When playing college football wasn't an option, Kiero Small turned to the family business.
At The T-Spot – Johnny Stith's T-shirt shop near Lexington Market on Saratoga – Small helped his father with whatever he needed, getting a crash course in the daily grind of the retail-clothing trade.
It was a long way from where Small had hoped to be as a senior running back and linebacker at Cardinal Gibbons. A Baltimore Sun first-team All City selection in 2006, Small missed NCAA Division I qualifying standards coming out of high school, and then again following a prep-school season.
While living at home and working for his father, Small was initially content, and not "really thinking about [playing college football]. I was like, 'It just didn't work out.'"
Said Stith: "It was pretty much a crossroads in his young life – the direction as to which way he wanted to go. Had it been 9-to-5-ing it, had it been school, if he wanted to retire the cleats in general, personally, to me, it wouldn't have made a difference. … Once he made [his] decision, I backed him fully, 100 percent."
The choice that Small, 21, made more than two years ago was the first step in his unlikely journey – four years after the completion of his senior season at Gibbons – to major college football. Small, now a 5-foot-10, 255-pound sophomore fullback at Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif., signed a letter of intent to Arkansas on Signing Day last Wednesday. Making his commitment to the Razorbacks "didn't sink in until I got into the plane on my way back," said Small, who pledged to Arkansas on his official visit to Fayetteville in late January. "It really didn't sink in until I got on the plane and really got a chance to take it in. All the hard work paid off. I called my family, and everyone was excited."
A peewee sensation for Northwood Pop Warner's 2000 national championship squad, Small started his high school career at Mervo before transferring to Cardinal Gibbons for his sophomore season. Donald Davis, the Crusaders' coach from 2003 to 2006, recruited Small to the now-defunct MIAA school.
"We've got to get this kid," Davis recalled thinking. "I never imagined he would be what he ended up being. When he was young, he was still fast. I figured he would be a 5-10, 5-11, 175-pound, 180-pound kid. Then he got into eighth grade and he ballooned. He didn't get taller, but he got real thick. So he turned into a body type that was much different, except that he kept his footwork and his ability to change direction. He was doing it at 180, then 200, then 215, then 225. He still had his feet and great ability to change speeds and all the stuff you need to have."
Football came easy to Small, whom Davis called "the best linebacker I've ever coached." Academics were a different story. The transition from Baltimore City Public Schools to a private school was a drastic one. Davis said Small played catch-up in the classroom from the minute he walked through Gibbons' doors.
"The kid never got in trouble, ever," Davis said. "Just academically, he had to fight like mad to get through because he ended up not being a high-GPA kid. He would've had to pop a high score to qualify."
When Small's SAT score came up short, he packed his bags for Pennsylvania, enrolling at Valley Forge Military Academy for a post-grad season. Once again, football came easy. And once again, Small's test score fell short.
"By me not being able to clear the [score], it was the same thing in high school," Small said. "It was disappointing, but I took it as I did it."
For the next year and a half, Small was back at his family's Northeast Baltimore home, working with his father at The T-Spot and giving very little thought – at least initially – to playing football again and going to college.
Stith put his son to work in a jack-of-all-trades role. Small opened and closed the store, worked the cash register, handled inventory, made sales and supervised other employees. When Stith had to run errands, Small ran the store.
"The main thing I was looking for as a parent, knowing that he was in a transitional period, was to see which direction he was going to go in," Stith said. "That was my focus level when he came back from Valley Forge. When he came back from Valley Forge, [I said], 'OK, now you have to do what I taught you, which is how to be the man that I raised.' So in other words, you have to go to work. He never had a problem with it. He took it for what it was. He did what he had to do."
Davis, meanwhile, had left Gibbons for Calvert Hall, but stayed in contact with Small. He invited his former star player to work out at the Towson school, and encouraged him to explore football opportunities at nearby Division II and III schools.
"My thing is, I wanted him to go to school," Davis said. "If a kid's in Baltimore City long enough, he's not doing anything. If he's not productive, he's going to find something unproductive to do. That was one of my biggest fears – that he was going to do some stuff he had no business doing. But he didn't, he stuck with it, and he's a kid with great character."
Small enjoyed working with his father, but the more he worked at the store, the more he "needed to get back to school." He took Davis up on his offer to work out at Calvert Hall occasionally, while also spending plenty of time at the local YMCA to get back into football shape. Soon after, Small settled on the place where he intended to start his college career.
At Hartnell, a two-year college near the picturesque Monterey Bay, former Mervo standout Tim Smith was preparing for his sophomore year after spending his freshman season at Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College. Smith called on Small, his cousin, to join him on the West Coast. After passing his highlight film from Gibbons on to Hartnell coach Matt Collins -- who eagerly offered up a roster spot -- it was time for Small to tender his resignation at The T-Spot.
"[My father] let me make my decisions, but pushed me to go," Small said. "Once I said that I wanted to go play football, he was pushing it again. He was always for it."
Collins had coached two former Baltimore football stars as an assistant at Santa Rosa in Smith and Parkville grad Brandon Driver, now a starting cornerback at San Jose State. Collins was impressed by Small's highlight tape and his "respectful, easy-going" manner.
"I knew that he would be successful playing for us, [but] I could see why he slipped through the cracks," Collins said. "Most coaches are trying to find that kid who looks like the Jolly Green Giant – the chiseled body, runs fast, strong in the weight room. It's basically someone who fits a lot of those criteria for the eye-ball test. He didn't come across that way, but when he strapped on the pads and you put him in the game, it was apparent that he had the tools to be successful on the field."
Small immediately claimed a starting linebacker spot for Collins' team, while also seeing time at fullback for the Panthers as a freshman. He earned All-California and all-conference honors in 2009, leading Hartnell with 109 tackles in addition to rushing for five touchdowns. Small followed that up with an All-American season last fall, which included 120 tackles (including 21 for loss) and one rushing score. Most importantly, Small excelled in the classroom, earning a 3.5 GPA.
"As far as the field, it was like I had never stopped," Small said of his time at Hartnell. "I'm doing what I know how to do. It was like I never took any time off. Academically, before I came to Salinas, that wouldn't be where I would focus. But now I feel as though football comes and goes, [and] I've just got to focus in the classroom."
Small said BYU, Cal, Nevada, North Texas, Oregon State and Washington State expressed varying degrees of interest in his game. But when Arkansas – fresh off a 10-3 season that ended with a Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State – entered the picture, Small had a clear-cut favorite in his recruitment. His official visit to Fayetteville – which took place in January shortly after Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino saw his film – couldn't have gone much better.
"It was crazy," Small said. "It's football country down there. The fans were going crazy, things of that sort. The facilities are nice. The school's nice. They have my major there. Everything there is just a great fit."
Petrino said during his Signing Day news conference that he had searched for a fullback for the past three years. In Small, Arkansas' coach finally found his man.
"He was a high school tailback and when you watch his high school video, it's pretty amazing to see a big guy like him run and change direction as good as he does," Petrino told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. "When we go to two-back sets, he'll be the first legitimate fullback we've had here."
Small will head to Arkansas this summer after finishing his associate's degree at Hartnell. After changing high schools, handling a semester of military school, twice coming up short academically, and going to junior college, Small is confident he can handle any adversity that comes his way.
"I'm a tough guy," Small said. "I'm willing to do what I have to do to take care of business in the classroom and on the field."
Baltimore Sun photo of Kiero Small by Gene Sweeney Jr. / Nov. 10, 2006