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Mr. Beckett said Mr. Smith learned well from his parents. His father is an ex-Marine who worked for the Commerce Department, his mother a nurse. Recently, Mr. Smith sent Mr. Beckett a letter via express mail. “He basically said, ‘Thank you, Coach, for a great start,’” said Mr. Beckett, clearly moved by the gesture. “You wonder what you did, what you said that made him think about that. He said every day he remembers Riverdale. … It was real classy for him to do that.”

Mr. Smith went out for track at Cedarville, a Baptist, evangelical university, even though he was relatively new at it. As a sprinter in the 100- and 200-meter events, his times were relatively slow. “He was a good kid to have on the team, but he was involved in so many other things on campus,” former track coach Elvin King said. “Track wasn’t his main thing.”

His career appeared to be further hampered when he hurt his knee playing intramural football. It wasn’t serious, but the injury required some rehabilitation. Mr. Smith hit the weight room and emerged for his senior track season “a totally different sprinter,” Mr. King said, adding that Mr. Smith shaved about a half-second off his time and won the national Christian college championship in the 100 meters.

“Once he set his mind to it, he was a very accomplished sprinter, compared to where he was when he came in,” said Mr. King. “He probably determined ahead of time he was going to make his senior year successful. … He did an incredible job.”

Cedarville’s enrollment numbered about 2,000 with only about 20 black students when Mr. Smith arrived, said David Ormsbee, the admissions director at the time. Yet Mr. Ormsbee said Mr. Smith adapted so well to unfamiliar surroundings, and was so popular, that he was elected class president. “He’s a colorblind kind of guy,” Mr. Ormsbee said. “He told me he was raised in a fully integrated environment, but that people were people.”

Mr. Smith joined a men’s organization (not a fraternity), Pi Sigma Nu. “It was a selective group,” said Mr. Ormsbee, now an associate vice president at Cedarville. “Guys who marched to a little bit of a different beat, so to speak, and were energetic.

“They wanted to get the most out of life, I would say. The theme of the group was body, mind and spirit. Each term, they worked on goals that would help them develop mentally, physically and spiritually. It was a great group to be part of.”

Now Mr. Smith is part of another group, with a difficult task ahead.

“He’s got a lot of personality,” Mr. Jones said, “But he’s very disciplined and focused. If the owners want to throw down against the players in the court of public opinion, they will lose.”