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The Patriots kicked off free agency in March with a bang, signing tight end Jonnu Smith to a four-year, $50 million deal.

The contract headlined an uncharacteristic spending spree for the organization. It was also a milestone in Smith’s football career — one that hasn’t always earned that same level of recognition.

“It’s an unbelievable blessing,” said Mike Kirkland, Smith’s uncle. “It’s what he’s always wanted. It’s a dream come true.”

Kirkland and his wife, Darla, still remember how Smith, who turns 26 in August, would talk about going to the NFL from the moment he arrived from Philadelphia as a young teenager to live with them in Florida. But opportunities weren’t handed to him. He often found himself overlooked despite his talent.


Still, Smith never shifted his sights away from his goal.

“You just have a kid who is from the inner city,” Kirkland said. “He wanted to get the opportunity, and once he got it, he took well advantage of it. He took well advantage of everything that was here to offer. He did everything he needed to do and everything he could do to fulfill his dream.”

Escaping violence

In April 2000, John F. Street, the newly elected mayor of Philadelphia, launched an initiative to clear the city of abandoned vehicles littering the streets. Over a period of eight weeks, Street aimed to have 1,000 cars towed each business day.

On the second day of the clean-up campaign, Wayne Smith — Jonnu’s father and one of the many tow-truck operators enlisted to help achieve Street’s goal — was attempting to attach an abandoned sedan to his truck. According to a police report, the sedan ended up sliding backward and knocking Wayne in the head. He was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead at the age of 40, leaving behind his wife, Karen, and six kids.


Jonnu, the youngest, was 4 years old.

About a decade after Wayne’s death, a series of homicides, including one that resulted in the arrest of Jonnu’s brother and another that resulted in the death of his friend, prompted Karen to make a difficult decision: She sent Jonnu to live with his aunt and uncle in Ocala, Fla. She thought the move would keep him away from the violence that had beset many close to them.

Jonnu Smith left Philadelphia to live with his uncle, Mike Kirkland (right), and his aunt Darla.
Jonnu Smith left Philadelphia to live with his uncle, Mike Kirkland (right), and his aunt Darla.Courtesy/Ryan Hearn

“My mom always made sure she did what she had to do for us,” Smith said. “It wasn’t easy. I didn’t understand that at the time. As I’m older, it makes me appreciate her so much more.”

The Kirklands immediately embraced their nephew and his aspirations. The couple had three children of their own, including two sons close in age, which led to friendly races in the backyard as well as push-up and pull-up contests.

Once in Florida, Smith joined the football team at West Port High School. West Port was not renowned for its football tradition. But Smith quickly set himself apart, showcasing his speed in practice and strength in the weight room. His relentless work ethic combined with his natural athleticism put him head and shoulders above his teammates.

“He is Secretariat going against pasture horses,” said West Port coach Ryan Hearn. “He’s a Ferrari going around a racetrack with, you know, just a jalopy. It’s a different speed. It’s just a completely different speed.”


‘“He is Secretariat going against pasture horses. He’s a Ferrari going around a race track with, you know, just a jalopy. It’s a different speed. It’s just a completely different speed.”’

Ryan Hearn, Jonnu Smith's high school football coach

Hearn deployed Smith as a versatile tight end who could flex out and move around the line of scrimmage. As a junior, Smith caught nine passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns. As a senior in 2012, he posted a team-high 34 catches for 517 yards and two touchdowns.

His numbers did not jump off the page, but Smith showed flashes of what was to come. Years later, Hearn gushes over Smith’s ability to utilize his explosiveness, lateral movement, and vision to take advantage of opportunities.

“When he catches the ball and has the ball in space — even when he was younger — he was amazing,” Hearn said. “There’s not a lot of people that can catch with that body, with that kind of speed and that kind of quickness.”

Perhaps what Hearn found more impressive, though, was the attitude Smith displayed in practice.

“I tried certain days to beat Jonnu down — run him after practice, not because he was in trouble but because I wanted to condition him — and he would literally look at me and just laugh and say, ‘Hey, you got any more?’ ” Hearn recalled. “I would try to make it harder, and he still just shattered whatever I asked him to do.”

By the time Smith was a senior, he had begun to fill into his 6-foot-2-inch frame. Hearn said Smith could hoist 315 pounds in the clean and jerk, and competed in the state championship in weightlifting during the football offseason.


