Iowa Football

Water polo came before football for Iowa's Ihmir Smith-Marsette

Wide receiver-return specialist went from the pool to the field

Ihmir Smith-Marsette fires a shot during a water polo game involving his St. Benedict’s Prep School team in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Michael Scanlan)
Ihmir Smith-Marsette fires a shot during a water polo game involving his St. Benedict’s Prep School team in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Michael Scanlan)

IOWA CITY — The best swimmer on the Iowa football team is Oliver Martin. Hands down.

The kid was a multiple state champion at Iowa City West and a national-level competitor. But if you’re looking for another guy who knows his way around the pool, stay within that wide receiver group.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette didn’t get to this football thing until his sophomore year in high school. Prior to that, it was swimming and water polo, believe it or not.

“My grandma checked me into camp every summer, and they had a swimming pool there in the school,” Smith-Marsette said. “They gave swimming lessons and everything. So I’ve been swimming since I was, like, 7 years old. It was just something that I was good at. One of the coaches that worked at the summer camp decided to let my grandma know that I could really swim, and that I should possibly get into competitive swimming.

“From my end, it turned out pretty cool. I know how to swim.”

Now about water polo, a sport in which few around these parts are familiar. It is played in four seven-minute quarters, with each team having six players and a goalie in the pool at one time.

The object of the game is to throw the ball (essentially a volleyball) into the net, with one stationed at each end of the pool. Teams must take a shot within 35 seconds and individual penalties are handed out for various fouls.

It’s actually a neat game to watch. You’ve got to be able to swim, you’ve got to have stamina, and you’ve got to be tough.

“Yeah, it got pretty nasty sometimes,” Smith-Marsette said. “Behind the scenes, if you’re under the water, you see people kicking you, grabbing you, all that stuff ... A lot of physicality. A good sport.”

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Smith-Marsette played water polo in his eighth and ninth-grade years at St. Benedict’s Prep in his hometown of Newark, N.J., under the tutelage of Coach Glenn Cassidy.

“I was one of the best on the team,” Smith-Marsette said, with a wry smile. “Especially if Coach Cassidy ever comes across this ... I’m going to say I was one of the best water polo players he had there.”

The thing is Cassidy won’t disagree with that.

“Ihmir is correct that he was extremely talented as a middle-school student and freshman,” Cassidy said. “I believe, if he had stuck with water polo, he could have been one of our best players. He honestly could have been an all-American if he continued to work hard and improve. Coaches from other teams always commented about his talent.”

Cassidy is executive director of The Vox Institute at the school now. He remembered Smith-Marsette as a good kid who displayed some immaturity and a lack of focus “typical of 12, 13, 14 year olds.”

He also pointed out that Smith-Marsette always was willing to work on those things and listen to his coaches.

“My most vivid memory of Ihmir comes from a day when he was unfocused,” Cassidy said. “He was late and unprepared for practice. As a result, he sat on the side of the pool while practice went on. At one point, he decided to get up and start dancing around. As he was spinning, he lost his footing on the slippery pool deck and did a face plant onto the deck. His tooth went through his lip requiring dental work and stitches.”

Cassidy said that story wasn’t meant to embarrass Smith-Marsette, just to point out that Cassidy used it as a teaching moment.

“I’d like to think it was a wake-up call for him at that age,” Cassidy said.

Smith-Marsette ended up transferring to public Weequahic High School in Newark for his sophomore, junior and senior years. It had no pool, so his swimming and water polo days were done.

Football was his new activity.

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“In high school, just coming from a swimmer’s background, your lung capacity is different from others,” he said. “I was able to sprint all day compared to other people. Just being able to run freely full speed and not get tired, that felt good ... I believe that’s something that gave me an edge.

“I’d grown up a football fan, been an (Philadelphia) Eagles fan since I was knee high. So just starting to play football, it was like ‘All right, maybe this could take me somewhere.’”

Obviously, it did.

Smith-Marsette and Weequahic won a state championship in New Jersey, and he signed with Iowa. He played two years ago as a true freshman and was named a first-team all-Big Ten return specialist last season after leading the conference in kickoff return yardage.

Big things are expected from Iowa’s passing game this season, with a third-year starting quarterback in Nate Stanley and a deep receiver group of Smith-Marsette, Martin, Brandon Smith, Niko Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy, among others.

“I feel like we’re going to be explosive,” Smith-Marsette said. “We’ve got a lot of different guys in a lot of different areas that can impact the game. A lot of different types of players. We’ve got big bodies, we’ve got small bodies, faster people.”

“Ihmir, he’s done a good job, and I couldn’t be more complimentary of what he did during the summer,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He was in tremendous condition, the best condition we’ve seen him in. Same thing during practice over the last three plus weeks. He’s really done a good job out there.”

He’s ready to gain some receiving yards and score some goals for the Hawkeyes this season. Err, make that touchdowns.

“I was, and continue to be, extremely proud of what he has accomplished,” Cassidy said. “I told him many times through high school that I would love have him back in the pool, but I would never challenge his success on the field.”

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“Do I miss it?” Smith-Marsette said, about his former aquatics ways. “Yeah, sometimes, when I’m a pool or something. But I’m happy I’m here now. No doubt.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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