Golden Valley High School alumnus Ajani Smith has known he’s wanted to play football since he was 4 years old. His stepfather Johnny Fisher hasn’t been able to get him off the field since.
Fisher coached a youth football team for 6-year-olds and snuck his then 4-year-old son in to practices and games. Early on, Smith got laid out by a much bigger kid, bringing him to tears from the pain. However, when Fisher asked if he needed to come out, his son yelled back, “No.”
“I have never been able to get him off the field,” Fisher said in a phone interview. “No matter what pain or whatever happened, nothing would ever make him leave the field.”
Fourteen years later, Smith still spends the majority of his time on the gridiron and has shipped off to Spearfish, South Dakota, to continue his dream and play college football for the Black Hills State Yellow Jackets.
Growing up, Smith dabbled with other sports and even some small acting roles in “We Bought a Zoo” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” but football was always the main objective and passion. The future Yellow Jacket played baseball, soccer, basketball, and even practiced tae kwon do to help with his discipline and athleticism.
Fisher consistently snuck Smith into older age groups and with Smith’s passion and skill, no one suspected anything. Fisher’s son was often undersized, not the quickest or strongest, but once he had a chip on his shoulder, he found a way to be the best.
“He’s never been the biggest, he’s never been the fastest, but he’s always been the most determined,” Fisher said.
Fisher and Smith’s mother, Denora Chandler, did whatever they could to keep Ajani in football. The sport reigned king in their family, with immense support flowing into Smith, even from his cousin, Pro-Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion cornerback Brandon Browner.
“It’s a very strong football environment in my family,” Smith said. “Everybody plays football. I also had an uncle that went to UNLV and played quarterback. It runs in our family. Everybody’s into NCAA football, and they all push me towards making sure everything I’m doing is correct to achieve my dreams.”
Smith continued to play and found himself more and more in football. He doesn’t remember exactly when but he realized early on the sport was his escape from reality.
“I had a moment when I thought, ‘This brings joy to me and is a relief from everything else.’” Smith said. “It’s an escape, kind of, and I thought I can do this but it’s fun at the same time. But I thought it could be a job. But it doesn’t feel like a job. It feels like you’re just going out and playing.”
The two-way player drew interest from several private schools with bigger football programs ahead of high school, but chose to stay home and play for Golden Valley. Smith met Grizzlies football coach Dan Kelley as a soon-to-be freshman just before entering the program and quickly caught the coach’s attention.
“Our first contact, he was in eighth grade and he came to youth camp and I knew right away he had special talent,” Kelley said in a phone interview. “I thought as a freshman he could play varsity, he had the natural ability and skill level.”
Smith opted to play junior varsity his underclass years for more playing time and to be with his friends. He made an instant impact upon entering varsity his junior year, leading the Grizzlies in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. On defense, Smith shined at cornerback, and finished with four interceptions, 49 tackles and a fumble recovery, all of which were top-three marks on the team.
Fisher saw his son join a league of his own after years of playing with bigger and older kids.
“By starting him early and playing with older kids, once he got to high school, he was back in his age group and it became almost easy for him,” Fisher said. “He did everything we expected him to do and he always rose to the occasion.”
The junior entered the CIF playoffs for the first time on Nov. 5, 2021, when the Grizzlies were tasked with a road battle at La Mirada. Smith put on a master class to say the least.
The two-way star totaled four touchdowns in his postseason debut, reeling in three receiving touchdowns from quarterback Jaxson Miner on offense and running back a pick-six on defense. Smith could smell blood on a near game-winning drive where the Grizzlies marched down the field with less than a minute to go, but some questionable flags and no-calls by the officials held Golden Valley out of the end zone.
It was Miner’s final high school game before shipping off to Black Hills State, where he undoubtedly put in a good word about his star wideout.
As a senior, the two-way star somehow made an even bigger jump. Smith led Golden Valley with 1,013 receiving yards, 12 TDs and four picks on defense. He was the catalyst for the Grizzlies’ fantastic 9-5 season that ended just one point away from a CIF championship.
