They call it Walmart Hill.
It’s across from the store by that name and near Rockwall High School where Jaxon Smith-Njigba would set Texas high school records.
According to his father, the hill is at least a couple stories high and rises at about a 45-degree incline. Maada Smith-Njigba would regularly take his two sons, Jaxon and Canaan, there early in the morning to work out. Jaxon, who is almost 3 years younger than Canaan, started running the hill at about 8 years old.
“My older boy hated it, but he loved it,” Maada said. “Jaxon always loved to work out.”
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That work ethic, as well as his considerable athletic ability, helped propel Smith-Njigba to where he is now — a budding star. In last week’s loss to Oregon, Smith-Njigba and the passing game was the Buckeyes’ biggest bright spot. The sophomore slot receiver caught seven passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs.
No one would be surprised if he surpasses those numbers sooner rather than later. Ohio State hopes to regroup from last week against Tulsa on Saturday.
“Jaxon is as good as I've ever seen,” said Garrett Wilson, who moved to outside receiver to make room for Smith-Njigba. “Jaxon is the most natural athlete I've ever seen. I feel like I'm the best on the field every time, (but) I saw Jaxon for the first time, and I was like, OK, he's everything and then some, for sure.”
His brother's receiver
Smith-Njigba (pronounced En-JIG-buh) comes from an athletic family. He said both parents were good athletes. Maada played linebacker for Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where Jaxon was born. Canaan is an outfielder playing for Double-A Altoona in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and is regarded as a bright prospect.
Before Canaan focused on baseball, he was a quarterback. Jaxon was his willing receiver.
“I was always the one running the routes and stuff,” Jaxon said. “I always did that ever since I was little. He would line me up 10 yards away and throw as hard as he could, and he told me not to move. All that stuff helped me.”
His mom, Jami Smith, recalled the boys removing cushions and pillows from couches in the living room to serve as obstacles like tackling dummies.
“They constantly ran routes,” she said. “Jaxon would take socks and put them on his hips like they were flags and he would run pretend routes the defenders as pillows. He would make believe these all-out games. making sure his toes would stay inbounds. And Canaan constantly threw him the ball.”
That didn’t happen only in the house or their yard.
“Several times I couldn’t even take them to the grocery store,” she said. “They’re throwing the football, throwing (another) ball. It was just constant. They would find a way to mimic a football game with whatever materials they could find around.
“I’m sure it drove everybody crazy. My family tells me it drove them crazy. There was always an imaginary football game going on in the living room.”
Living-room football was fun. Running Walmart Hill wasn’t always.
“It was really steep,” Jaxon said.
But unlike Canaan, Jaxon never balked. It would take him about 15 seconds to reach the top, and he guessed he did as many as 20 reps per workout.
“I always was willing and wanted to work out,” he said. “I just liked it, and I just felt like it made my dad happy.”
Jaxon reveres his parents. His dad is a fire-and-rescue officer in nearby Dallas. His mom is a social worker. Both are jobs that require sacrifice and selflessness.
“It shaped me to be a leader for real,” he said. “They care, and I care about other people and how they feel. They always tell me to take that next step, so I always try to do that.”
Maada preached the importance to his sons of looking out for others who didn’t share their status. He would pack extra food for his boys in case they saw a kid whose family couldn’t afford lunch. Protecting potential victims from bullies was a priority.
“Those are things we harped on rides to school,” Maada said. “Others before yourself. You’re more than a football player. You’re more than a ballplayer. You are a child of God, and you have to act like it.”
Jaxon hit his growth spurt after his freshman year of high school, growing about three inches and adding about 30 pounds. He also played basketball and ran track, and skills from those sports transferred to football.
At Rockwall, he became a record-setting receiver. In 44 career games, he scored 82 touchdowns and his 5,346 receiving yards broke a Texas record for 6A schools, the state’s largest classification.
He was the first of four blue-chip receivers to commit to Ohio State’s 2020 class, and he’s gone to the head of that group. Late in the Buckeyes’ opener against Nebraska last season, Smith-Njigba showed a glimpse of his toughness and ability.
“I remember getting popped coming across the field a few plays before that,” he said. “I tried to calm myself down, tried to breathe and gather myself.”
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With the ball at the Nebraska 5, Justin Fields rolled out and threw to Smith-Njigba in the back of the end zone. He made a leaping grab, but his momentum seemed to carry him out of bounds. The official and TV broadcaster both matter-of-factly called it an incompletion.
But a replay review showed that Smith-Njigba had somehow tapped his right foot inbounds.
“Every time the ball is in the air, I make it my ball,” he said of his mentality. “I just try to make the play on the ball, every ball that's close to me.”
At 6 feet and 198 pounds, Smith-Njigba isn’t particularly big. He’s fast, but not a blazer. But he runs excellent routes and has superb hands and instincts.
"You can see what his potential is," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. "I think he's very, very good in the slot. He can change directions. He can wiggle free against the underneath coverage and has big-play potential. He's got a chance to really good for us."
Wilson and Chris Olave form probably the top receiving duo in the country, but they gush about Smith-Njigba.
“Jaxon is as talented as us,” Olave said. “I can’t wait for him to put on a show.”
He’s starting to do that. Maada attends every Ohio State game. Jami goes to most. They watch with a combination of pride and wistfulness. They’re thrilled that all the work their son has put in is paying off.
They also know that college flies by.
“It’s like I want time to stop,” Maada said. “Yesterday, this kid was in fourth-grade pee-wee football, and now he scored a touchdown with a crowd of 100,000 people.”
Smith-Njigba, who turns 20 in February, will be eligible to enter the NFL draft after the 2022 season. If he continues to blossom, that option could be hard to turn down.
“It just goes by so fast,” Maada said. “I want him to settle down, enjoy being a college student. Enjoy Saturday. Sit around and take it in. Walk on campus. Be a part of the student body. Go to Adriatico’s and eat a pizza. See the leaves change colors. Be in the moment.”
Jaxon Smith-Njigba is doing everything he can to make this his moment.
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