Putting the 'student' in 'student-athlete' with the help of an education choice scholarship

Feb 13 2023 • By Roger Mooney


TAMPA – The numbers Joquez Smith compiled as a running back during his four years of high school football place him among the best to have ever played in Hillsborough County.

The numbers he’s earned in the classroom at Jesuit High School, an academically demanding Catholic school in Tampa, are just as impressive.

Combined, they helped “Jo” (as he’s nicknamed) earn a football scholarship to Temple University in Philadelphia.

Hi mom, Joann, said that was the plan since that October day in 2004 when Jo was born.

“From Day 1 I knew I wanted him to go to college and I knew a sports scholarship would help him,” Joann said.

The plan was realized with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

Joquez and Joann Smith.

“I want to say thank you to Step Up,” Joann said. “Without the scholarship, Jo wouldn’t be able to be here and take advantage of what Jesuit has to offer. It’s done so much for our family. Academically, we know he’s ready for college.”

Academics ultimately is what led Jo to Jesuit.

Yes, he wanted to play for one of the top football programs in the state. That decision was clinched when Jo attended a Jesuit game as an eighth-grader. He was thrilled by the Friday night atmosphere at the school’s football stadium and wowed at the talent on the field.

Joann was sold that same year during an open house for eighth graders.

“When we visited Jesuit, they never promised anything (athletically),” she said. “They didn’t promise that he would be a starter. They didn’t promise him a certain jersey number. They were promising Jesuit, what they could do for Joquez academically. How to make Jo a better man, a stronger man, a giving man. And that’s what brought us to Jesuit.”

Before leaving campus that day, Joann pulled aside Steve Matesich, Jesuit’s director of admissions, and told him how impressed she was that they had been deep into the visit before someone mentioned football.

That’s the Jesuit way, Matesich said.

“First and foremost, we’re going to get you ready for the next level academically,” he said.

Jo played varsity football all four years and was a key member of the Tigers’ 2021 state championship team. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound running back finished his career with 5,010 rushing yards (fifth-most in Hillsborough County history) and 75 touchdowns (third most in county history). He received scholarship offers from the University of South Florida, West Virginia, Toledo, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, Maryland and Temple.

Jo is one of the most accomplished football players in Hillsborough County history. (Photo by Pete Young/Jesuit High)

He settled on Temple because he feels he can play as a freshman and because he likes their business school. Jo plans on majoring in business management so he can someday start his own business.

As proud as he is of his success as a football player, Jo said he is equally proud of his work in the classroom. He capped the fall semester of his senior year with a 4.08 grade point average. His mom posted his report card on her Facebook page so everyone could see his 90 in economics, 90.95 in English 4, 97.18 in financial accounting and 95.42 in pre-calculus.

“I post touchdowns and report cards,” his mother, Joann, said of her Facebook habits.

For Jo, making the honor roll was as exciting as scoring a touchdown.

He said his parents, Joann and Walter, always stressed academics. Being one the best players on his team in whatever sport he was playing while growing up was fine as long as his grades were in order. That mindset served Jo well at Jesuit.

“Coming in from middle school, it was hard,” he said. “All the teachers kept working with me. (Football coach Matt) Thompson made sure I stayed on my work. We have a tutoring program here, so we have the seniors helping us. It was me wanting to keep going and not let failure be an option.”

Jo was in the third grade at his district school when a teacher told Joann that she felt her son displayed an academic prowess that could someday lead him to a high school like Jesuit. Joann was intrigued, especially since she was not thrilled at the thought of Jo attending the district high school.

Joann hugs Jo after he signed his letter of intent to attend Temple University on a football scholarship. (Photo by Pete Young/Jesuit High)

“It wasn’t a place we wanted Jo to go to,” she said.

Joann, a graduate of South Florida University who works as an ESE Specialist at a charter school in Tampa, wanted the best education for her son, something that would prepare him for college.

“We wanted Jo to be somewhere where he was going to academically do what he needs to prepare him for the next level, and Step Up gave us that opportunity,” she said.

Jo said he’s prepared for what lies ahead, both on and off the football field.

“I became a man at Jesuit,” he said. “I’m responsible. My freshman year I was a procrastinator. I’d let work back up all the way to Friday. Now I get my work done weeks in advance.

“It was a big transition coming to Jesuit, and it will feel great to graduate from here. I feel happy. My parents are happy. I feel proud about it all.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at [email protected].

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Roger Mooney