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Desert Oasis football coach recalls working with LeBron James

After Desert Oasis pulled out a victory against Chaparral a few weeks back, Diamondbacks coach Brant Smith mentioned he had tutored LeBron James when the NBA legend was an incoming freshman at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio.

I was so focused on the exciting finish that a factoid I would normally have found interesting didn’t totally register.

Later, it occurred I might even have given the coach the short shrift about having had a brush with greatness.

Smith, a 1991 graduate of St. V., as it is commonly called in the Rust Belt, was teaching and coaching at the school and worked with James in a summer training program shortly before accepting a teaching position at Buchtel High, an Akron public school.

“I had him in the weight room and summer physical education class — when he came into St. Vincent-St. Mary, he was a string bean,” Smith recalled. “All-around great kid … respectful of all adults. He bought into lifting weights and doing all the things to become great.

“Obviously, the proof is in the pudding.”

Be like Gronk

Initially, Smith said James was destined to be every bit the football star that Maurice Clarett was at Warren G. Harding High in Youngstown and then at Ohio State. LeBron broke into the St. V. lineup late during his freshman year and, after a growth spurt, began to attract attention from Ohio State as well as Florida State, Notre Dame, Florida and Southern California.

James played two full high school seasons before taking his talents exclusively to the basketball court and becoming Akron’s greatest export since a set of all-season radials produced at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. He still ranks among the St. Vincent-St. Mary career leaders in receptions with 99 and touchdowns with 27.

One NFL general manager said James could have been one of the league’s all-time great tight ends had he not quit football over concerns of getting injured. But as Matt McDonald, a quarterback at St. V. during James’ final football season, told Bleacher Report: “He’s not the guy that’s going to get hurt. It’s the guys he’s going against.”

James’ football prowess was such that he was offered tryouts by the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks during the NBA’s 2011 lockout. He was 26 at the time and intrigued by the possibility of moonlighting in the NFL.

“I definitely thought about it,” James told Peyton and Eli Manning during an ESPN2 “Monday Night Football” telecast in late September. “I still got the jersey they sent me … I wanted to be a red-zone specialist, like (Rob Gronkowski).”

James told the Mannings he was confident he would have made either squad, or his (near) hometown team, the Cleveland Browns, had he tried out.

Chosen ones

While still in high school, the man-child who would be King was anointed “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated for a cover story. A few years later, the magazine called Las Vegas’ Bryce Harper “Baseball’s Chosen One” for a similar piece.

Smith said the comparison between the two is apropos, given Harper was a fullback and linebacker before he began hitting mammoth home runs over trees and onto distant streets beyond the Las Vegas High School diamond.

This week, Desert Oasis will be a huge underdog against Silverado in a showdown for the Class 4A Desert League regular-season title, though Smith thinks the passing arm of quarterback Tyler Stott gives the Diamondbacks a “puncher’s chance.”

Stott, the nephew of former UNLV quarterback Derek Stott, twice has thrown seven touchdown passes in a game this season. The night I saw him against Chaparral, he completed 28 of 43 passes for 416 yards and five TDs.

Unlike his coach’s former pupil, almost all of his receivers are little guys. Smith was asked how many yards Stott might accumulate if he had a target that stands 6 feet, 9 inches and weighs 250 pounds.

“Probably a million,” he said.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.