“You didn’t see a lot of that,” Hearn said. “To see a kid that’s that tall and hold 315-320 pounds above his head, you’re sitting there going, ‘Man, that’s a lot of weight and that’s really high.’ ”

Going unnoticed

Coming out of high school, Smith landed only one opportunity — from Florida International University — to play at the collegiate level.

“I begged people to offer him,” Hearn said.

Jonnu Smith had only one Division 1 offer to play college football, from Florida International. He signed his letter of intent to play there in December 2012.
Jonnu Smith had only one Division 1 offer to play college football, from Florida International. He signed his letter of intent to play there in December 2012.Courtesy/Ryan Hearn

Smith’s high school coaches say the lack of interest was caused by two things: West Port wasn’t highly regarded, and coaches were concerned about Smith’s size.

With Smith weighing in at approximately 180 pounds as a junior, some evaluators expressed doubt he would reach the size of a prototypical tight end.

“It wasn’t like he was a guy who was a can’t-miss prospect in terms of his size and specs,” said Dennis Smith, FIU’s recruiting coordinator at the time and no relation to Jonnu. “There were questions about how big he was going to be.”

Any hesitation subsided soon after a visit to West Port. Dennis Smith went at the request of FIU’s then-head coach, Mario Cristobal, who strongly encouraged his staff members to check every high school in their assigned region, even if the team had a 0-10 record.

“I see this coach and he tells me, ‘Man, I got this kid,’ ” Dennis Smith recalled. “And you know how many coaches tell us, ‘Oh, this kid, he’s the next great thing,’ but then the kid can’t play.”

When Dennis Smith watched the team practice, however, he understood what Hearn was trying to tell him.


“I was like, ‘Oh my god,’ ” he recalled.

What did he see that others didn’t?

“I’d love to sit here and say I’m a smarter or better evaluator,” he said. “But to be honest with you, nobody went to that school. He truly was at a place that was very underrecruited.”

The talent and potential were obvious in person. Yes, he noticed the speed. Yes, he noticed the ball skills. Many high-profile recruits shared those traits. The real difference-maker? The feet.

“To this day, he has the most explosive feet I’ve ever recruited,” Dennis Smith said. “He can create so much power, and he has unbelievable hips. If someone is really, really athletic and explosive, their body moves that much faster. They can generate so much power. He’s just a much better athlete than the people he goes against.”

A scholarship was finally offered, but Cristobal still wanted to see him in action, so Smith attended a camp hosted by FIU the summer before his senior season in 2012.

As he watched the tight end for the first time, Cristobal turned around and said to Dennis Smith, “Holy [expletive], where did you get this guy from?”

FIU ended up firing Cristobal, along with Dennis Smith, that December. Committed prospects occasionally will assess options if there are coaching changes prior to their arrival. But Jonnu Smith didn’t have anywhere else to look.

Quick to impress

Jonnu Smith shocked his FIU teammates with his strength and work ethic during his freshman season in 2013.
Jonnu Smith shocked his FIU teammates with his strength and work ethic during his freshman season in 2013.STEVE COLEMAN/Associated Press

Within his first days at FIU in 2013, Smith impressed his teammates during a weight-room session.

“He comes in fresh out of high school and he’s squatting 500 pounds,” said E.J. Hilliard, FIU’s quarterback. “Everybody’s looking around, like, ‘Whoa.’ He’s just sitting there smiling like it was just normal for him.”

With his sheer strength and muscular build, Smith certainly looked the part.

“Ain’t no telling how many packs he had,” joked Hilliard.

Chad Smith, FIU’s head strength and conditioning coach at the time, thought to himself: “Man, that guy don’t belong here.”

Still, the tight end would stay late after practice and log extra reps.

“He worked like he was the lowest man on the pole,” said Chad Smith. “He worked like he had a motive behind him. There was something behind his work that was just pushing him. Every day he showed up, he just outworked everybody.”

On the team’s hardest conditioning days, when players would have to run the 300-yard shuttle or a half-gasser sprint workout, Smith would always be in the front.

“A lot of guys will just want to make their time, not be first, but not be last, and just get across the line,” Chad Smith said. “Days like that, Jonnu would rise up and just start competing with people on these hard-ass days.

“On those tough days, where you don’t really think about competition and you just think about surviving, Jonnu would be out there talking [expletive], beating everybody.”

