This is the latest installment of The Banner’s occasional series about the St. Frances Academy football program that has routinely been ranked among the best teams in the country over the last few years.

St. Frances head football coach Messay Hailemariam is already agitated and animated 20 minutes prior to kickoff of the Oct. 27 home game against Florida’s Specially Fit Academy.

He’s normally smiling and soft-spoken, offering words of encouragement to each player as he walks around the field observing stretching and warmup drills.

Not on this night.

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The anger is etched into his furrowed eyebrows as sweat pours down his face.

The strain of the frustrating season has pushed him to the brink. The Panthers embarked on one of the country’s most ambitious and difficult schedules after coming up a few points shy of competing for a national championship in 2022.

The Panthers, struggling to replace graduated talent and reeling from preseason injuries, come into the game with a record of 2-5, but they’ve been playing their best recently.

That began in a 20-7 loss to national power Mater Dei, out of California, with 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior linebacker Carlton “CJ” Smith proving to be a revelation, flying all over the field to deliver deflating tackles, five of which went for a loss.

“When you’re talking about a football player, you’re talking about CJ,” St. Frances defensive assistant Jordan Mynatt said. “He has a high motor, a high IQ, and he gives 100% effort whenever he’s on the field. He’s one of our leaders and captains, a future All-American that is one of the heartbeats of our team. On the field, he’s got all of this energy and is a rah-rah guy, but off the field when he’s not wearing No. 42, he’s laid back and chill.

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St. Frances junior linebacker Carlton “CJ” Smith (42) dances during halftime in the locker room at Under Armour Stadium on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023.
Smith (42) and teammates dance during halftime of a 42-0 win over Specially Fit Academy on Oct. 27 at the Under Armour stadium. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“I’ve been blessed to coach some amazing linebackers here over the last few years, guys like Jaishawn Barham at Maryland and Jamon Dumas-Johnson at Georgia, two of the very best in all of college football right now. CJ’s talent, instincts and work ethic are comparable.”

St. Frances assistant coach Cody Acker

“He’s the ultimate team player,” Mynatt continued. “We’ve had our ups and downs this season, but one of the things that has been routinely consistent is his excellent play. Everybody knows that when he steps on the field he’s going to give us everything he’s got.”

While most saw him as a major college prospect dating to his freshman year, Smith has only recently embraced what he thinks the future holds for him.

“I always felt that I was a good linebacker with natural instincts and a mature understanding of the game,” Smith said. “But the Mater Dei game was when the light bulb really went on for me. They’ve got some elite talent and some of the best offensive linemen and running backs in the country over there. And they couldn’t do a thing against us. That was one of the best games I ever played, and [I] kept thinking to myself, ‘Nobody can stop me.’”

With its offense hitting its stride in its previous game — all the way back on Sept. 30, a 39-0 win over Connecticut’s St. Thomas More School — St. Frances seems to have its swagger back.

But Hailemariam is not pleased with the pregame vibe on Friday night. He castigates some members of the team for having the audacity to have their own videographers following them around the field and in the locker room prior to kickoff, documenting their every move to pump up their social media clout.

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“Get off the field and away from the sidelines,” he barks at the aspiring teenage filmmakers. “If you want to film something, you’re going to have to do it from the stands. Get out of here.”

The coach turns his attention back to his players, angered at the entitlement he’s sensing. He wants the focus to be on the game, rather than who’s got the best dance moves while Reunited by Baby Jamo comes blaring through the team’s on-field speaker.

“Discipline! Discipline! If nothing else, we’re going to be disciplined tonight,” Hailemariam yells. “If you can’t be disciplined, I’m taking your pads off. I’m tired of this. If you can’t focus on the task at hand and be committed to upholding our standard of excellence, then you shouldn’t be here.”

One player he’s not worried about is Smith, the junior captain who is among the most sought-after linebackers in the class of 2025, with scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Miami, Penn State, Alabama and Colorado, among others.

“With this new generation of kids, some of whom put themselves before the best interests of the team, it’s refreshing to get to work with a kid like CJ,” St. Frances linebackers coach Cody Acker said. “He’s an old-school football player and a kid that does everything right — on the field, off the field and in the classroom. You never have to worry about him not doing the right thing. He’s an exceptional student that is always on time, and he sets a great example with his work ethic as a student and an athlete that really sets the tone for our program.

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“I’ve been blessed to coach some amazing linebackers here over the last few years, guys like Jaishawn Barham at Maryland and Jamon Dumas-Johnson at Georgia, two of the very best in all of college football right now,” Acker continued. “CJ’s talent, instincts and work ethic are comparable.”

***

Smith grew up in a military family in Chesapeake, Virginia, that stressed discipline, academics and athletic excellence. Both of his parents were accomplished high school athletes who pursued careers in the Navy. One older sister ran track at Maryland, the other at Kentucky. His older brother is the captain of the Lafayette football team after having transferred from Virginia Tech.

“Carlton comes from an accomplished athletic family,” Hailemariam said. “He’s the baby of the bunch and the best out of all of them. His parents are exceptional human beings that raised him to do the right things, to work hard and, in any endeavor that he undertook, to give his absolute best effort. He has a 4.3 GPA in the classroom and he’s a very quiet, thoughtful young man. He speaks quietly, but on the field, he’s a terror. He has remarkable instincts, he’s strong and unbelievably athletic.”

