With just one day before this year’s Gridiron Jury was set to be introduced, there was problem — there were only five members. I had been running around trying to find someone to fill the last spot. And then Tracy McLamb, general manager of The Daily Record, offered a suggestion that changed the course of the entire competition.
“What about Matt Smith at Benson Parks and Recreation?” McLamb postured.
Little did anyone know that Smith would go in a dominant run to claim this year’s title with a 126-41 record, finishing seven games ahead of second place Jay Hardison and six games ahead of third place Sharon Stevens, last year’s champion.
“I think Matt must be a bookie,” Stevens joked.
Smith may not be a bookie, but he isn’t a stranger to betting on games, as he regularly bets on NFL games. His strategy this season was fairly simple: stick with the favorites.
“For the most part I didn’t take many risks,” Smith said. “Not unless there were certain circumstances, like if I knew a coach. I remember Joe Salas because he used to coach my boys at South Johnston, so I knew that he could take a team that wasn’t rated as highly and get them to outperform their expectations because that’s what he did when he was at South. So there were times where I went with Hobbton even though they weren’t favored.”
Smith wasn’t on too many people’s radar early in the season, being the only competitor from outside Harnett County. The betting favorites likely would have been Stevens and Hardison, the top two competitors last season, or fellow newcomer J. Mike Blake, a 12-year preps reporting veteran. Even Smith didn’t really think he’d win the competition coming into the season.
“I really wasn’t worried about winning at the start,” Smith said. “But each week I got more and more excited. I kept checking the paper to see how the other jurors did, see how far I could get ahead or if anyone was catching up. And luckily by the end I had a pretty comfortable cushion.”
Smith began to pick up momentum in Week 4, the week in which his alma mater West Virginia took down North Carolina State. Smith, who attended that game, was one of two competitors to pick the Mountaineers. That week he gained two games on Hardison and Brian McNeill, tying the three of them with a 26-11 record for third place.
“That was a great week for me,” Smith said with a laugh. “I knew that almost everyone else had picked N.C. State and when I saw that everyone else struggled that week I knew that I had a chance to take the lead.”
The following week, Smith went 9-1, moving two games ahead of Hardison and three games ahead of McNeill. And from that point on, he never relinquished it.
As Smith received the large, Lombardi-like Gridiron Jury trophy, donated to The Daily Record by Frazee’s Trophies, his eyes widened.
“This is awesome,” Smith said. “I love it. I’m going to display this proudly in my office.”
The final standings were as follows:
Matt Smith — 126-41
Jay Hardison — 121-46
Sharon Stevens — 120-47
J. Mike Blake — 116-51
Brian McNeill — 115-52
Doug Stevens — 114-53
The Daily Record thanks all six participants in this year’s Gridiron Jury.