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In this corner, standing tall, is Stallions' Smith


SHREVEPORT, La. -- Irv Smith spends parts of his off-seasons giving motivational speeches to elementary and high school students, and they would do well to listen closely.

Smith is more than just talk. As an All-Canadian Football League cornerback for the Baltimore Stallions, his career speaks of perseverance through frustrating times, and of talent and luck that have helped him realize a piece of his dream.

At 28, Smith is enjoying a resurrected career. A year after bursting onto the CFL scene with All-Pro honors, he is planning to purchase his first home. Before that happens this winter, he plans to be part of a Grey Cup championship celebration.

That would complete a circuitous route for Smith, who three years ago appeared destined to be remembered as the starting cornerback for the World League-champion London Monarchs. That experience was sandwiched around three unsuccessful attempts to make it in the National Football League, where Smith did time only on injured lists and practice rosters.

After spending the 1993 season on the Washington Redskins' injured-reserve list and on Minnesota's practice roster, Smith considered using his criminal justice degree from Maryland to pursue a law enforcement career. That was before Baltimore signed him in the spring of 1994 and invited him to its first training camp.

Baltimore coach Don Matthews had known Smith since 1992, when he spent a few weeks on Matthews' Saskatchewan Roughriders practice squad.

"We started Irv at free safety in [Baltimore's] camp, but as time went on, he battled so much at the corner that we were a little bit surprised," Matthews said. "It is not a place for the timid of heart. You've got to have a lot of self-confidence back there, and that's Irv."

"Making 200 bucks a week and living in Canada [in Saskatchewan] wasn't my thing," Smith said. "I made more money at home working than I did sitting in the middle of nowhere playing on a practice roster," Smith recalled. "But look at the doors it opened for me a few years later."

Smith still had to kick them down, which he did as a rookie with some of the best man-to-man coverage skills in the league. With all-CFL teammate and roommate Karl Anthony offering advice, Smith led Baltimore with six interceptions and eight pass knockdowns, while contributing 45 tackles.

More than anyone, Smith probably owes former Maryland coach Bobby Ross the most credit for his eventual career rebirth. Ross dTC recruited Smith from tiny Poolesville High School in Montgomery County, where he starred as a running back.

Ross decided to switch Smith to cornerback, even though he had never played defense. Smith lettered at the position as a freshman, before starting his last two seasons with the Terps.

"At first, I wasn't happy about it [the switch], but it gave me a taste of the real world at 18," said Smith, who is 5 feet 10, 185 pounds. "If I had stayed a running back at Maryland, I doubt if I'd be in the position I'm in now. I had a naturally nasty streak, and Coach Ross saw something in me."

The Stallions have enjoyed Smith's mean streak for two seasons. In a defensive scheme that stresses man-to-man pressure, Smith is a natural fit, with his combination of quick feet, calmness and smarts.

Those traits have shined this year, especially since Smith was shifted from right cornerback to the left side a month ago. Anthony is out for the year after suffering a knee injury in the opener.

Up to that point, Smith rarely saw passes come his way. Now, on the naturally strong side of most quarterbacks, Smith is back in the thick of things. He has knocked down seven passes since the switch. He also has one interception this year.

"You've got to have instincts, to recognize routes. You need a sense of cunning, and you have to gamble sometimes -- I call it calculated guessing," Smith said of his position. "You have to do your homework by watching a lot of film. The slowest guy [receiver] in the world can make the fastest guy look stupid on a football field. The main thing you have to have is a short memory."

Smith won't soon forget an incident in last week's victory over Birmingham, when Barracudas receiver Marcus Grant, despite draping coverage by Smith, caught a third-quarter pass from Matt Dunigan in the end zone for a touchdown.

That marked the first time Smith had allowed a touchdown this season. After chastising himself on the Baltimore bench, Smith didn't allow Grant to catch another pass.

"Irv works so much at little things like technique and keeping position on his man. After that, it's just tenacity," said Bob Price, Baltimore's defensive backs coach. "He never panics, so it looks natural even when he's recovering from a mistake. Nothing bothers him. You can go a long way with guys like that."

NOTES: The Stallions have mailed playoff invoices to season-ticket holders, who should receive the information by this weekend. The invoices include a two-game package with a payment deadline of Oct. 6. Baltimore needs to win two more games to clinch its second straight playoff berth. With four more wins, the Stallions would clinch the Southern Division and home-field advantage throughout the divisional playoffs. If Baltimore should sweep Shreveport and Saskatchewan in the next four weeks, it would head into its Oct. 14 bye weekend with the division crown sealed. . . . The Baltimore County Parks and Recreation department and the Stallions will hold a football clinic at Memorial Stadium on Sunday, 1 to 3:30 p.m. About 2,000 youths ages 7 to 14 are expected. Linebacker O. J. Brigance and offensive tackle Neal Fort are two of the Stallions who will be on hand. The team's dance squad also will offer a cheerleading clinic. . . . The Stallions released wide receiver Eric Green, who spent three weeks on the practice roster. . . . Quarterback Tracy Ham was named CFL Offensive Player of the Week. He was 25 of 35 for 315 yards and two touchdowns against the Barracudas.

Stallions vs. Shreveport

Site: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.

When: 8 p.m., tonight

TV/Radio: ESPN2/WJFK (1300 AM), WGRX (100.7 FM)

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