His performances — and voice — served as motivation for his teammates.

“He would say, ‘Is that the best y’all got? That’s as fast as y’all can run? Y’all tired already?’ ” recalled Hilliard. “It’s really hot in Miami; the field is hot; the turf is hot. Guys would try to tune him out, but there was nobody who could tune him out when he’s over there kicking your ass in sprints.”

Jonnu Smith out-hustled teammates in practice, and opponents on the field.
Jonnu Smith out-hustled teammates in practice, and opponents on the field.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Smith put on weight, mostly muscle, during his time at FIU. By his senior season, he measured in at more than 230 pounds and maintained a body fat percentage in the single digits.

“He always had his shirt off, too,” Hilliard said with a laugh. “You could never tell where that percent was coming from.”

Smith’s efforts translated to the field. He ended up setting school records for catches (178) and receiving yards (2,001) by a tight end. He also finished his college career with at least one reception in all 43 games he played.

Hilliard dubbed Smith his “security blanket.” Whether the call was a bubble screen or a checkdown because the initial play fell apart, Hilliard knew he could rely on Smith to generate yardage. And if Smith wasn’t the one with the ball, he would be creating opportunities for his teammates.

“He was just one of those guys that had to stay on the field,” Hilliard said. “He could go a whole half without catching the ball, and you could watch on film, he’s just beating up the guy that’s in front of him, he’s blocking the guy and taking him 10 yards out of the play. He just brings that aggressiveness to the game.”

Smith’s best statistical season came his sophomore year, when he caught 61 passes for 710 yards and eight touchdowns.

His junior season was cut short after he tore his ACL against Old Dominion in October 2015. He sustained the injury in the second quarter but did not recognize its severity, finishing the game with 10 receptions for a career-best 183 yards and two TDs.

In October 2016, he missed a game after suffering severe burns on his head, neck, back, shoulder, and arm. His then-girlfriend, Mary Gaspar, who was five months pregnant at the time, poured boiling water over him.

According to police records, Gaspar was arguing with Smith over the amount of attention he was paying to her and their relationship. She was charged with aggravated battery. Gaspar pleaded not guilty and the charges were dropped a year later.

The incident sidelined Smith for only one game, although his role in the final two games of the season was noticeably reduced. The setback did not leave him discouraged, though.

“There’s something special in there that’s pushing him that most people can’t handle,” Chad Smith said. “Jonnu didn’t have much. He wanted to take care of his mom. He wanted to take care of his family. Every day, no matter how he felt, he put that first. He put that as his big picture.”

Under the radar

Leading up to the NFL scouting combine, there was still little buzz. Chad Smith told scouts that they should keep their eyes on the FIU tight end because he was going to outperform his competition.

“They all looked at me like I was crazy,” Chad Smith said. “Then what happened?”

At the combine, Smith weighed in at 248 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds, ranking sixth among tight ends. He also finished in the top five at his position in the vertical jump (38 inches), bench press (22 reps), and 20-yard shuttle (4.18 seconds).

Entering the 2017 draft, Jonnu Smith wasn't a hyped prospect. That changed at the combine.
Entering the 2017 draft, Jonnu Smith wasn't a hyped prospect. That changed at the combine.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

“He killed every aspect of it,” said trainer Pete Bommarito, who still works with Smith after meeting him ahead of the combine. “I think he came into the draft process as a relative unknown. People, I think, were unfairly labeling him the small-school guy.”

After the combine, however, no longer could NFL teams ignore him. The Tennessee Titans drafted Smith in the third round with the 100th overall pick.

With the Titans, Smith was largely overshadowed by Pro Bowlers A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry. But he was productive, putting up career-high numbers last season with 41 receptions for 448 yards and eight touchdowns.

Now that he’s about to begin his tenure in New England, Smith thinks the pairing with the Patriots is a good match.

“The culture around here is different,” he said. “It’s not like anything I’ve been around. It represents me and a lot of things that I stand for. I just believe that working hard is the key thing that’s going to get you to any success in life.”

Those who helped him reach this point only expect bigger things are to come.

“The NFL has not truly seen him yet,” said Chad Smith. “I think his best years are ahead of him. As we speak now, he’s working. He’s not relaxing.”

Jonnu Smith joins a tight end group bulked out by Hunter Henry.
Jonnu Smith joins a tight end group bulked out by Hunter Henry.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.