in a NCAA infrastructure that keeps him that way for years, racking up yards and handing out highlights for the small chance to break a cycle of poverty. The thought of it feels exhausting. How does he do it? “Because this is what I live for,” he told me. “All I know is football.”
The last time I saw DeVonta was during early morning practice, twirling through some routes while Mac zipped bullets. Coaches whispered that it feels like he’s gotten faster since the national championship game. Najee, Mac and the boys jigged to Pooh Shiesty’s hit “Twerksum” while DeVonta smiled in between plays. It looked like a high quality music video: Real down south football shit.
When I arrived in Tuscaloosa, there were tornado warnings across the county, but as we left the practice field one last time, the skies began clearing. The sticky air penetrated the building and wrapped us in a thick blanket of heat and humidity inside. DeVonta ripped off his shirt and walked around half naked. I asked him if he thinks he owns the place.
“Yeah! Why not?” he laughed. “It’s hot as hell out here; don’t make no sense to put no shirt on.”
He darted away to his old, greying Nissan Altima and zoomed home to meet Sanders, who just got into town. I thought about a moment from earlier in the week, when a friend of his worried about the tornado warnings over FaceTime while we sat in ‘Bama’s facility. DeVonta’s response was to tell the friend he wasn’t scared. Then he puffed his chest out and loudly proclaimed the truth he had been desperately trying to get across to the whole football world: “I am the fuckin’ storm!”