Jimmy Smith and Shareece Wright had fantasized about reuniting in an NFL secondary for years. Yet, when the possibility actually presented itself, Wright was struggling to make up his mind.
After being let go by the San Francisco 49ers last October, the veteran cornerback was conflicted between joining his best friend, Smith, with the Ravens, or his former college coach, Pete Carroll, with the Seattle Seahawks. Smith decided that a forceful sales pitch was in order.
"I was just telling him … 'We can be matching corners like we were in high school, shutting everything down,'" Smith said. "After a minute, he was like, 'Well, you know, I still might go to the Seahawks.' I'm like, 'Bro, how often do you get to play with your best friend … in the NFL?'"
Smith and Wright started together at cornerback in seven games for the Ravens last season, but Wright was getting acclimated to a new team and a new defense, so there was no time for nostalgia. After signing a three-year deal with the Ravens in March, Wright looks across the field at Smith, and can't help but feel he's exactly where he belongs.
A close friendship that started over a decade ago at Colton High in Southern California, and persisted through their college years at different schools and the start of their NFL careers on opposite coasts has come full circle in Baltimore.
"The night practice in the stadium, I was like, 'Bro, we're on the same team right now at this part of our lives. Who would have thought that?' Who would have imagined us being on the same team?" Wright said. "It still hits me when I think about it. It's still hard to believe in a sense."
That feeling extends to Harold Strauss, who coached both at Colton. The 2005 Yellowjackets had six players who are currently playing in the NFL or have been on an NFL regular-season roster.
Linebacker Allen Bradford played parts of five pro seasons, the last one with the Atlanta Falcons in 2015. Quarterback Brad Sorensen once backed up Philip Rivers with the San Diego Chargers. His younger brother, Daniel Sorensen, is a defensive back with the Kansas City Chiefs. Nat Berhe is a safety with the New York Giants.
Then, there's Smith and Wright, the top two cornerbacks at Colton who now occupy the same role with the Ravens 11 years later.
"We were wondering if something like this has ever happened before; that's how crazy it is," Strauss said. "I've been doing this 38 years and I haven't seen it. It's pretty special."
When Strauss took the Colton job in 2000, expectations weren't high. The football program of the San Bernardino County school with an enrollment of just over 3,000 had fallen on hard times.
"They hadn't won in years," Strauss said. "They said, 'Coach, it's OK if you go 0-10.' I was like, 'What?'"
Strauss' first team at Colton went 5-4, and his second won a league title. Strauss and his staff reconnected the team to the Colton community and established a program built on hard work, accountability and togetherness.
The 2002 arrival of several talented and motivated kids, like Bradford and Wright, whose athletic exploits were well known in the local community certainly helped the cause. Then, Smith arrived at the school late in his freshman year after transferring from nearby San Bernardino High.
He was a tall and gangly kid who had obvious athletic gifts, but he identified himself as a basketball player and he had played just one year of organized football. There was also another problem.
"When I first put on the pads, I didn't like tackling," Smith said. "At that high school, it was all about hitting. Those guys are the ones that kind of pushed me to become a better football player."
The nucleus of that Colton team, a group led by Bradford, Wright and Smith, became inseparable. They worked out together every morning and hung out every night. Wright and Smith essentially taught each other how to drive, and their extended families grew close.
"They were all like real brothers," Strauss said.
Going their separate ways
The Yellowjackets ran a Wing-T offense with Brad Sorensen at quarterback, Bradford and Wright as the running backs and Smith at wide receiver. All of them, along with Daniel Sorensen and Berhe, were fixtures on defense, too.
When members of that Colton team get together as they often do, they joke about how a team with six future NFL players went 9-3 in their final season and never won a state title, losing in the second round of the playoffs in each of their years at the school.
"What does that say about me as a coach?" Strauss said with a laugh.
Colton lacked the depth and resources that some of its playoffs opponents, like powerhouse Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, enjoyed. All of the Yellowjackets' top players were on the field for every offensive, defensive and special teams play, while some of their opponents were two deep at every position.
The Colton teams that Bradford, Wright and Smith led still made their mark on the school and community.
"I knew something was up when we were practicing and there were 12 college coaches there," Berhe said. "When I got there, I was a basketball player. Allen, Shareece and Jimmy got there, and it seemed like all the athletes in the other sports sort of migrated to football.
"It's pretty surreal, just thinking back on where we all came from. Colton, California, is a pretty small place. You realized you were around great athletes, but I don't think you realized how good everybody was until guys started getting scholarships and stuff like that."
Bradford, the most coveted player on that 2005 team, and Wright both went to the University of Southern California. Brad Sorensen started his college career at Brigham Young. Smith, who wasn't as hotly recruited as several of his Yellowjackets teammates, landed at the University of Colorado.
"We started a trend," Wright said. "After that, there were more guys that went off to college and got a scholarship. Before, it was one of those things where we didn't think it could happen for us, just because it wasn't happening much."
In 2011, Colton was the only high school in the country to have three players selected in the NFL draft. It was Smith, and not one of his more heralded high school teammates, who went in the first round. Wright (third round, San Diego Chargers) and Bradford (sixth round, Tampa Bay Buccaneers) followed.
"Those guys put Colton where it needed to be," said Ryan Smalls, Smith's older brother and his former defensive backs coach at Colton. Smalls is now the head coach at Grand Terrace High and Strauss is one of his assistants. "It became expected to work hard. It became expected to get your grades right. It became contagious."
Back together again
Earlier this summer, one of Strauss' former players sent a picture of four members of the 2005 team sitting on the beach holding up their sons. Smith and Wright were part of that group.
"It's pretty special," Strauss said. "I always said it's kind of been a love affair. To this day, that's all everybody talks about around here, those golden years."
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For Smith, this is an important year. He signed a lucrative contract extension with the Ravens last offseason, but struggled in 2015 to come back from surgery to repair a Lisfranc foot injury. He said he's now fully healthy and he's excited about the team's secondary upgrades. During their offseason workouts together, Smith and Wright spoke regularly about their anticipation for the upcoming season.
"At this point, it's like we're brothers," Smith said. "He has five siblings and I've got 10. It's like one big family. You go to his house and you'll see pictures of me on the wall. You got to my house and you'll see pictures of him. It's just two big families. Come the first game, the home games we've got, you'll see all of our families sitting together and having a good time."
Wright, who had a disastrous Ravens debut against his old 49ers' team but rebounded to finish strong, concedes he probably got too comfortable out West, leading to his struggles with the 49ers. Now playing on the East Coast for the first time, Wright credits Smith for easing his transition.
Wright attended the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII after party as a guest of Smith, and he has obviously given thought to another celebration with his best friend. Their families have, too.
"It's one of the things that you couldn't have drawn up any better," Smalls said. "You kind of sit back and you have to pinch yourself at times. I know it's cliché, but you can't write it any better. Their brotherhood, their friendship is a dream come true."