AMES — Iowa State heavyweight Quean Smith faced a multi-forked road as a youth in Greater Detroit.
“I realized there were three options for me in Highland Park,” Smith said. “Make it out, end in prison or pass away. And those last two options weren’t for me.”
The mat was — and is — Smith’s refuge. His success there carried him to the Cyclones’ program, where he’s endured ups and downs while building his character and leaving the past behind.
““His high school coach took him to the Midlands (Championships) and that is where I met (him),” ISU wrestling coach Kevin Jackson said. “And after that we kept in touch.”
Eventually, those interchanges led to an offer to join ISU’s squad. Smith is 4-5 in dual meets this season, but maintains hopes for bettering himself as the calendar shifts toward March.
“There is only so much that the coaches can do,” Smith said. “I just have to get back to the level I was previously at and believe in myself.”
Smith excelled as a high school wrestler, but that’s not all.
He showed tremendous talent in four sports during his career as a Polar Bear. Those sports being: football, wrestling, baseball and track and field.
In football Smith starred as fullback and middle linebacker. He was a center fielder and pitcher at 200-plus pounds for his baseball team. Then in track, Smith ran the 100-yard dash.
However, during his sophomore year, the school canceled all spring athletics, baseball and track, due to the principal and the school’s director cutting money from the department budget. He also realized that some of those sports wouldn’t be able to get him out of Highland Park anyway.
“Football, I was good in high school, but it wasn’t gonna get me anywhere considering my height,” Smith said. “And for baseball, it is tough to obtain a scholarship for that sport.”
That’s where wrestling entered Smith’s life. Wrestling allowed Smith to excel and be himself.
During his sophomore season, Smith posted a 31-4 record, but Smith’s most impressive season came next. As a junior, Smith recorded an undefeated 26-0 record which allowed him to capture the Division 2 heavyweight title.
“After claiming my first state title, I was on cloud nine,” Smith said.
But then came senior year.
“I thought I was unbeatable,” Smith said.
Smith’s first tournament back, he faced opponents he had already beaten the previous year. He thought he had the tournament in his back pocket. He was wrong.
He faced a wrestler he handily defeated before, but this time the result was different. The other grappler beat Smith by one point. That was Smith’s first loss in over a year. That was also the moment Smith knew he had to come down from the clouds.
“I realized I had to stay humble and just compete the way I usually do,” Smith said.
After that lone defeat, Smith would go on to post a 33-1 record and claim his second Division 2 heavyweight crown.
Wrestling had become his safe haven — where he’d be in complete conrol, but his future, at times, still seemed bleak. Some of his high school friends didn’t even have futures, though. Six were shot down and one is serving life in prison.
But with perseverance and the right mindset, Smith pushed himself to ensure he would make it out of the place he spent his childhood — and that’s where sports come into play.
“Without sports, I’d probably be like my seven friends,” Smith said. “Either dead or in prison.”
Fast forward to where Jackson offered a life line. He wanted Smith to be a Cyclone, period, and he ended up joining the program — but not without a different sense of culture shock.
“While living in Michigan, I probably only saw about six white people,” Smith said.
In Greater Detroit, it was more about protecting yourself and staying safe. In Ames, it was more about people being friendly toward one another.
“In Michigan you always made sure everything was locked up,” Smith said. “But Ames, you could leave your doors and everything else unlocked with no worries.”
During the transition,Smith had a tough time trusting people at first. For his first year in Ames, Smith became a recluse. He wouldn’t speak a word to anyone. Smith would just go to class, practice and then head home. Then Smith talked to coaches who encouraged him to open up to his teammates and the people around him.
“They told me it wasn’t gonna be the same in Ames like Highland Park,” Smith said.
In his time at Iowa State, Smith hasn’t be excited about his results. Smith experienced double-digit losses in his first two seasons as a Cyclone.
And this season is another tough slog. Although Smith isn’t happy about his performance at Iowa State thus far, he is certainly excited about climbing out of Highland Park.
“A lot of people told me I wasn’t going to get out of Michigan,” Smith said. “But here I am in Ames. So I proved them wrong and it’s something to be proud about.”