When choosing which high school to attend, Smith had long been enamored of the small Catholic school in Baltimore.

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“I’d heard so much about St. Frances and the talent they had here, along with the fact that they played a national schedule,” Smith said. “I’ve always been a competitor, and coming here was an opportunity for me to play with and against the best players in the country.”

When he came to visit the school, his parents were initially unimpressed with the aesthetics. It still occupies the same building that it did in 1871 on East Chase Street, directly across the street from the city detention center. The nearby community is dotted with boarded-up rowhomes and vacant lots. The Panthers do not have their own field or practice facility. And yet they routinely field one of the country’s best teams.

St. Frances junior linebacker Carlton “CJ” Smith during the first quarter against Specially Fit Academy at Under Armour Stadium on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023.
Smith wants to find a college where he can major in engineering and get to play early in his career. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“My parents were not feeling it when we came to visit,” Smith said. “But once you get past what the school doesn’t have, you immediately become impressed with what it does have. It’s a small place, and there really is a true family atmosphere here. We talked to the coaches, the players, the teachers, and it just felt special. And, as far as the football program is concerned, it’s more than just exposure and everybody getting scholarships to play in college.

“It really is a brotherhood,” Smith continued. “We live together, eat together, study together, work out together, hang out together, laugh together, cry together. This is a place that you come to create a path for yourself in life, where you are mentored and inspired on a daily basis, where everybody comes together to make everybody else better.”

***

When the players from Specially Fit Academy take the field at Under Armour Stadium, they do so with a venomous bravado. They sprint to the 50-yard line to taunt and hurl obscenities at the St. Frances players. It is just the motivation that Hailemariam has been searching for, as the Panthers take umbrage and get locked in for the task.

On their first defensive possession, St. Frances sends a clear message with a three-and-out as Smith flies around the field with a controlled belligerence, swallowing up the opposing ball carriers.

After quarterback Michael Van Buren, an Oregon commit, tosses a beautiful 45-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Jeremiah Koger, Smith lines up in kickoff coverage on the left and chases down the speedy opposing kick returner on the opposite end of the field.

On second-and-4 with 3:20 left in the first quarter, Smith crouches in his stance before the snap, surveying the offense. When the quarterback fakes dropping back and attempts to run up the middle, Smith closes in on him with astounding quickness and drops him for a 5-yard loss.

The Panthers’ defense is impenetrable as Smith flies all over the field. Behind 14-0 after another gorgeous Van Buren touchdown toss, Specially Fitness is again forced to punt from deep in its own territory.

“Winning out would be a great way to salvage what’s been a tough season. But we’ve learned and grown through it, and now we’ve got our swagger back.”

St. Frances linebacker Carlton Smith

Highly regarded cornerback Ify Obidegwu lines up to block the opposing gunner prior to the punt. The visiting player makes the mistake of talking trash.

At the snap of the ball, Obidegwu grabs him by the shoulder pads, lifts him off his feet and runs him off the field with a stunning display of strength and speed, flying beyond the sideline before throwing him against the steel fence adjacent to the track surface. The opposing player gets to his wobbly feet with his face mask bent.

The penalty flags litter the field, but the St. Frances bench erupts in celebration.

On the sideline, Obidegwu, a quiet, respectful young man who never seems to raise his voice, sits on the bench with a sly smile, exposing his braces.

“You can say whatever you want about me,” Obidegwu says. “But once you start talking about my mother, you’ve crossed the line.”

By halftime, the game is ostensibly over with St. Frances leading 35-0.

Smith, the leader of the defense, is dominant throughout, setting the tone for his unit with his play, exuberance and leadership. In the second half, he stands on the sideline, his day over, rooting on the younger players as St. Frances wins 42-0.

In their last two games, they’ve beaten their opponents by a combined score of 81-0. The last time they surrendered an offensive touchdown was against Mater Dei on Sept. 22.

“We’re a young team, but we’ve been developing and getting better as the season has progressed,” Smith said. “We weren’t expecting the season to open the way it did, but there’s a lot of fight left in us. We still have some goals that we want to accomplish, which include beating IMG down in Florida to close out the season.”

Smith’s short-term goals include possibly majoring in engineering in college, seeing significant playing time as a freshman at the next level and being a full-time starter by his sophomore year. He wants to be a college All-American with a shot at playing in the NFL.

But the one with the most urgency right now is finishing the season with a win over IMG.

“That would make everything we’ve struggled through this year worth it,” Smith said. “Life isn’t always going to be perfect. You’re going to get knocked down at some point. But you have to keep getting up, determined to keep going and fighting. It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. Winning out would be a great way to salvage what’s been a tough season. But we’ve learned and grown through it, and now we’ve got our swagger back.”

alejandro.danois@thebaltimorebanner.com

Alejandro Danois was a sports writer for The Banner. He specializes in long-form storytelling, looking at society through the prism of sports and its larger connections with the greater cultural milieu. The author of The Boys of Dunbar, A Story of Love, Hope and Basketball, he is also a film producer and cultural critic. 

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