NEW HAVEN >> It was last fall, just three games into the football season and Hillhouse’s Akiel Smith had just suffered another concussion. It was the senior’s third.
“My mom was scared,” Smith said. “She wanted me to stop playing football, which I did. I didn’t want to stop playing, I felt like I was letting the team down…but whatever my mom says goes.”
But that sudden end to his football career meant a chance for Smith to get on the indoor track earlier than ever before. It was an opportunity Smith did not waste.
Smith took the extra time to get into running shape, get stronger and focus on the little things to hone his sprinting skills.
“It showed itself this year,” Hillhouse head track coach Gary Moore said.
It certainly did. The Register boys’ indoor track MVP had his best track season for Hillhouse as he emerged as one of the top sprinters in the state.
Smith helped lead Hillhouse to a Southern Connecticut Conference, Class M and State Open title, all the while making a name for himself in the 55- and 300-meter dash, and running on the Academics’ relays.
“It shows hard work really does pay off,” Smith said.
Smith’s coming-out party was in mid-January at the Yale Classic where he turned in an eye-opening 35.15-second time in the 300 to win the event.
Moore said when they saw the time from Smith they sat down with him to talk about where that performance came from.
“(We) hadn’t seen this before,” Moore said. “’Are you holding out on us? What’s going on?’”
But that time wasn’t a fluke from Smith. If anything, it was just the beginning.
“It gave me a lot of confidence,” Smith said of performance at Yale. “It showed us what I’m capable of doing.”
Smith continued to produce the results as he won the SCC 55 (6.48), 300 (35.48) and ran on winning 4×400 (3:29.52), setting meet records in the 55 and 4×4. At the Class M state meet he won the 55, 300 and ran on the 4×4 that placed second.
Against the state’s best runners at the State Open, Smith took second in the 55, 300 and 4×4.
At the New England Championships in Boston, Smith turned in a 6.47 time in the 55 to finish third, and ran on the 4×4 (3:25.48) that placed fourth.
Smith, who has been on the Hillhouse track team for four years, said he wasn’t expecting to have this type of season. But the senior said it’s been one he’s enjoyed to the fullest, and now is he weighing his college options to continue running at the next level.
“It’s been a joy,” he said with a smile. “Competing with my brothers and winning team titles.”
Smith ended the indoor season running on the 4×2 relay that won the Eastern States meet at the Armory in New York in a state-record time of 1:28.57. The 4×2 relay of Smith, Tyreise Swain Jr., Darius Wise and Brendon Stewartson finished with the seventh fastest time in the nation.
Moore said Smith has established himself as one of the top five sprinters to come through the Hillhouse program.
“Being in the top 5, you’re in some pretty good company,” Moore said.
Though his athletic career took a different path than expected, Smith has embraced what it has meant and turned the negatives into positives.
“It’s hard work,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s natural talent, I think it’s hard work paying off, because to see my growth from freshman year to senior year…and the coaches, coach Moore, they’re really on me to become successful.”