Louisville sophomore receiver Jaylen Smith has a large tattoo on the back of his left arm that features the numerals, “8, 9, 39.”
Those are the jersey numbers of former Pascagoula High School teammates of Smith who have died since 2013.
No. 8 is Brandon Rich, a senior defensive back, who died alongside No. 39, a sophomore linebacker named Caleb Sweeten, in a water-skiing accident on the Pascagoula River on May 5, 2013.
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No. 9 is Keith Joseph Jr., a close friend of Smith's who died on Nov. 6, 2015, along with his father, another former Pascagoula and Mississippi State football star, in a single-car wreck in Greene County.
Growing up in a Pascagoula community that's known loss all too well in recent years, Smith has learned an early lesson of how truly fragile life is.
“It makes you look at the bigger picture, thinking about life in general because those are three guys that were full of life,” Smith said Wednesday in a phone interview from Louisville. “Brandon was getting ready to go to (Mississippi Gulf Coast CC). There's no doubt in my mind I could be playing with Brandon or against him right now. 'Sweet' had just found his niche on the football team and he was full of life. It taught me that you never know when your time is going to come.”
Losing a close friend
Joseph, a defensive end who was was in his freshman year at Mississippi State and receiving a redshirt, spoke with Smith via FaceTime on his iPhone the day he died in a car wreck near Leakesville.
Smith was at a hotel before a home game against Syracuse when he talked with Joseph.
“He used to try to coach me up at receiver even though he'd never played the position,” Smith said with a laugh. “He tried to play tight end, but he couldn't catch that well.
“He told me I was doing good and proving people wrong. He talked about being a redshirt was a challenging time because he was used to being the guy. He said, 'Once I get my chance, I'm going to be the man.'”
Later that night, Smith got word that Joseph, known as M.J. to his friends, had died with his father while traveling to watch the Pascagoula-Gautier football game in Pascagoula.
Just like his friends and family back home in Pascagoula, Smith was at a loss.
“I was shell-shocked. I couldn't move. I was just sitting there,” he said. “I got about an hour and a half of sleep. I was tore up. He was one of my closest friends. Everyone sent condolences. After that, you cry your tears and mourn.
“M.J. was one of the hardest working people I've ever met. M.J. was one of the few people who could make me want to work out. If you didn't want to workout, M.J. was the one who got you to work out. We were close friends. For a long time, we were inseparable.”
This season, Smith will switch his jersey from No. 87 to No. 9, the number that Joseph wore at Pascagoula.
On the field
Smith appears set up for a strong sophomore season for the Cardinals after making an impressive debut as a freshman in 2015 with 29 catches for 376 yards and a touchdown. Even though he switched positions from the X to the Z in fall camp last year, Smith learned the offense quickly and earned significant playing time.
“Coach noticed I picked up on the plays and the system,” Smith said. “That was the biggest thing.”
Smith has spent this summer trying to learn all three receiver positions so he can provide more versatility this season. He faces the challenge of contending with a pair of senior receivers, Jamari Staples and James Quick, who combined for 76 catches for 1,262 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
“My goal is do the same thing last year – compete, get a spot and make something happen,” Smith said. “I want to have a better year as far as stats. I didn't have bad stats, but we're going to be throwing a lot more this year. I have an opportunity to better my stats and performance.”
Smith is confident that quarterback Lamar Jackson, a fellow sophomore, will help the Cardinals improve on last year's average of 28.69 points a game.
“Me and Lamar, we've been clicking these past couple of weeks while throwing routes,” Smith said. “We've been doing little stuff, getting better timing. Him as a quarterback, he's gotten a lot better as far as making reads. That's one of those things last year he wanted to work on. He can throw the ball into the tightest space possible.
“Our goal this year is to win the ACC, but you can't ignore the fact that we've got two powerhouses on the schedule in Clemson and Florida State.”