Smith was gaining more and more college interest as a corner and receiver. Kelley knew Smith’s offensive capabilities were up there with the best at the varsity level, but was blown away by Smith’s defense against some of the Foothill League’s best receivers.
The Grizzly limited NAU-commit Brandon Boateng of Valencia to two catches for 5 yards and Shawn Irwin of Hart to three catches for 39 yards.
“The games against Hart and Valencia, he held Irwin and Boateng to limited yards, and did a really good job on them,” Kelley said. “Those guys dominated their opponents last year but he did a great job on them.”
Smith left it all on the field, and yet again finished the year with a monster stat line. The Grizzly had eight catches for 161 yards, two TDs and four tackles on defense in the CIF championship game vs. Laguna Hills.
On the field, he had numerous unique rituals, including taping a $2 bill to the back of his pads and gulping down Skittles during the game.
Smith will keep taping the bill to his pads in college but may cut down on the Skittles to keep his teeth healthy.
The Grizzly receiver picked up several offers during the season to continue his football journey but committed to the Yellow Jackets in January. It was a long process filled with a lot of work on Smith’s end.
“The recruitment process is not like what you see on Instagram, how people just get offers right back,” Smith said. “It’s a long process. Coaches contact you and then disappear and have no contact with you again. You can hit them up and they won’t respond.”
Smith got in contact with Yellow Jacket offensive coordinator Ben Blake, one of the only coaches to stay in touch consistently with the prep star.
There’s a lot of two-way communication in the committing process but Smith actually got the official offer call from Black Hills while he was unable to speak due to his mouth being numbed at the dentist.
Smith has only been in the snow a couple of times in his life but would soon commit to play in South Dakota, a state that annually averages nearly 40 inches of snow. Smith was enamored by Black Hills and even temperatures dropping below zero on his official visit couldn’t deter the Grizzly away.
The future Yellow Jacket couldn’t even make it home before committing. On a layover in Denver, Smith called his parents and told them he found his new home before promptly calling back Blake and letting him know that he was in.
Seeing his son accomplish everything he set out to do since he was 4 years old meant the world to Fisher.
“To me, that’s one of the greatest feelings ever,” Fisher said. “I get to see him chase his dreams and really go after it. A lot of kids want to do this but lose the desire. At 4 years old, he said he wanted to play football. He received a college scholarship, kept his word and made it happen. He had a few bumps in the road but it never deterred or stopped him from pursuing his goal. It’s a major honor to have been a part of his story because he set out to accomplish that goal and he did it.”
Since finishing his high school football career, Smith also ran track and field to keep his speed and vertical up. However, he still hasn’t been away from the football team much.
“Throughout summer camp, he was working out on the field about three times a week,” Kelley said. “He’s one of those guys that’s going to surprise people and I think Black Hills State knows that and they know what they got. He might start this year.”
Smith was set to go head out to Spearfish, South Dakota, in late July but again couldn’t wait and has since moved early. The soon-to-be freshman is planning on majoring in business or marketing and already runs his own clothing brand, “Senseless.” No matter what happens, Smith still has his sights on making it as a pro.
“I’ll probably go into business or marketing but I’m not sure yet,” Smith said. “My goal with football is the NFL. If not, I’ll go into business. I have my own clothing brand. I’ve been building that up as something on the side to do, but if football doesn’t go right, I have this to lay back on.”
Kelley will always remember Smith, not only as a standout football player but also as a person.
“He had a great career at Golden Valley, but his character really is the best thing about him,” Kelley said. “He’s not arrogant or overconfident. He’s not a talker, he’s a doer, and he’s one of the best players I’ve ever coached in high school.”
Smith is nowhere near the end of his football journey and will aim to carve his path to greatness with another respected program. Now, after years of refusing to be taken off the field under any circumstances, he only wishes to be looked upon as a determined football player who made it.
“That I really just played the game of football,” Smith said on how he wants to be remembered. “It was never about being the most recruited or having the best offers. It’s about just standing out and having somebody take a chance on you. So someone took a chance on me and I should prove to them that I can do better and that I won’t be a one-shot bust.”
Smith takes the field with Black Hills State on Sept. 2 on the road against the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. His games can be streamed at www.rmacnetwork.com/bhsu.